a taxonomy of ideologies

One for the philosophers, maybe.

An online community in which I participate is currently engaged in a pseudo-periodic paroxysm over feminism as it relates to changing one’s name at marriage or vice versa. I’m generally in favor of feminism and have a vague sense that the idea of “choice feminism” is vacuous inasmuch as it amounts to sanctifying acts based on the genitals of the actor—but there’s much I don’t know about the history of feminism, to say nothing of the history of marriage, changing one’s name thereat, naming in general, and all sorts of things that seem keenly relevant to the astonishing variety in the ways that contemporary (liberal, overeducated) Americans choose to name themselves and their offspring throughout their lives. So I don’t especially want to engage.

In thinking about whether or not to engage, though, I arrived at a way to classify ideologies that may or may not be interesting. The question that arose in my mind was, “Is it feminist to insist that others be feminist?” Internet caricatures of feminational socialism notwithstanding, I think the answer is at least plausibly “no.” It depends on which others, of course, but part of the very impetus for feminism is the fact that lots of women are very badly oppressed and suffer sanctions when they stand up for themselves. Insisting that women court death or maiming in exchange for a negligible effect on such a culture doesn’t seem like a pro-woman thing to do. (The same might apply to men in such cultures as well, but doing something disadvantageous to men is less obviously non-feminist.)

Anyway, it seems strange for an ideology to have such a property, and you could try to view it as a defect. But I’m not sure it is—or if it is, I think it’s widespread. Generalize the question to “Is it X to insist that others be X?” If X is “Christian,” I probably know more Christians who would answer “no” than “yes” (obviously some would answer “yes”). If X is “left-wing” as Americans understand it, I think the answer is almost certainly no—or, at least, the American left tries to make a good show of tolerating some cultures with values that don’t sit well with their (our?) own. Presumably the answer is “no” for any non-evangelical religion; it’s interesting to wonder whether it’s true for “tolerant” or “open-minded.” As for “agnostic,” well, hard to know.

On the flip side, there are ideologies for which this is straightforwardly true. “Fascist” would be the most obvious one, and you could spend a while playing a left/right split here, but I think it’s not quite so clear. “Environmentalist” seems to be a big yes, for example; likewise “vegetarian” and “vegan,” although those bump a bit because they read more as practices than ideologies. “Libertarian” is a minor minefield—it seems like the answer ought to be “no,” but libertarians do in fact proudly insist on less government for everybody, which, when you phrase it that way, magically transmutes it from individualism to paternalism (“If you just *understood* how much better off you’d be with less government, you’d vote for me”).

There’s obviously a bit of wiggle room here. A lot turns on the word “insist” and the unquantified word “others”; changing those would change a lot of answers. But I don’t think I’ve construed them in ridiculous ways above.

In any case, once you’ve got such a classification system, the question is what it’s good for. I suppose the obvious prediction it makes is about memetics: “no” ideologies should be at an evolutionary disadvantage relative to “yes” ideologies, because “yes” ideologies carry a stronger urge to self-replicate. But is this really true? It’s hard to tell in part because it’s hard to make a minimal contrast between “yes” and “no” ideologies; going back to the ur-example, you can perhaps imagine feminisms with different answers, but they’d be different in ways other than the answers, perhaps most notably in that they appeal differently to the self-interest of different groups of women. Putting that aside, though, it doesn’t seem clear that “no” ideologies are all that unsuccessful. Buddhism seems like the paradigm “no” ideology, and it is huge and ancient (acknowledged: there are many Buddhisms, perhaps some are evangelical, I’m not an expert). Fascism is, as I half-joked above, the paradigm “yes” ideology, and it has enjoyed terrifying epochs of dominance—but has it ever been as popular as Buddhism?

I don’t have a great coda here, except maybe this: The urge to self-replicate might not always be the dominant consideration in the success of *any* kind of replicator, memetic or otherwise. This seems like a proof of concept, at least, that there can be other ways to take a firm grip within a population characterized by ceaseless and ruthless competition.

One thought on “a taxonomy of ideologies

  1. This is an interesting idea, but I think your classification is too simple, and have a possibly more useful suggestion. As an example to help introduce, because you’re a liberal American and most(?) of your friends are the same, it makes sense that most Christians you know would be of the “no” variety, but I’d guess worldwide the (at least small) majority of Christians would be on the “yes” side. In fact, I’d argue Christianity as a whole is on the “Yes” side (at least as it is basically framed), but the actual differences among the evangelical activities of different Christians come from different answers to the question I’ll pose below.

    A question that’s somewhat less useful for differentiation, but I think more reflective of the world as it actually stands and of how ideologies spread, would be: “Is it X to hope that others become X?” I can’t actually think of an ideology for which the answer to this question is “No,” (though I may of course be forgetting important ones) and I think taking the answer “Yes” as a base assumption might help address your questions about why ideologies you originally classified as “No” still manage to spread. If we take a “Yes” to my first question as given, the question that actually differentiates among ideologies is, “How much do members of X have to do to try to get others to become X?” (or some shortened version thereof). This question leads to a continuum of answers rather than a straight yes/no of your original question, but these could still be broadly separated into “high-effort” vs. “low-effort” in terms of what adherents are required to to to convert (if you will) others. Thus, to return to my opening example, the difference between the type of Christianity practiced by most of your friends and the type that I’d guess is more common worldwide isn’t a different answer to your original question, but whether that particular person’s branch of Christianity is low- or high-effort. I would say that most of your “No” ideologies would then fall into a “low-effort” category, specifically something like “Set them an example / let them see that you are X and see how it affects your life.” I would guess that the sorts of “No” ideologies that still manage to spread quite widely (e.g., Buddhism) are ones that spread quite well by example / with minimal effort on the part of adherents. In fact, I’d guess that most modern religions of the non-cult variety have this quality to some degree. Political ideologies like Fascism, on the other hand, (probably) do not spread particularly without some considerable effort on the part of existing Fascists. I think the effort question also gets at concerns you raised about risks to others, because a calculation of risk can go into how much effort is required (e.g., if it is risky for this particular person to become X, I obviously can’t force them, though I can encourage or educate them).

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