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Ideophobia: is it OK to hate people who dissent from progressive opinion?

By David Warden

In this opinion piece, David identifies a form of hatred which he calls “ideophobiaand he advocates a form of thinking which engages the neocortex instead of the amygdala.

I love making up new words although I usually discover, in the internet age, that someone has beaten me to it. For example, some years ago I invented the word “atheophobia” (fear, distrust, or hatred of atheism or atheists), only to discover that the internet was well aware of this word, although it is not very common in everyday usage. Likewise, the word “ideophobia” is not new, but I will suggest an extension of its meaning in this article.

Over recent years, I’ve become increasingly conscious of a form of hatred and intolerance against people who hold a range of views which dissent from so-called “progressive” liberal-left opinion (and it does seem to be a particular weakness of the left). It probably started around 2009, when anyone who expressed reservations about the so-called consensus on climate change could be denounced as a “climate denier”, as if they were as mad or as bad as people denying the reality of the Holocaust. It became almost impossible to have an intelligent conversation about this topic. Anything less than total and enthusiastic belief in “the consensus” was a sign of heresy and moral failure, even though climate science is a relatively recent field of study which incorporates a great deal of uncertainty.

Things ramped up a notch in 2016, when people who voted to leave the European Union were denounced as ignorant, racist, and xenophobic. It became socially hazardous to admit in polite circles that you actually voted in favour of Brexit, as if you had committed some dreadful faux pas. I well remember a friend exclaiming on Facebook “But you’re a graduate!” as if no one with any intelligence could possibly argue a case against the European Union, even though it was a mainstream left-wing position in the 1970s and 80s.

Many people have found in recent years that expressing the slightest reservations about radical beliefs about sex and gender can very quickly lead to smears that you are a “transphobe” or a “TERF”. These stigmatising labels can have a devastating effect in terms of reputation, employment security and even physical safety. People have had to go to court in order to defend their right to express critical beliefs about gender and biological sex.

More recently, it has become hazardous to express views which are sympathetic to the existence of Israel because this can lead to smears that you must be “far right”, indifferent to “genocide”, or simply a “Zionist” (used as a term of opprobrium).

The increasing readiness of some on the “progressive left” to reach into the grab bag of smears and denunciations inhibits open and intelligent discussion and can make people fearful to express opinions. It’s a form of intolerance we thought had been subdued in liberal society.

The psychological mechanism which is driving this phenomenon is well known. One particular academic focus is Social Identity Theory which explores how being part of a religious group contributes to an individual’s identity. Studies look at how defending religious dogmas through mechanisms like fatwas or anathemas reinforce group cohesion and a clear boundary between “insiders” and “outsiders”. Another focus is research into the psychology of conformity and obedience and how religious authority and group norms influence behaviour.

The secular ideologies I’ve referred to above may be listed as:

  • Climate alarmism/anti-capitalism

  • Transnationalism/global governance

  • Queerism (disrupting binaries such as man/woman)

  • Anti-Westernism and anti-whiteness

  • Anti-colonialism and anti-Israelism

  • Revolutionary progressivism (all of the above)

These ideologies have a right to be heard and defended in the marketplace of ideas. But when they are promulgated and defended in the language of anathema, together with attempts to stifle dissent, it indicates that the entire package has been reified into a secular religion. This suggests that, although we imagine we live in a post-religious age, the neural networks which underpin religion have been reactivated in novel and dangerous ways.

We often hear that we live in an age of polarisation and that this has been driven by social media. I’m not sure that polarisation is the main problem. An alternative thesis is that the main problem is “religionisation” – a reversion to a kind of pre-Enlightenment style of discourse. This is what seems to be truly regressive about the present moment in culture.

