The insidiousness of dogma – and how it affects our ability to be happy

Anything, even the greatest, most wonderful of things, can be ruined for somebody if they have bad experiences with it. Nothing has an absolute quality of greatness or awfulness. Each individual feels things relative to their own experience.

The best things in the world – the best ideas, the best movements, the best innovations – often become corrupted with dogma and lose their appeal to people.

Dogma shuts off listening. And listening is a uniquely important skill. What is the point of interacting with another human being if you are not going to listen? Listening is in some ways even more important than expression. It’s the cornerstone of all meaningful human interaction.

Certainly, there are other ways to get people to stop listening; using fear, shame, guilt tripping, and other negative emotions are often part of this process, especially in a more immediate context. Dogma, however, is often more subtle, less easy to notice, longer-lasting, more insidious, and so on. When people hold dogmatic attitudes, the conversation doesn’t necessarily stop – often it can keep going on forever, in fact. But in a sense, it’s all in vain; listening is not occurring, and thus the conversation might as well be an exercise in theater.

When somebody takes a dogmatic attitude toward you, you can feel how it doesn’t matter to them what you think or know, or even who you really are. They’re gonna have it their way no matter what. This happens quite often, of course. On an everyday basis, really. That’s why I think it is so important to talk about.

Dogmas are also harmful because of how they penetrate socially in this much less visible way. Little so-called “truths” become accepted as fact (“the world is flat” is a good European example from a few hundred years ago) and affect our ability to listen to new ideas that challenge the dogma. During this flat-Earth period, for example, anybody in areas where the flat-Earth belief was held who dared to say that the world is round [or anything but flat] would be mocked and ostracized at best, and perhaps killed for blasphemy at worst.

What makes a dogma, a dogma?

Any belief or opinion can be dogmatized. We become dogmatic when we lose the ability to admit that what we believe to be true is not the only truth out there. Everything from a salesperson telling you that this product/service will benefit you to the person who thinks that the things they believe are also required to be believed by others. This is what dogma is made of.

But it goes further and wider than just general stubbornness. Let’s take a simple example of how easy it can be to fall into dogma: 1 + 1 = 2, right? But could 1 + 1 equal something else? The dogmatic-arithmetical point of view would say no. 1 + 1 always equals 2, no matter how it’s applied. A non-dogmatic point of view might say (for example), “this is true, but also, in a different light, you might see 1 + 1 as equaling 11 sometimes.” The non-dogmatic point of view does not negate 1 + 1 = 2, and can still recognize its validity; it just lets you see other contexts and possibilities you might not originally have been open to seeing.

When a dogma is held socially (which can be as simple as “people shouldn’t be overweight” or “suicide is always wrong”) the presence of this dogma raises everyone’s overall amount of dogma – because it pushes individuals to take sides: either adopt the dogma itself or form a counterdogma. For example, some folks, in response to the “it’s wrong for people to be overweight” dogma can develop a certain kind of “fat-positive” dogma that rejects any attempt to point out problems that happen as a result of obesity.

Nothing is wrong with either desiring not to be overweight or being proud of one’s well-built body and celebrating the beauty of fullness. The trouble is the thinking that says either “full-figuredness is always bad” or “criticism of obesity is always inappropriate.”

People with a dogmatic opinion often feel that it’s more important to defend what they think than anything else – as though somehow, if they open themselves up to other points of view, they are going to get brainwashed into changing their minds in a conversation. I very often want to tell these people, “don’t worry. You already know what you think, and that isn’t going to get taken away from you. What you need is to figure out how the person you are talking to thinks, if you want to be understood and respected by them.

And besides … what’s wrong with changing your mind? People generally don’t change their minds if they don’t want to. 🙂

Dogma is literally everywhere

Dogmatic thinking is so widespread because it is a big part of most societies’ view of what constitutes civilized debate. Think about it: politics, with its long-winded speeches and hours-long debates and snags – this is what our elected leaders, the people who govern us, are supposed to engage in: take a position, defend it, and engage in crossfire-style debate with those that oppose your position. No wonder so many people look at politics with such a cynical eye. When compromise does happen, it’s usually in some “backroom deal” somewhere out of the public eye. The “glamour” of it all, that is put on display for us to see, is in the crossing of dogma-hardened swords, rather than the compromise, understanding, and working together.

