There is a ubiquitous trend in intellectual spaces of adopting an ideological lens through which to view media, people or events. A brief Google search for “feminist lens” will turn up dozens of academic papers and analyses from a “critical feminist perspective“. A search for “Marxist lens” will provide you with endless book and movie reviews of celebrated classics from the perspective of class conflict.
One can even do this with rising ideological perspectives. A search for “Libertarian lens” will provide you with tentative blog posts from libertarians seeking to apply their own world view to the same subjects. I have even been tempted to try critiquing through a Classical Liberal or Social Liberal lens, myself. The concept of the ideological lens can be used by any framework of ideas and any conceivable thing can be viewed through it.
However, it is rarely asked by those applying these “critical perspectives” whether or not they should apply a specific ideological lens to their perspective when viewing an item or situation. Invariably, the critic approaching the corpus holds the ideological position they are about to use to critique the work, making the analysis a self-contained, self-congratulatory, one-person circle-jerk to reaffirm that their ideological position is, indeed, the most correct one and that any competing ideologies are not only wrong but beyond recovery and so can be dismissed without further contemplation. A feminist conducting an analysis through a feminist lens is not learning anything new, they are masturbating.
This confirmation bias is bolstered by the inevitable string of previous incidents allegedly explained in full by this ideology and this apparent success naturally leads one to use the lens in the future, so the only conclusion one can come to is that any work in question is, of course, problematic. This appears to be a remarkably-easy pattern of thought to fall into.
Only media specifically crafted for an ideologically-polarised audience stands a chance of satisfying said audience, and sometimes, not even then. The inscrutable details of popular and finely-stratified ideologies that have been simmering in ivory towers for decades can come from a body of work so dense and contradictory that any attempt to satisfy will inevitably fail to appease the prickly mindset of its adherents. The work will be roundly lambasted for its failures and condemned, instead of praised for its successes and accepted, despite its flaws.
It isn’t relevant that a piece of media, an opinion or an event is reflective of the many different and often ideologically-diverging components of which it is comprised or derived. In fact, these non-conforming ideas are purposefully stripped away and ignored in favour of cherry-picking a specific selection of nodal points from which to structure a narrative to explain why said subject is, indeed, transgressive. The merits of a piece are summarily forgotten.
To announce that one is going to adopt a specific lens with which to critique any subject or media is to declare, brazenly, that one is deliberately abandoning objective criticism and embracing their bias before putting pen to paper. To announce the adoption of an ideological lens is to declare openly that the author is going to provide you with a one-sided, incomplete, dysfunctional piece of work that will serve to propagandise the audience instead of inform them by deliberate omission of otherwise relevant facts.
However, it is important to note that using an ideological lens to analyse a situation is not in and of itself wrong. A lens can be a useful filter when applicable, for example, if an issue has become deadlocked and requires a new approach to find a solution, but the lens should be taken off when it is no longer needed to allow facts and arguments omitted by the use of the lens to return to the discussion.
The term ‘lens’ is used because an ideological lens is analogous to an actual lens. If you look at the world through coloured lenses they filter out colours that do not match the tint of the lens. If one were to remain wearing the lens after it has served its purpose then one is receiving a distorted view of the world. Here is a quick demonstration.
Question: which one of these ladies is wearing a blue shirt?
Answer: none of them.
However through our tinted lens everyone was wearing blue. Everything was a shade of blue. Anything non-blue was erased from what we were able to perceive. This is the same effect that adopting an ideological lens has to social analysis.
Let’s examine a few examples to demonstrate this.
Here is a picture of Leonardo DiCaprio after finally winning an Oscar. To someone viewing the situation without adopting a specific ideological lens, it might appear to be four people who have worked tirelessly on their careers, and with the help of friends, family mentors and colleagues, have managed to ascend to the pinnacle of their industry.
However, if we were to view the same image through a White feminist lens, we would see this:
We can switch lenses from the lens of White feminism to the lens of intersectional social justice, so in addition to these criticisms we also get:
If we do not remove our ideological lens and instead continue to employ it in all situations from the beginning of each one, we end up coming to some absurd conclusions. Let’s keep our social justice lens on and take a look at what the Leader of the Free World is doing today.
Barack Obama is being oppressed by his two bodyguards while engaging in his role as president of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
This is, of course, utter nonsense. The ideological lens of social justice does not apply in this situation. It makes no sense to approach the dynamics between Obama and his guards based on race because race was not a factor in the process of each person arriving at their station in life. A white supremacist system would never allow a black person to arrive at the highest position in the entire hierarchy, and a white supremacist would be unlikely to accept a position as a bodyguard to a black man.
We should, instead, remove the lens and view the situation as it really is: the president of the United States of America with two American soldiers as his guard. The power dynamics of the situation are not based upon race they are based upon rank. Removing our social justice lens allows us to identify the important factors involved in the encounter and judge accordingly. Retaining the lens prevents us from seeing the situation as it is in reality. Essentially this is an application of Occam’s Razor and Hanlon’s Razor; it requires no ulterior motives to apply the simplest explanation for the situation.
Approaching anything with an ideological lens distorts the perception of the viewer, done by their own choice and informs their decision with presuppositions that may not be true or applicable to the given circumstance.
What is happening in this picture?
To the average viewer, it may appear to be a police officer arresting a suspect. We do not have enough information to make any further judgments. We do not know if this arrest is lawful, if the woman is suspected of committing a crime or if the officer is even putting the handcuffs on or taking them off.