The word “ideophobia” (where the first syllable is pronounced id- not ide-) may be useful as a defence against this phenomenon although I've yet to subject it to any kind of test. This word typically refers to “the fear of ideas or new thinking, particularly a fear or distrust of complex, abstract, or radical ideas”. But I want to suggest a broader definition which refers to “hatred and discrimination against people with dissenting opinions”. I asked ChatGPT what it thought about this, and it was surprisingly encouraging:

This concept often highlights an aversion to engaging with or accepting new theories or philosophies that challenge established norms. Expanding the definition to include hatred and discrimination against people with dissenting opinions isn’t commonly recognised in psychological or sociological literature, but it’s a concept that could certainly be relevant in discussions about social dynamics and tolerance. In practical terms, while ideophobia as a formal diagnosis focuses more on fear, the broader interpretation you’re suggesting could align with social or political contexts where there is hostility towards individuals because of their beliefs or ideologies. In these cases, the term might be used more informally to describe situations where there is active discrimination, suppression, or aggression towards people because they hold views that are unpopular, unorthodox, or threatening to the status quo. This expanded usage would overlap significantly with concepts of intolerance, ideological suppression, and perhaps even forms of political or cultural persecution. So, while “ideophobia” in the strictest sense refers to fear, your interpretation as a form of discrimination or hatred against those with differing opinions is a compelling extension, especially in discussions about societal tolerance and the protection of free speech.

I was surprised to discover that ChatGPT is open to novel extensions of the meaning of words, even to the extent of calling such suggestions “compelling”. So if you're a heterodox thinker, the next time someone tries to smear you or shut you down for expressing dissenting or unpopular views, views which challenge some of the modern ideologies I’ve listed above, you could inform them that they are being “ideophobic”. I’d like ideophobia to become as socially unacceptable as any other form of prejudice and discrimination. I want people, in a free society, to be able robustly to challenge ideas and opinions they disagree with. But we need to move to a situation in which smearing, insulting, or hating people because they dissent from “progressive” or mainstream views is considered to be socially unacceptable. This should be especially true of the humanist community, which is defined by its commitment to freedom of thought and expression rather than to any particular package of beliefs, whether progressive or otherwise.

One way of describing the humanist way of thinking is to “think with your neocortex rather than with your amygdala”. I asked ChatGPT what it made of this distinction and this is what it came up with:

When someone says they are “thinking with their neocortex rather than with their amygdala”, they are referencing two distinct parts of the brain that are associated with different types of mental processes.

Neocortex: This is the most evolved part of the brain, which is involved in higher-order brain functions such as sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought, and language in humans. When someone mentions thinking with their neocortex, they are implying that they are using rationality, analytical thought, and logic to make decisions. This suggests a deliberate, reasoned approach to problem-solving or situation analysis.

Amygdala: This part of the brain is primarily associated with emotional responses, including fear and aggression. The amygdala plays a key role in processing emotions and is crucial for forming emotional memories and making quick, instinctive decisions that are often necessary for survival. When someone mentions not thinking with their amygdala, they are suggesting that they are not letting emotions, particularly fear or anger, drive their decision-making process.

Thus, stating that they are thinking with their neocortex rather than their amygdala indicates that the person is striving to make thoughtful, considered decisions rather than reactive or emotion-driven ones. This distinction highlights the balance between emotion and rationality in human cognition and decision-making processes.

This accurately summarises one aspect of the phenomenon I’ve been referring to in this article.

Further reading

Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) is a landmark book written by Daniel Kahneman. The book argues for a dual-process theory of the mind, explaining how our thinking is divided into two systems:

  1. System 1: This is the fast, automatic, and emotional system of thinking. It's intuitive and makes snap judgements based on our experiences, feelings, and immediate perceptions. This system is highly efficient for everyday decisions and reactions that require speed over accuracy.

  2. System 2: This is the slow, effortful, and more logical system of thinking. It requires conscious mental effort and is used for complex computations and decisions where accuracy is more important than speed. This system is more deliberate and less susceptible to bias than System 1.

Throughout the book, Kahneman explores how these two systems influence our perceptions, decisions, and judgements, and how they can lead to various cognitive biases. The book is packed with insights and examples demonstrating how the interplay between these systems can affect personal and professional outcomes. Kahneman also offers practical advice on how we can identify and mitigate the biases that stem from this dual-process thinking.

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Very interesting, and extremely humanist in context. Communication and how we interact with each other is half the battle...if not all of it. Hamas vs Israel, Brexit vs Remain, Conservative vs Labour... Humanist vs Religion? Would all of these communications run far more smoothly if people acted with improved dialogue, added respect and neocortext thinking over tribal hatred.

How is your new role with the United Nations going?

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