Before entering into this rather abstract discussion on dysfunctional and dangerous ideologies, here are what I consider a few essential axioms.
1: Like with evolution, belief systems compete against each other… yet those that survive are not necessarily the most rational but those that are best suited to their environment. In this case, the environment may be the human need to make life meaningful and to hope there's cosmic justice for "moral" behavior... but also a social environment where self-serving power seeks justifications for its own immoral, at times inhumane, behavior. The combination these and other environmental factors leads to belief systems that may be widely accepted completely divorced from reality and contain internal contradictions adherents remain blind to.
2: The most compelling yet insidious of belief systems are those that seemingly have explanations for everything. An example was the medieval belief that everything could be explained as a cosmic battleground between Good and Evil. If one dared question that belief, it was assumed they were under the influence of Evil. While certainly not alone, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism would certainly fall into this category. Free Market fundamentalists believe that even market failures are proof of the infallibility of market forces turning economics into a religion.
3: The capacity for human self-deception is infinite made possible by an infinite number of conceptual combinations that can be twisted, abused, and bastardized… with the result that any number of compelling but absurd belief systems can emerge and be accepted.
4: Most humans suffer from a self-inflicted infallibility complex and believe their actions, no matter how destructive, are based in positive motivations. Hitler actually believed history would vindicate his mass murder of the Jews.
5: Humans are not just susceptible to irrational belief systems, which I’d argue, are at the root of most of humanity's problems... but have a desire to perpetuate those belief systems they believe in.
6: As a result we create/support dysfunctional if not insane institutions to perpetuate these ideologies. We also create a system of incentives to support the underlying ideology and disincentives/punishments for questioning that ideology. Punishments can range from mere social disapproval to death.
7. No matter how the above should be seen as the root cause of most human misery and conflict, True Believers will fanatically claim the superiority of their own belief system over others thus perpetuating misery and conflict.
8: The above is possible because cultures such as ours lack a key countervailing value: the respect for reality which would create a self-correcting mechanism.
We often don't give much thought to the sanity of institutions or entire nations. We just assume our institutions and our nation are inherently desirable if not superior to those of others. We may be less generous towards the institutions of our friends and allies but at least we would not question their sanity. The thought of insane institutions or an entire nation actually going insane is so disturbing we delude ourselves into thinking it only happens rarely and reserve such condemnations for the like of North Korea and Nazi Germany. Yet what may be of more interest is not whether a nation actually embarks on military conquest and genocide... the worst case scenario, but whether any nation can, under the right circumstances, also go “toxic”. I’d argue that this is what has happened in the US, especially after 911.
We're all aware of physiologically-based insanity. But there is a more prevalent form of insanity... the self-inflicted variety by which I mean irrational belief systems. Technically such insanity resides in individuals who self-sabotage their own intellects. But, collectively those who subscribe to these insane belief systems are not satisfied with individual acceptance of a belief system. They want their insanity to become institutionalized. It can be on the level of murderous organizations like those who follow Bin Laden, institutions like the Nazi SS, like in the case of Nazi Germany the whole national purpose becomes devoted to a murderously insane ideology.
Yet, it's a mistake to assume that the most radical and murderous among us are insane. Assuming no organic cause... the more interesting question is what are the necessary preconditions to their insane beliefs?
Perhaps all belief systems, diverse as they may be, fall into two main categories. There are self-correcting modes of thought... such as the scientific method. Granted as we've seen in the news often other considerations undermine the intellectual integrity required for honest research. Then there are the self-justifying belief systems. The most compelling are those which seemingly have an explanation for everything.
Almost by definition the permutations of such irrational self-justifying ideologies are infinite. We see it in racism, patriotism, nationalism, Millenniumism, creationism, Maoism, imperialism, Stalinism, radical capitalism to a hundred other "-isms". Not all are dangerous or toxic but all are share a common defect: and inability to self-correct.
The most obvious self-justifying belief systems are religious in nature. Religion serves as the perfect example of the two key attributes of self-justifying belief systems. The first is selective perception... where reality is rearranged so only data supporting the belief system are acknowledged. The second is the filtering of any data which threatens the belief system. By their very nature such belief systems tend to lead towards more disagreement and conflict. In contrast self-correcting belief systems tend to grow towards more agreement.
If there's any core observation it's this: what makes these self-justifying belief systems so insidious is this: once someone accepts the basic tenets of the ideology they deprive themselves of the intellectual tools to disprove the system. For that individual, the belief system becomes closed, and odds are if the system meets certain requirements, it will self-perpetuate. If institutions or nations are built around these self-justifying ideologies then they then have a vested interest in perpetuating the irrationality of their clients/consumers and citizens. These institutions create incentives for irrational if not insane attitudes and behavior that are compatible with the mission of the institution. It leads to insane ideas such as Monsanto’s “death gene” and those who can’t see past the current imperatives who actually believed the “death gene” made perfect sense. Likewise these institutions create disincentives and punishments for attitudes and behavior that threaten the institution and its underlying ideology. We can expect such imperatives from religious institutions which by their nature are faith based... and largely immune from self-correction. What is more a threat is when we have such behavior in our government and corporate institutions.
A central goal of any sane society should be the pursuit of truth... and an essential aspect of that pursuit is the relentless challenge of its own beliefs. Alas, I see the US being awash in irrational, self-perpetuating belief systems. By this I mean our institutions governmental and economic, and even our citizenry, are not acting in ways that can self-correct. For example, if combating global warming runs counter to the imperatives/incentives the built into our economy then it’s those imperatives/incentives that must be questioned. Sadly, these imperatives/incentives go unquestioned and as these major institutions try to perpetuate themselves, they have developed a vested interest in encouraging irrationality in the public. As for the public, some among us value these dysfunctional if not toxic belief systems even more than life itself. Since these are people who don't suffer any physiological form of insanity, perhaps being a True Believer is the ultimate human pathology.