You Are What You Believe?

From the time I was in elementary school I was fascinated by politics. Throughout most of my life I religiously watched the news, stayed current on national events, and followed politics like most fanatics follow their favorite sports team. However, after decades as an armchair political pundit,  I needed a break and managed to slip outside the political noise for three sweet years. From around 2013 until 2016 I virtually gave up watching the news. It was delightful. Then 2016 rolled around and another presidential election loomed.

As a former government teacher, history major in college, and lifelong politico, the presidential election year was too much. It was like a former alcoholic suddenly living solely in a world filled with bars…where all the drinks are free…an almost impossible temptation to avoid. Like Michael Corleone once said, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

After three years of mostly avoiding the mainstream media, diving back into the fracas overwhelmed me at first. After almost drowning in a sea of soundbites and spinning from both sides, eventually I came up for air and cleared my head. Once back on the dry land of objectivity there was time for reflection. So many questions swirled, but I was struck primarily by one pervading thought:

Why is it acceptable to be so mean to one another today?

AD HOMINEM SOCIETY

One of the first steps when learning logic is identifying fallacies and learning to avoid them. The ad hominem fallacy “involves bringing negative aspects of an arguer, or their situation, to bear on the view they are advancing.” In other words, when someone attacks another person’s character, appearance, or intentions, we commit the ad hominem fallacy. Turn on the left (CNN, MSNBC, et. al.) and right wing (Fox News, Breitbart, et. al.) networks and watch their talking heads for a few hours and you will see this fallacy repeated almost continually. Listen to the politicians in Washington if you want a master class.

Why is this ok? When did being mean and hateful to those who disagree with you go from fringe to mainstream? And why do we sit back and lob memes at each other from our various “camps” and then pretend like it’s no big deal when we see each other in public?

Most of the things people post on social media they would not say face to face with another human. They wouldn’t say them because they would have a real person’s reaction to contend with, and they might actually have to examine thoughts from outside their own ideological echo chamber. We must be able to debate controversial ideas and concepts. This is necessary to a civilized republic, and attacking one another because we disagree is counterproductive. Yet our celebrities and politicians routinely spout hate and we do our part and toss it back out into our little corner of the universe.

IDENTITY POLITICS

Both sides of the political spectrum in America began moving toward identity politics decades ago. Over time both sides have successfully converted the masses and convinced us all that we are what we believe. In other words, who we are as individuals is directly reflected by what we believe. If you believe what the group says to believe then you are a good group member. If you don’t…well enjoy googling the word “ostracized.”

In order to shift a society of hundreds of millions in a particular direction, identity politics is indispensable. We must have a herd mentality so we will go along with the sweeping changes needed to make society a better place for all (or a worse place depending on which side is shouting). Get on board or get off the boat. If you’re not for us you’re against us. Be part of the solution and not the problem. And so on and so on.

While many modern groups will deem this post crimethink and not goodthink, I’m still one of those rebellious libertarian types who actually believes in a free marketplace of ideas protected by a free society. Attacking other people personally because they disagree with me is not the work of a free mind. Instead, this is a clear indicator that the attacker is firmly entrenched in some ideological camp. We are free to attack other people should we choose (aside from libel or slander of course) but we cannot expect the ad hominem fallacy to suddenly shift and become true. Attacking people rather than ideas is generally useless and only serves to drive people of all persuasions deeper into their groupthink while simultaneously dashing all possibility of productive debate.

IDEAS NOT PEOPLE

If you’ve read my blog or listened to any of my thinking, you know I follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Christians should be the last people on earth attacking others personally. We must exhibit love and kindness and patience and goodness toward others…even when they do not reciprocate. Our Americanized version of Christianity eschews that last part, replacing it with something akin to “Thou shalt be kind to others who disagree with you…unless those people are nasty and then you can trash them all you like with impunity.”

Ideas are things we hold that help us make sense of the world, but they are not directly who we are. They may help shape who we are, but our identity is deeper and more profound than just the ideologies we support. Ideologically I am libertarian, Christian, and a Tennessee Vols fan…I live in the South so that last one is considered an ideological position. However, I moved towards those ideologies because they aligned with who I am as a person, not vice versa. Christian virtues and concepts helped shape and hone who I am as a person, but my identity is something deeper and divine.

Our belief system is something external that we adjust to as we develop as people. The divine spark snapped us into existence at the moment of conception and we began to grow from that point until now. Consider your own growth process. When you were a small child did you say, “I’m going to be nice to that person over there because that’s what good (fill in the blank with your chosen ideologies, e.g. Christian/Buddhist/Democrat/Republican etc.)’s do.” or conversely, “That kid looks stupid so I’m gonna pick on them because that’s what _______’s do.”

No one thinks this way. Even adults generally do not think this way. People I knew in elementary school who were kind-hearted were generally still kind-hearted in high school and most are still that way today. Life can change us, God can change us, circumstances can change us, but we generally emerge with certain proclivities and spend the rest of our lives wrestling with the implications of those as we act upon them or attempt to suppress them.

When we equate ideological beliefs, which often shift radically over time, with our identity then any attack on our beliefs is an attack on us personally. Thus we see a glut of ad hominem attacks because most people view their beliefs and identity as equal.

In other words…your identity is something you are born with that you develop based on personal choices, environmental factors, and life experience. Your ideology represents ideas outside yourself that you’ve chosen to adhere to based on your identity, not the other way round. As long as we submit to the groupthink presented to us on TV and the internet and continue to label ourselves and toe the party line for whatever group we belong to, ad hominem attacks will naturally persist.

There is another way. We can live free, at peace, and still hold widely different views about life. I cannot stop the nonsense being spewed into the marketplace of ideas, but I can keep a clean shop here in my little corner. Maybe you’d consider doing the same and we might start a new revolution…one of kindness and free thought.

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