• Spencer Greenberg

How Ideology Eats Itself: A Quick Primer on How to Be a Genuinely Good Person Who Harms the World

It's easy to get caught up in ideology. We often look at people who we believe hold extreme views and wonder how they got to that place. Most of us think of ourselves as people who would never support an extreme ideology, and certainly not do so blindly. And yet, every ideology has some danger of going off the rails.

Below is a description of how an ideology can start out reasonable, but incrementally grow extreme. These circumstances, detailed in a step-by-step fashion, help illustrate how even a great ideology can accidentally turn toxic. Put yourself in the shoes of someone thinking the thoughts below. How easy would it be to go from thinking step 1, to thinking step 5, and then beyond?

  1. Start to think that one ideology you like, which contains genuine benefits, truths, and positive moral elements, may be the only valid perspective.

  2. Surround yourself with believers until you’re convinced that your view is common and normal. This can be further established by the insular social media and news sources you follow.

  3. Ignore your own doubts so that you can fit in better. Join in on chastising (and eventually ostracizing) insiders who doubt too much. Punish slightly more harshly than you feel is fair, to prove unequivocally that you are on the right side.

  4. Since challenging the ideology is punished, group members pretend to believe more than they really do, giving the sense that almost everyone else has no doubts, in a self-reinforcing cycle.

  5. Assume that since your view is obviously correct, normal, and morally good, those who strongly oppose your view are "bad” people.

  6. Since your group is "good" and they are "bad," you conclude the "good guys" should try to destroy them (figuratively, or in extreme cases, literally).

  7. But how can you tell which people threaten your morally-correct ideology? It's easy to identify these people by learning which beliefs they tend to hold. When you find people who hold these "bad" beliefs, you know that these people hold a bad, immoral ideology, and so you're less worried about treating them humanely.

  8. Even just spending too much time with one of the bad people, or speaking well of them, is morally suspect. Why would you do that if you weren’t bad too?

  9. Unfortunately at this point, some true beliefs were accidentally put on the "bad" side of the good/bad dividing line. Now there are true things that you become a "bad person" for believing.

  10. Because of that, you and your group have to avoid looking at reality too closely, lest you become bad too.

  11. If you start to notice something true you’re not allowed to believe, you look away quickly or contort reality to make it seem different than it is.

  12. Your group intensifies in self-delusion and punishing non-believers, causing still more people to delude themselves out of fear.

  13. You start teaching children (before they are old enough to think for themselves) that your belief system is the one correct one, perpetuating the system into future generations.

  14. Congratulations! You’ve succeeded at being a good person who harms the world. Your mostly good ideology has eaten itself and become more bad than good.

This thought-process has happened many times throughout history, and it will happen many more times. Watch out for this pattern so that you (and the people you love) don't end up as "true believers" who do harm by accident.

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