Identity is the lifeblood of politics. It’s what really matters, and in too many cases, it’s the only thing that matters.
Identity is experienced as truth — truth so sacred it trumps every possible counterargument. To say we are emotional because of our identity would be an oversimplification. But our identity is the well from which our emotions spring forth. That’s why facts don’t matter in politics. Whose side one is on is what counts.
Talk of “values” is but a euphemism for “just like us.” Elections are won and lost through appeals to identity. It’s that simple and that complicated. This is why symbols and 30-second, hot-button commercials sway public opinion. Increasingly, it explains the new Golden Rule, that in the majority of elections those with the most gold win.
In a downturned economy, identity is perceived as a matter of critical importance. Political bravado is everywhere — on the web, in blogs, newsmagazines, letters to editors, on television, talk radio and in workplaces all over the country. Left, right and middle, radical views abound. But the essence of most of this communication is equivalent to skipping rocks on a pond: seldom is the depth of anything examined or revealed, except the existential angst engendered by identity politics.
Since others, by nature of their very existence, serve as reminders that we are all going to die, politics becomes entangled with feelings about mortality. If we lose our identity, we are already dead metaphorically, in spirit if not in body.
Thus, contempt for others becomes a readily accepted distraction and a stand-in for despair. Further, it offers the added benefit of bringing groups closer together. A common enemy is a blissful diversion.
When identity is at risk, facts become meaningless. Identity overrides reason with a flood of emotion. Regardless of the issue, each side is inclined by the nature of their identity to assume they are right.
This is why people seldom forgive an enemy’s war crimes but still believe that those committed by their own side were justifiable, no matter how horrific they might have been. Identity is the core justification for war and for self-satisfying and seemingly self-justifiable displays of bigotry and prejudice.
In other words, those who appear very different are thought to deserve contempt and ridicule because of their differences, and the fact that this is felt so deeply validates these feelings as self-evident declarations of truth. When it comes to politics, the key word is not “reason,” it is “relating.” And when citizens can’t relate to politicians, they view them as illegitimate. Period.
Social philosopher Eric Hoffer said it best: “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents.” In other words, nothing brings people together like red-blooded hatred, and partisan talk radio proves the point beyond doubt.
When groups of people feel their identity is threatened, differences are experienced as an affront. If they perceive that the words or actions of others cast doubt on their beliefs, their anxiety can mushroom into what they perceive is a war on their culture or their religion.
In his book “The New Hate,” Arthur Goldwag gives us a comprehensive history of hatred — it’s a history of misunderstanding fueled by a brand of ignorance so unbelievably irrational, so egregiously wrong, so utterly antihuman, that it staggers the imagination of thinking adults. What Goldwag shows clearly is that the new hate is the old hate of anti-Semitism, overt racism and paranoid conspiracy warmed up and served cold.
There are lots of very smart people who are fundamentally ignorant of the things that matter most to civilization, and many of them spend their whole lives defending the indefensible because they justify their views through a narrow sense of their own identity — an identity that they barely understand in terms of a comparative humanitarian perspective.
I resolutely maintain that an existential education is of critical importance to the very existence of civilization. By this I mean an education that encompasses a broad range of cultural viewpoints and that addresses the specter of human mortality head-on.
People who are fundamentally ignorant of the humanities (subjects that help to make us human) can do little more than rely on their own constricted sense of identity and limited experience where political matters are concerned. This is why identity-bound politics so often result in incoherent arguments. An MBA can be of great assistance in helping a person earn a living, but it can undermine living a living if it does not adequately address the angst that comes with the human condition.
Simply put, the word “and” between “us and them” highlights a profound gap in human relations. This “and” is where an existential education relieves us of the need to take out our Stone Age human anxiety on them.
Consider groupings by age, gender, locality, region, nation, occupation, class, race, creed, religion: every us fosters a them. This vacuous space of vulnerability between us and them is why the cultural divide is so conflict-ridden. If we fail to fill that space by studying the humanities and understanding the essence of our relatedness, we leave ourselves vulnerable to those who will use our natural fears to fill the divide with loathing.
People who make arguments via identity when they are politically engaged can be easily identified by the way they refer to their opposition. They use words like “liberal,” “leftist” or “socialist” pejoratively, as if using these words is enough, in and of itself, to win the argument.
After all, the whole basis of their dispute is identity, and they assume it is self-evident that their argument, regardless of content or context, will prevail by nature of who they are. Each and every time they use a deprecatory word to describe their opposition, they think they’ve made their point. It’s almost as if they expect applause after having done so.
This is not something, however, that only conservatives are guilty of perpetrating. Most of us (myself included) at one time or another will resort to default identity-laden descriptors of our opposition when we are temporarily blinded by emotion, especially when we think our opposition’s argument is so lame and incoherent that it’s unworthy of a response.
At this point, just mentioning their identity seems to get the job done. But of course, it doesn’t. It only makes matters worse by driving up angst and contempt on all sides of an issue.
The important thing to understand about political identity is that us and them cannot be adjudicated with reasonable arguments, unless identity can be put aside and the dialogue can explore the matter at hand in a genealogical or historical sense, along with the latest research in the discipline. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that getting beyond identity as a political obstacle requires a desire for objective truth as desperate as the desire for a breath of fresh air at the point of drowning.
I know from personal experience that the anxiety and distrust evoked by the “and” between us and them can be alleviated, or at least significantly diminished, through an exploration of psychology, sociology, anthropology and world literature. When one reaches a critical mass of existential understanding, the “and” can dissolve in a dynamic paradigm shift with the realization that no group or individual has a lock on virtue, quality of life or historical significance. This realization can occur with such intellectual force that the resulting fallout influences our emotions at a deep level.
The contemptuous anxiety born of despair dissipates, making room for others without resentment. The greatest tragedy of our culture is that we have not made an existential education an integral part of our curriculum at every level of society.
Productive political dialogue is possible. Our country was founded on negotiated reason, and we have the historical documents to prove it.
But successful political negotiation requires that objective results be deemed more important than whose side is presenting the argument. If we can’t get beyond our Stone Age predilection for identity, then we are indeed a stupid people.
Charles D. Hayes, a Wasilla resident for more than 30 years, is a self-taught philosopher and a prominent advocate of lifelong learning. He is author of nine books, including “September University: Summoning Passion for an Unfinished Life,” numerous essays, and an array of shorter works. Contact him at email@example.com.