It’s not uncommon to hear people identify themselves with political parties or specific ideologies. For example, phrases such as, “I’m a Republican,” or “I’m a feminist,” or “I’m a liberal,” seem to bombard Facebook “About Me” segments and everyday conversations.
Chances are, you don’t care that your dermatologist’s neighbor’s cousin voted for Hillary because he’s a “progressive Democrat.” Likewise, you are equally unconcerned with your veterinarian’s butcher’s vegan friend who voted for Trump because she’s a conservative who wants to “make America great again.”
Truth be told, I don’t really care if you choose to identify yourself as a liberal, conservative, feminist, traditionalist, transgender, straight male/female, or Martian. Goodness, you can call yourself a pillowcase or flowerpot for all I care.
My concern is that people take the idea of “identity” too lightly. Generally, we are far too quick to define ourselves with any adjective that seems to describe our current philosophy, situation, or state of mind. In fact, we do this with the most trivial of situations. We often don’t realize the significance of the words we speak. Even commonplace statements such as “I’m hungry,” or “I’m tired,” or “I’m sad,” are identity phrases.
When you say “I am…” you are making a statement about who you are. And that’s kinda a big deal.
There are two potential problems that arise when you identify with broad political categories:
1. Your identity is threatened by opposing viewpoints.
Suppose you are an intelligent and articulate individual with a well-researched identity classification. Let’s say you call yourself a liberal. Indubitably, somewhere out there in the world and/or on the web, is another intelligent and articulate individual with a well-researched, conflicting identity classification. Let’s say they’re a conservative.
The trouble comes when you are confronted with a rational and sound opposing argument. At some point you’ll be forced to admit that there is another equally valid viewpoint out there that conflicts with your personal ideology. For someone who’s made a classification a part of their identity (I am a liberal), this can create a crisis scenario. Not only is your opinion threatened, but your identity is also threatened.
2. Your identity is threatened by the decisions another person sharing the same identity chooses to make that are outside of your control.
Ascribing to a group classification (something broad, like conservative or liberal) does not distinguish you in any way from the group ideology. By calling yourself a liberal, conservative, Democrat, or Republican, you are identifying with everything the group happens to believe and/or represent. Chances are, you don’t actually agree with everything the hard-core, radical Republican next door believes. You only believe most of it. Or you tend to agree with one or two major conservative ideas. But calling yourself “Republican” or “conservative” boxes you with extremists on both ends of the Republican classification spectrum.
When you say, “I am a Republican,” you are not distinguishing yourself from other radicals who may make stupid decisions or do ridiculous things under the same classification. Suddenly, you are put into the same category as all Republicans whether you like it or not.
A label limits you. When you label yourself, you put yourself in a box. When you call yourself a Republican or Democrat, you immediately box yourself with all other Republicans and Democrats. Your beliefs are limited to the span of the label you choose. In principle, you can’t call yourself a Republican while still agreeing with other valid, democratic principles.
I think the root of the issue is that people would rather not think for themselves. It’s way easier to allow a party or group to think for you. It’s far simpler to identify with a group so you don’t actually have to come up with a personal opinion on the infinite issues facing society today. You don’t need a strong opinion on guns, abortion, the death penalty, Trump, Hillary, or basically anything. You can just refer to your default position of, “Actually, I’m a Republican….so, yeah.”
Additionally, society does not like complexity. I hate to break it to you, but the vast majority of issues are not black and white. Even though we try to make questions like “do you believe in gun control” or “are you pro-choice” yes or no questions, they really aren’t. They are complex. They require deep thinking, research, and reflection. Most people really can’t be bothered, so again they default to their generic label. Do you believe in gun control? Well, I’m a Democrat, so duh.
To combat this insanity, I have two recommendations for you.
1. Remember that opinions are just opinions, not identities, and opinions are subject to change.
There’s nothing wrong with saying you believe in gun control. That’s a valid opinion. But recognize that it’s only an opinion—not your identity. Maybe one day someone will come along with a different opinion that you realize to be more logical, more appropriate, or even (God forbid) superior to yours. That’s totally okay. Your opinions should change and evolve as you grow into a wiser and more researched individual.
Goodness, I certainly hold different opinions than I did when I was five or 10 or 15. And trust me, that’s a very good thing.
Allow yourself to grow and embrace new opinions and ideas as you change. Yeah, it’s not always easy to admit your opinions were wrong, but that’s okay. Admitting you were wrong is a true sign of bravery, sincerity, and maturity.
2. Avoid generic labels, listen more, and do research before you speak.
Be careful when you generalize. Like I said before, you probably don’t agree with everything one party stands for, so don’t pretend you do. If someone asks you what party you associate with, there is nothing wrong with saying “Well, I don’t associate with any one political ideology because…” I do that all the time and I still have friends 🙂 Actually, I usually shout: “Don’t try to box me!!” (If I still have friends, you’ll be fine).
Listen to opposing viewpoints with an open mind. You will likely be shocked at the valuable information you absorb and maybe, just maybe, you’ll realize that someone else’s opinion is more viable than your own.
Do research before you speak. Okay, I’ll be honest and say this is my downfall. I am too much of a talker. Many times, I have made uneducated, thoughtless statements that are immediately shut down by far more informed individuals. I’m not saying to never voice your opinion. It’s important that you become comfortable sharing your viewpoint, even if you aren’t an expert. But you should at least have a decent understanding of the subject before you decide to jump into a heated debate. That way, you will be able to carry on a purposeful and educated conversation. But to be honest, even if you do jump in a heated debate and are immediately shut down, it’s okay. If you have an open mind, you will learn, and that’s what really matters.
In conclusion, if you’ve skimmed over this entire article, I will say: shame on you. If you only gain one insight from my rant, let it be this: an opinion is not an identity, life is complex, and it’s okay to be wrong.
Watch a Ted talk, read a book, take a walk, and remember: today will be AMAZING!