By definition, an ism is a distinct doctrine, cause or theory. Capitalism, communism, socialism, liberalism, and conservatism, for example, all define a specific view of social order and individual rights. Catholicism, Buddhism, Mormonism, and Taoism, agnosticism, and atheism, in one way or another, attempt to describe, justify, and explain questions of metaphysics and meta-ethics. They not only define what is “true” but also attempt to explain the limits of human knowledge: this is what we know, here is how we know it, and these are the questions of which we will never be capable of finding an answer. Isms also provide a sense of identity for individuals, communities, and even nations. By self-identifying as a conservative capitalist, or a liberal socialist, we communicate volumes about our general beliefs and on how we view the world.
Isms are also valuable in helping us understand socio-political dynamics and interaction. If, for example, we know that a nation is heavily influenced by socialism or capitalism, we can better understand and predict how that nation will respond to both internal and external events. Isms, therefore, are extremely useful as descriptive mechanisms. Despite their usefulness, however, isms can present unique and serious challenges.
One of the many difficulties presented by isms is that they often lead their adherents to form opinions, make decisions, and develop perspectives based not on how the world really is, but rather on how these adherents wish there world were. For some, isms become so pervasive that they transcend being merely descriptive, and come to represent a type of dogmatic truth claim. Isms, then, lead to ideology, and ideology inevitably leads to ideologues.
Certainly it is beneficial, and perhaps even necessary for individuals to formulate general ideas and assumptions about the purpose and function of life, society, and the world they observe. However, when these ideas and assumptions themselves begin to trump and take precedence over the practical and tangible impact that the ideas inevitably create, unfortunate outcomes are almost sure to follow. In the most extreme cases, for example, social injustice is ignored for the sake of capitalism and violent atrocities are ignored for the sake of communism.
We all adopt and embrace isms to one degree or another. They are helpful shortcuts which aid us in processing and compartmentalizing information. But if we find ourselves embracing an ism such that we become ideologues, we implicitly place dogmatic idealism into a good in itself. Which, of course, is absolutely absurd. Ideas about “how the world works” are simply means to an end. When abstract ideas about how society, religion, and other community relationships should function, overshadow the actual needs of members of pluralistic societies and communities, human needs will always be considered secondary. And as we have seen in the past century, when ideology becomes a ruling force, human life suffers; often in the most horrific and tragic ways imaginable.
This is not to say that the acceptance or embrace of a particular ism is problematic, in itself. This is demonstrably not the case. I myself embrace Mormonism (albeit in a nontraditional form) as well as classical liberalism. I also consider myself a social contract theorist; social contractism, as it were.
Isms are useful descriptive shortcuts to help us gain quick broad understandings of the world around us in those who occupy it. However, when we begin to embrace isms as goods in themselves; something to be valued primarily as an overarching truth, we’ve essentially flipped things on their head.
Isms are meant to serve as a useful tool for people. People are neither meant to serve, nor worship at the metaphorical feet, of any ism or ideology.