Ideologue-y

Do you ever feel that the previous generation just sees you as another potential acolyte to be indoctrinated and enlisted to fight the next big ideological war? In several situations I have felt like that. These were in linguistics, in economics, and—of course—in politics.

In linguistics the philosophical divide basically shakes out as the rationalist, pro-Chomsky forces vs. empiricist, post-Chomsky linguists. The core classes in the BYU linguistics program teach Chomsky, plain and simple. But, in the senior seminar class we learned about the First and Second Linguistics Wars. These were bitter ideological struggles that tore the discipline in half twice in as many decades. It was Chomsky vs. the World, and Chomsky won… sort of. He won rhetorical victory at the cost of turning linguistics into a no-man’s land. When we in the linguistics major learned that the minimalist grammars, the autosegmental theory, all of it that we had learned and had confidence in, were essentially the victors writing the history books, the attack plan of true believers in the reigning theory-as-doctrine to scorch earth in the battlefield of undergraduate minds, we lost faith in it. It was disillusioning. And so did the more reasonable part of the field of linguistics: people turned to other things, like corpus linguistics or statistical modeling.

Economics is in a lot of ways more empirically grounded than at least Chomskyan linguistics. Yet it, too, suffers from the distortions of ideology. Reading about the current economic crisis, I see one group blame excessive regulation, and another group blame insufficient regulation. Same discipline. Same data. Opposite stories. Was Keynes a hero, or a villain? An awful lot of name-calling goes on on some econ blogs. I’d like to see less ad hominem and more thoughtful analysis.

And, of course, politics. The ideological problems afflicting economics are but one front in a multifarious war that’s been raging for generations. I’m really tired of trying to figure out what position to take on a given issue, only to realize that the two sides (how come things always get reduced to two sides? why not three, or a hundred?) have been totally co-opted by the belligerents. So, if I think any policy protecting the environment is a good idea, I’m a sinister agent of the Left? If I think government should balance its budget, I’m a Republican hack? No. I’m just this guy who got thrown into this complex and wonderful world where everyone wants him to join their side, everyone wants to be right, but nobody really seems to care about discovering what’s really going on. With so much spin, it’s easy to get dizzy.

I know I get sucked into taking sides in ideological disputes all the time. My opposition to the bailout is a good example. But there’s a better way.

So what can we do to keep from oppressing the next generation with our own ideological obsessions? Well, if you ever find yourself defending or attacking an idea or plan or program, stop. Attack and defense are for fighting wars. Discovery and explanation are for truth-seekers. Seek truth.

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