Saturday, 7 June 2014

The Politics of Identity: Why Picking A Side Matters To Some People

I often get into arguments, particularly where politics is concerned. Seriously, don't bring an inflatable hammer to a bazooka fight if you want to take me on. Opinion alone won't cut the mustard but I'm pretty flexible about everything else. I'm all about empirical evidence, you see, and personal experience is part of it. Bring as much knowledge and experience into the debate as you can; just say, "In my experience..." and that'll do me. Heck, I might even change my mind if your argument is compelling enough. It has been known to happen.*

Do you really think for yourself?

It seems to me that most people just don't think for themselves. In fact, on one memorable occasion an employer said, "You're not supposed to think for yourself!"

I went, "What? Did you really say that?!" She blustered but it was too late, she had exposed herself as a conformist.

The thing is, we all conform to one thing or another, it's a matter of degree. So why in the world do so many of us try to pretend that we don't? One "rugged individualist" became irate and whined like a little brat when I questioned his right-wing Libertarian position on the welfare state. "Work or starve" is his take.

I pointed out that many people are struggling even if they have two or more jobs, and in America, for a lot of people, it's infinitely worse. "I'm an individualist," he proclaimed. "So why are you repeating Libertarian talking points?" I asked. "You get all defensive when I question opinions that aren't even yours; you're repeating verbatim what you've been told by your thought leaders." I copied and pasted his post into a post of my own on G+ as something to laugh at: an "individualist" who only runs with the herd.

He deleted the original post and whined that he wasn't allowed to have an opinion. As someone who undoubtedly owns a gun, I was amazed at his cowardice and said he could hold whatever opinion he liked, but if he was going to express it in public, we the people have a right to express contrary ones if we so desire. He blocked me. On other occasions I've had people leap into conversations online, then jump back out for fear of "contamination" by opposing views. What is that about?!

Go team!

Why do people need to delude themselves that they're truly individual while desperately clinging to a particular identity? This was brought sharply into focus when the results of our recent elections came in. This is when we chose our local and European Parliament representatives. UKIP, a Far Right spin-off of the Conservative Party, walked away with much of the vote, leaving the Big Three: Conservative, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats, reeling with shock. The Liberals (whom I've always considered to be weak and wishy-washy), were obliterated. There wasn't even one standing in my ward (district).

Them and Us

The parties that barely got a look in but should have were the Pirates and the Greens. I support the Pirates. Why the heck did this happen? Because of "the foreigners." UKIP made a scapegoat of immigrants fleeing the effects of war, religious extremism, laissez-faire economics and deleterious FTAs in their own countries instead of investigating why they wanted to come here in the first place. "Our generous welfare system" ain't the answer.

The truth is, it sucks to live in their homelands so they come here in the hope of a better life, and thereby become "Them." We, who were here before Them are self-designated as "Us" and oppose Them as a condition of being Team Us. Needless to say, this is arbitrary and self-applied.

In one funny incident a Nigerian chap informed me, "There's a grain of truth in UKIP's stance, you know."

The other is the enemy

Where there's a Them, there's an Us, and the need to belong is about being scared of being lumped in with Them. We all want to be Us. "Us" implies belonging, "Them" implies alienation. Political parties and pressure groups use this desire to entice people to join them. First they identify a group of people or organisations they consider a threat, then they exaggerate the threat, then they repeatedly insist that anyone not fighting against or otherwise resisting the threat is the enemy.

In America this is magnified to the point where the more extreme elements in the Red and Blue corners see each other as a clear and present danger - enemies to be feared and treated with extreme prejudice. Authoritarians on both sides attempt to censor each other and undermine each others' freedoms.

In the Red corner, Republicans want to ban teaching comprehensive sex education and other sexualities in schools. No rainbow flags in their backyards, no, siree. In the Blue corner, the most liberal Democrats campaign to get Rush Limbaugh off the air and to remove religious symbolism from public places. They'll be making booksellers package Bibles in brown paper, next. It's usually (but not always) the right-wingers who bug out of political conversations in which their positions are confronted with evidence that contradicts them.

The main difference between the Left/Liberals and the Right is that the Left/Liberals are all about social inclusivity and acceptance of behaviours and attitudes that contradict established social and religious norms. The Right is about preserving those norms, and in extreme cases using the force of law to impose them on others, whatever the cost to individuals and our society. I refuse to join either side, which is the root of pretty much every argument I ever get into over politics.

The importance of thinking for yourself

It's too easy to dismiss the people I've mentioned above as nutters. That doesn't deal with the actual problem: they don't, and won't think for themselves. One man even asked me why he should. He was probably afraid of being lumped with Them.

The power of shaming

In America, "You must be a Liberal Socialist!" shames the gullible into compliance. Is it bad that I've often fantasized about getting such a man to mow my lawn (I don't have a lawn, but imagine I do) and carry out household chores by constantly repeating, "You must be a Liberal Socialist!" if he objected? Could that actually happen? Just how powerful is this popular shame-phrase? It is, as I've said, used to enforce compliance with a particular worldview, to ensure that opinions held and expressed are "correct." So much for freedom.

Real freedom

If you really, truly want to be free you MUST resist all efforts to enforce conformism. Know and understand what you claim to believe in and be ready and able to defend it; opinions not based on facts have no value in a meaningful debate. That's why our Libertarian friend got such an epic smacking — he thought he was preaching to the choir because everybody else he knows agrees with his position. He's not accustomed to having it questioned by people who live in the real world.

Here in the UK we have a healthier society where [the boogeyman] is not an ever-present threat that must be countered with conformity to "right" thinking and practice. I am thankful and grateful that I live here. I can call myself a moderate conservative and this is accepted whether I'm conforming to every aspect of current right wing belief and practice or not. Try that "You must be a Liberal Socialist!" crap over here and any one of us, British or not (I'm Irish), will give you short shrift. We won't stand for it. Mind you, most of us can think for ourselves. It's the ones who don't that I worry about.

The real enemy

The importance of thinking for yourself can not be overstated. If you think for yourself you understand what skepticism is for: a tool to dig for the truth, not to shut down debate to protect a cherished opinion that only exists because you've self-identified with a particular group. You're curious about the boogeyman and like to be informed on the issues so you know what to do about it. You also know who the real enemy is; whoever is ACTUALLY threatening your interests.

For me, it's the Multinational Corporations and their Far Right accomplices who are currently weakening our property rights protections. The title deeds to that home you own don't mean diddly squat to Cuadrilla, etc., and if the TTIP goes through, investor-state resolution provisions will ensure they either get their own way or sue our government for billions. And you're upset with immigrants "stealing our jobs?" Think for yourself! If you're going to pick a side in anything, pick the side that counts; whichever of them is all about truth, justice, and fairness. It's the only one worth bothering with.

*I've changed my stance from anti to pro on decriminalising recreational drug use and prostitution because I was presented with a pragmatic approach, empirical evidence, and a compelling argument. Given a choice between continuing the authoritarian approach that doesn't work and a pragmatic one that reduces the cost, the risk, and the adverse consequences, I'll take the pragmatic one.

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