On Ideolgy

15 07 2011

In American politics, “ideology” is treated like an oddly dirty word.  If, in negotiation, a politician sticks to some party platform, he or she is said to be ideological rather than pragmatic and therefore hindering the democratic process.  At the same time, candidates spend a lot of time campaigning based on ideological pursuits—lower taxes, banning abortion, gay rights, a woman’s right to choose—the list goes on.  One of the Merriam-Webster definitions of ideology is, “a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture.”  For my purposes here, I define ideologies as unexamined assumptions of a given culture.  What does the culture in question hold up as “good” or “evil” in such a way that what makes the thing good or evil isn’t even questioned.  An example of an American ideology at the beginning of the Twenty-first Century is:  “Freedom is good.”  This is unquestioned.  We see it in the American attitude toward our own history (we fought for freedom from the British), toward the series of uprisings currently underway known as the “Arab Spring” (these people are demanding and in many cases gaining freedom, while we as westerners seem to gloss over the notion that major players in those movements may or may not have a kind view of the West), and even in the American love of the automobile, which makes the “freedom” to go where and when we choose possible.

Freedom to drive, freedom to gamble, freedom to take copious amounts of legal and illegal substances... but as Hunter S Thompson can tell you, it's not always as fun as it seems.

The distaste for the word “ideology” may be a holdover from the Cold War, a war waged between the dueling ideologies of Capitalism and Communism.  For many Americans, Communism was an ideology, while Capitalism was just “the way things are.”  An ideology is just that—the presumption that whatever values a given person or culture holds true are really “the way things are,” that it is nature.  However, cultures tend to not be as monolithic as would be convenient, and at times ideologies on a given subject can conflict within a culture.  I can’t say that this conflict is negative to any given culture, but it certainly can be confusing to people within that culture.

Let’s take, for example, the American attitude toward sex.  This is as conflicted of an attitude as any you’ll find anywhere.  On the one hand, much of the attitudes and laws regarding intercourse are influenced by early New Englanders who were, in turn, influenced by their settling forefathers, the Puritans. These laws and attitudes are based on a very strict reading of the Old Testament and basically boil down to the attitude that “sex is bad.”  Where do we see this?  We see it more in cultural production than law.  In the 1950s, the married couples on television supposedly slept in separate twin beds.  Sex is so bad, even married people don’t do it.  More recently, there was the FCC flap over Janet Jackson’s infamous Super Bowl Halftime Show “wardrobe malfunction.”  Sex is so bad, the body parts involved shouldn’t be seen on television, even by “accident.”  As a kid growing up in the era of AIDS in the 1990s, sex was presented to me as a horrifying prospect.  Sex was so bad, it most assuredly resulted in disease and death.

Agh! A breast! HIDE THAT THING!

These are somewhat overt examples.  The ideology that sex is bad is so pervasive that it seems natural and is unquestioned and therefore shows up in otherwise innocuous places.  Sex is bad, and therefore, like violence, should only be viewed by adults—hence the place of sex in determining ratings for films and television show.  Perhaps at what seems the most obvious is where the ideology is most apparent:  sex is bad, and therefore shouldn’t be engaged in in public.  I am not suggesting that the ideology toward sex is erroneous or should be changed.  I’m not suggesting that we should do away with ratings systems or that everyone should start having sex in public parks.  My point is that the overall negative attitude toward sex is unexamined.

However, the negative attitude is undermined by advertisers.  Advertisers adhere to another aspect of the capitalist ideology–that profit is the ultimate goal.  Profit is a necessity to conduct business, to appease shareholders, to expand the company, to better the individual financially.  The point of business is profit, and it trumps all other social expectations or ideologies.  Sure, sex is bad, but everyone still has an instinctual drive to have sex.  Advertisers capitalize on that desire, most often, by suggesting that purchasing their product will result in the purchaser obtaining sex.  Sometimes the suggestion is blatant.  See any ad for any Axe product ever produced.  The Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign ostensibly says that drinking this beer will lead you to have an adventurous life.  However, the two women in the booth bring the point home through sex. This man is so interesting, he will be having sex with these attractive women soon.  Sex is used to sell everything–even things that make no sense.  Often, the product is unclear, though the sex is not.  The GoDaddy.com ads featuring Danica Patrick are a prime example.  Do you even know what GoDaddy.com does?  Is it stated in the ad?  But you’ve paid attention, certainly.

In American society, sex is thought of as something bad–or at least something that should be kept private and rarely discussed with frankness.  But it is also everywhere–on TV, in movies, advertising, billboards, comic books, and don’t even get me started on the internet.  Dr. Jean Kilbourne points out that sex is both more important and less important than we are led to believe by advertising, and I would extend that to our collective ideology as well.  Sex is as “bad” as we act like it is in that engaging indiscriminately can result in relationship problems, unwanted pregnancy and disease.  It is also not as bad as we act like it is in that it is an inherent human drive as well as an expression of emotional connection (or so I understand—see my blog “On Sexiness” for a deeper investigation into my own mixed feelings on the subject).

Sex, however, does not have a monopoly on mixed ideologies.  Tobacco is another example.  At this point, in the United States, it is universally considered bad.  Smoking is bad, chew is bad, any other form of tobacco is also bad.  The fact that this has not always been the attitude I think makes this ideology all the more apparent.  Smokers are banished further and further from buildings and communal areas.  It has been officially banned on the campus of Boise State University for two years. That’s right.  You can’t even smoke outside on campus.  Get your cancer-riddled ass across the street!  Advertising for cigarettes has all but ceased completely, and tobacco companies are now required to include very large warnings on their packaging with photos of things like blackened lungs.  Smoking is horrible and no one should do it, apparently.  But that doesn’t stop it from also being completely bad ass.  The rebel loner (a symbol closely associated with the ideology of freedom) is always smoking a cigarette, from James Dean to Keith Richards to Brad Pitt in Fight Club.  Tobacco companies are vilified by the likes of Kilbourne for using films to promote smoking as glamorous, but the name of the game is still profit.  Tobacco executives are out to make money by selling tobacco, and the association with freedom, independence, and glamor is already available.  It’s also the last avenue they have left.

Smoking may hinder your ability to fight, but it does not hinder your ability to be a bad-ass.

Alcohol is another example of something with conflicting attitudes attached.  It is widely vilified as something that can destroy health, relationships, and lives.  The crusade of Mothers Against Drunk Driving has led to an attitude of societal condemnation if one is caught operating a vehicle under the influence.  And yet advertising portrays it as a great way to have fun, meet attractive people of whatever gender you are sexually oriented toward, and ultimately have sex with those people.  Entire sub-cultures view excessive drinking as not only acceptable, but encourage and even required.  The stereotype is the fraternity kegger, but this kind of binge drinking is nearly ubiquitous on college campuses all over the US, regardless of any affiliation with a fraternity or sorority.  Alcoholism is even heroized in the form of great artistic figures like Ernest Hemingway or Jackson Pollock.  Alcoholism is bad but drinking is acceptable.  Someone ensconced in a culture or sub-culture where alcohol is an integral part of its fabric is hard-pressed to be able to distinguish the line between the two.

Again, I am not out to outlaw alcohol.  Or smoking.  Or sex.  Nor is my aim to elevate these things and rail against the petty Puritan roots of our society.  And, truly, any form of ideology has these contradictions in them, from freedom to profit to altruism to religious faith.  As a rule, ideologies are unexamined, but that doesn’t mean that they are unexaminable, or that they should not be examined.  And that, of course, reveals my deconstructionist ideology.  The contradictions within that are positively stultifying.

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