Most jobs that people occupy involve a lot of implied dogma. In politics we elect our leaders in many countries, but our workplaces are for the most part, well … dictatorships. How many of you out there who are working for somebody got together with those you work with and “elected” or “gave a vote of confidence to” your collective boss? Usually, it’s pretty much a situation where what you boss says, goes. You’ve got to show that you think how they think, because not doing so can jeopardize your job situation. Unions can often make a dent in this – but like so much else, union structures very often get dogmatized also.

There’s a lot of social conditioning out there to be dogmatic. This of course includes those countless family environments in which you’re not supposed to talk back, or ask why; you’re just supposed to “do as I say” or “keep your mouth shut.” It all adds up to an life experience that encourages taking sides and defending, rather than reaching across walls, recognizing other points of view, and building.

Everything can – and will – change

Dogma is basically a state of mind in which things are thought not to change. For example, if a specific tire is the best tire for your car, because this tire always was the best. Or Ingredient X is the best ingredient to use in your cooking, because it’s always been the best. What if those things aren’t true anymore? What if that tire is no longer the best one, or if Ingredient X is not the ingredient to be used in tonight’s meal? These changes can happen very quickly, and often, human recognition of them is horribly slow to catch up.

We are pattern seekers; we look for the things that consistently work, and apply them again and again when needed. There is nothing wrong with doing this as long as what you are doing keeps working well. But very often, the situation changes; sometimes, you have to change your approach, because what used to work well no longer does. And the scary part for many people is that you have absolutely zero control over when a change will be necessary.

Now, dogma is not always completely bad (if I said it was, that would be a dogmatic statement, ha ha ha). There are those very few times when, for an instant, it is necessary to concentrate on one thing and assume it is unchanging, and nothing else. But generally speaking, on the level of humanity, we are not suffering from too little dogma – we are suffering from much, much, much too much of it – in everything from our leaders’ head-in-the-sand policies about human beings’ future on this planet to our intimate family systems.

Who has the best chance of making out well in the world? There’s no one answer – but one really important factor is this: ability to adapt to change. Those folks we know of, who came from a challenged situation or background and have defied the odds and made it through despite having so many curveballs thrown at them – they are stubborn and tenacious, yes – but they also had to learn to adapt to and embrace change. Without that, the stubbornness leads to isolation and ruin. Those that are most successful have had to learn along the way to be willing to let old habits and ways of thinking rest in order to pick up new ones that would help them in their new situations.

I have seen and heard of so many stories, on the other hand, of people who were good at one or two things and stuck with them for a long time, but became so fixed in these situations that when their situation changed, they were helpless and could not adapt. I’ve seen this with everyone from family members, to longtime union workers, to proud immigrants from other countries, to even star athletes and entertainers – people who were so good at one particular thing that society embraced them for, but could not make a switch when necessary.

Those who are happiest tend to be those who are prepared that things may be very different in the future, and strive to embrace this change when its time has come. After all, those of us who will live into old age will eventually notice that our abilities, particularly our physical ones, will change quite a bit. And happiness in the later parts of one’s life is in some ways most important of all; if you are happy when you are older, it validates that the life you have lived up till then has been of value in some way, even if it wasn’t always fun and easy.

This is the value of recognizing our dogma and challenging it.

Sometimes, you can’t change a habit or train of thought that you are stuck in right away. That’s ok. It is dogmatic in and of itself to think that you must, right away! Take heart in knowing that by recognizing your dogmas, you have taken the most important step. The others will follow when their time comes as long as you no longer let your dogmas hide from you.

Further reading on this subject:

This entry was posted in Beliefs and worldview, Conflict and dealing with negativity, Debate!, Developing trust and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The insidiousness of dogma – and how it affects our ability to be happy

  1. Pingback: Is competition bad? | Positive Juice

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  4. julieallyn says:

    Excellent post. You’ve got me thinking now… 🙂

  5. This is a truly beautiful post. I will be sharing it!

  6. I feel like you’ve gotten extremely deep into what Dogma is but if I had to paste down a simplistic view of it then I would just say that it’s a firmly held belief that doesn’t want to be changed and generally is pushed onto others. The best thing to do is to filter out the information we receive from our outer experiences and choose which we must keep that will empower us at the end of the day! Thanks for the post!

  7. Great piece, Mitch. That small piece of seeing that 1 +1 could equal “11” while still allowing 1 + ! =2 to be a valid statement was a nice touch. You have a way of making a case for strategy when you could be making a case for morality. Being non-dogmatic is strategic, because, according to your view that life inevitably involves change. We cannot adapt to new information and experience if we are bound to a strictly held dogmatic view.

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