Meta-Ideology (MI) is an approach to combat polarization and extremism by relating to any ideological content from a "meta" disposition or perspective. Here, "meta" is defined as "reflecting from a higher level," or from a place that transcends the parameters of the subject in question, in this case any particular ideological system. A meta relation to ideology ensures that we don't become captured by the patterns of orientating abstractions vis ideology - which are always contested -- often viciously -- by those of opposing views. Blindly falling into the boxes of ideological thinking further compounds polarization, conflict, and distrust, especially when ostensibly "neutral" or apolitical projects become contaminated with ideological biases.
MI is not about changing the content of one's ideology nor about promoting a prescribed set of political positions that one should adopt. Nor does it require surrendering strongly held values or ideals in favor of passivity, neutrality, inaction, or tepid fence sitting. Rather, it's about engaging with any ideological view, including those we sincerely hold, from a vantage point that is external to or "beyond" the particular thought system in question, with the ability to reflect on the foundations of our own ideological thinking, as well as the greater landscape of ideological conflict writ large.
What is ideology? While the meaning of the term is itself contested, here I define ideology as "a system of contested abstractions about the socio-political world, with normative implications or consequences." Ideologies are systems, frameworks, or constellations of abstractions - values, concepts, ideas, language patterns, moral ideals, aesthetic styles, and so forth. These abstractions are contested by those of opposing views, meaning that ideology always involves some dimension of conflict, disagreement, or polarization. Finally, ideologies have a normative thrust, informing what we think ought to be the case. Ideologies act as blueprints for how we believe society should be organized and arranged; our political agendas packaged into systems of patterned abstractions, giving order, structure, and consistency to our political thinking and behavior.
Eminent ideology scholar Michael Freeden argues that a core function of ideology is "decontestation," where ideologies act as interpretive apparatuses that crystallize the meaning of contested concepts like justice, power, rights, fairness, liberty, and so on. Each ideological perspective propounds its own definitive meaning for each term, doubling down on (or decontesting) one meaning while rejecting others. For the socialist justice means this and NOT this; for the libertarian justice means this and NOT this. Rejecting alternative meanings to contested terms and abstractions is thus the sine qua non of ideological functioning.
Therefore a meta-ideological approach involves engaging in acts of decontestation from a higher or meta-level vantage point, instead of solely (and often blindly and compulsively) decontesting ideas from within a particular ideological frame. This requires a sincere effort to understand opposing ideologies on their own terms, instead of always decontesting contested concepts from within our favored ideological purview. An ethic of engagement is to talk to others on their own terms, on their own turf, rather than unconsciously filtering ideological material through our respective lenses.
To use a quantum mechanics analogy, the meta-ideological position is akin to maintaining a state of quantum superposition before collapsing the wave function via ideological decontestation; to first meta-reflect on the landscape of contested terms and ideas prior to decontesting (and thus cementing) a concept into a fixed and singular meaning. In quantum mechanics, collapsing the wave function occurs physically via observation and measurement; whereas ideologies facilitate the collapse of a semantic wave function, with ideology acting as the measurement system that decisively pins down the meaning of an abstract term (like justice).
MI offers a way out of our climate of toxic polarization, extremism, and ideological mud slinging by changing how we relate to ideologies, and hence our relationship to political conflict. Instead of ideological trench warfare, where different political factions lob decontested grenades at opposing sides in an attempt to semantically crush them, MI enjoins us to rise above the trenches and examine ideology from a meta disposition, while simultaneously holding whatever values, ideals, or convictions we sincerely hold from such a meta vantage point.
Productive dialogue, critical thinking, collaborative bridge building, mediation and conflict resolution, cultivating trust, cohering ideologically diverse coalitions, and other key efforts become more possible when facilitated from a meta-ideological standpoint. Creative approaches to solving complex societal problems also become easier, as thinking outside the box of ideologies and other dominant paradigms allow us to devise and test novel methods, strategies, and interventions.
While the methodologies and practices of MI can take numerous forms, here are some actionable principles that can be operationalized in diverse contexts:
1. Ideas, ideologies, frameworks, and concepts are presented as frameworks or tools, apt for addressing particular problems but perhaps not for others. MI involves cultivating greater awareness around the parameters of our thinking by interrogating the premises and presuppositions of our chosen systems of thought, understanding that certain theoretical tools are better in some instances than others.
2. One doesn't need to give up core values, beliefs, identities, or ideologies, but is instead encouraged to experiment with additional lenses, perspectives, or belief systems as a way to enrich one's understanding of reality. These lenses or frameworks can be utilized in addition to one's existing beliefs and worldviews. I call this the principle of non-exclusion, which makes use of both/and thinking. This ensures that people don't feel they are being forced to adopt beliefs or values that they don't agree with (which is a huge driver of polarization and sets off indoctrination alarm bells). One can also sincerely advocate for their perspective from a meta-ideological vantage point, meaning that the expression of one's convictions are couched in an awareness of underlying paradigm that generated the specific position.
3. Research has shown that an important aspect of depolarization and anti-extremism is the cultivation of complexity. Complexity includes holding contradictory values, identities, or positions, increasing the nuance of our views, and leaning into shades of grey instead of reducing complex issues to black and white binaries. All of my work involves introducing complexity in different ways to build our understanding of ourselves and the world. For more, check out the work of Peter Coleman.
4. I try to meet people where they are instead of expecting people to enter my frame. This is known as "scaffolding" - facilitating learning by building on one's current knowledge. It's a way of connecting new information to information one already possesses, and involves adapting learning materials to the interests, contexts, and particular needs of the crowd. Talk to people on their own terms, on their own turf.
5. A key tenet of adult education is learning through dialogue and social interaction. My goal is to equip participants with the tools to learn from each other, so we can enrich our understandings through mutually generative discourse. I think of my job as creating the conditions to maximize learning through peer dialogue, and not as a "sage on the stage" lecturer. I'm learning with people, not lecturing at people.