As society has become increasingly polarized left versus right, liberal versus conservative, religious versus irreligious, and as technological advances have allowed individuals to exert unprecedented control over the information they consume, ideological internalization has become progressively prevalent. Ideological internalization is the integration of an ideology as an identifying component of the individual, which results in binding rigidity of thought.
Perceived criticism often puts us into an emotional state, bypassing the centers of logic and reason, and tapping directly into our emotional centers. The emotional center of the brain or limbic system stores previous emotional memories both negative and positive. When we receive criticism, it can trigger a negative response based on previous or similar situations in which negative criticism was received. The resulting reactions make it virtually impossible to receive the ideological critique as something other than a personal attack. The instinct to defend oneself against a perceived attack of character prevents the consideration or acceptance of new information that contradicts the held ideology from occurring. For example, when relaying to a supporter of a political candidate what you perceive as objective flaws in the candidate as an individual and/or as an executive, that supporter may instead hear and perceive those critiques as you critiquing them. Ideological internalization leads to the conclusion that if they support that candidate, and you believe that candidate to be flawed and incompetent, then you must believe them to be flawed and incompetent as well. And, how dare you imply that they are flawed and incompetent. Mentioning the child rape scandal in the Catholic church to someone who has experienced an ideological internalization of their Catholicism may result in a defensive response like: “are you accusing me of supporting child rape?”
It can be quite frustrating engaging in a political, religious, or moral dialogue that has been retarded by this phenomenon. Facts are brushed off as opinion and opinions asserted as facts. Debate seems to occur in two contradictory and parallel versions of reality. Ideological internalization prevents any critique, irrespective of validity, from being, considered or accepted.
How then do you successfully engage with an individual who has experienced ideological internalization? Overcoming ideological internalization is especially difficult in areas heavily dominated by opinions and in which there are no real consequences for holding incorrect positions. For example, in politics, philosophy, or religion, an individual can appeal to any authority to justify their position. Can there be a successful exchange of ideas within this context? It is possible if pursued with caution, care, and consideration. Here are some suggestions for overcoming ideological internalization:
- Utilize open-ended questions to build trust, allow the individual to express themselves, and demonstrate your willingness to listen to their perspective.
- Solicit their point of view. This should improve their willingness to receive and consider your point of view or critique.
- Since internalized ideology has created a scenario in which a criticism of the ideology is received as a criticism of the individual, it may be helpful to approach the discussion as if you were offering a critique of the individual. Utilize the precautions you would if delivering a personal critique.
- Offer your critique with as much detail as possible.
- Allow for silence as a space for them to consider your position.
- Pay attention to emotional reactions and adjust your tone accordingly.
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