Let’s see what we can determine with the use of a few ideological lenses. First, our feminist lens:
Clearly, this poor woman is being oppressed by the Patriarchy. But wait, if we put on our social justice lens…
Double-oppression! Let’s see what our Libertarian lens has to tell us about this situation:
Of course, we don’t know anything about why this police officer is arresting this black woman. It could be because he’s a racist, it could be because he’s a misogynist, it could be because he’s a statist. Unfortunately we will never know and so applying an ideological lens to the situation only gives us unfounded speculation as to the underlying reason this woman found herself in cuffs, based on factors that may hold no relevance to the event at all. It introduces factors for which there is no obvious indication to take into consideration.
Approaching a new situation with an ideological lens automatically distorts your initial impression of what you are dealing with, and research consistently shows that first impressions matter. Anyone approaching a situation with a specific ideological lens is ruining their potential relationships with strangers by using it to make a moral evaluation about people they meet for the first time. The ideological position fills in much of a person’s preconceptions of events and motivations leading up to the moment of encounter, despite the fact these assumptions could be completely wrong.
This is what an ideologue is: a person who is unable to take off their ideological lens and therefore has trouble seeing the world without that tint. When Anita Sarkeesian says:
She is not joking. She describes how she discovered intersectional feminism and learned how “oppressive social systems” work. This new lens caused her to view the world in a dramatically different way that compelled her to infuriate her friends by talking about their situations as if they were in immediate peril; only after a while did she realise it was her new ideological lens that made her agitated and she learned to lessen her reaction to the new world view. She then explains that feminism changed “her whole life” and that she draws spiritual comfort from it – she is emotionally reliant on feminism. She doesn’t take the lens off because she personally needs it and more than that, her entire career is built on it.
Even this would not be such a terrible mistake if it wasn’t for the set of value judgments inherent with each ideology. Perhaps it is possible to disassociate the adoption of an ideology with a moral choice, but if it is possible it is most certainly the exception and not the rule. Once one is convinced that the ideology they hold is not only correct but also morally superior, it’s easy to use it to fill in the gaps regarding the personality and motivations of one’s ideological opposition.
The problem, of course, is that most people adopt an ideology because they believe it to be a guide throughout life, a way to explain the world that is compatible with the individual’s moral code and provide principles by which to guide a person’s agency by giving them a framework with which to determine wrong action from right.
It is the belief in the rightness of one’s position that makes the ideological lens such an alluring trap. The chosen ideology becomes an emotional crutch and paves the way to intellectual laziness and the presumption of guilt on the part of others. The ideologue must necessarily see any ideological opponents as morally bankrupt or utterly ignorant in order to validate their own worldview.
This is the difference between a feminist ideologue saying “he is not a good person” compared to a rational feminist saying “he is not a good feminist”. It’s also the reason that an ideologue will think it acceptable to attempt to lie to defame a dissenter: the dissident has already decided to be immoral so lying about their character in a specific instance is immaterial because generally it is true.
The ideologue becomes so used to wearing their ideological lens they forget they are wearing it altogether. They go about their lives convinced that they are surrounded by a people who have made the conscious decision to be bad people, they are just rotten to the core. This naturally makes ideologues inclined to self-segregate and reduce exposure to dissidents and their opinions to as little as possible. Why would you want to spend any time talking to people you know are deliberately, willfully bad?
Once you see the world through an ideological lens you cannot remove, you will find yourself in a real-life version of the 1988 John Carpenter movie They Live.
In the film, Roddy Piper’s character John discovers a pair of sunglasses that, when he wears them, give him a headache but allow him to see a world hidden behind the illusion we call reality. This is why John, a decent, hard-working guy, ends up standing in a bank holding a shotgun and shooting customers. He can see the truth about them that everyone else can’t.
The sunglasses are the ideological lens. Without them, everything appears to be normal. You are surrounded by regular, decent folks living out their lives as best they can.
When you put on your ideological sunglasses, however…
You find yourself surrounded by hideous monsters masquerading as decent human beings. Instead of acting in a good, moral and upright way, these beasts have chosen to be bigots of any stripe. Racists, sexists, homophobes, Islamophobes, statists, atheists, collectivists, pick your poison. It’s not that they are just neutral and don’t care about your cause, it’s that they are actively working against you by simply espousing a different world view. These people aren’t just stupid, they are malevolent.
It becomes of vital importance to discredit them in any way you can, because otherwise reality will cause the ideological lens you rely upon so much for emotional sustenance to crack. Without the ideological lens, you will be able to see how your own bad behaviour towards other people has made you the one who has deliberately made an immoral choice through your own sloth and selfishness, two qualities that moments-ago you were projecting on to them.
This becomes a self-reinforcing mechanism as the whole reason you found yourself wearing the ideological lens all the time and becoming reliant upon it was to ensure you felt as if you were being a good and morally-upright person. Once you are this far down the path, how do you convince yourself to turn around and endure the shame and guilt of going back? Not only have you lost your source of emotional strength but it has become the very thing of which you should be ashamed.
The only thing left to do is convince yourself beyond reason that anyone who disagrees with you is inherently evil because the alternative comes with an emotional price too high to pay. You have but one option, and that is to double-down on anything you have said or done and declare any opposition to this position to be heresy that can be dismissed .
Now you’ve done that you can justify doing anything.