Incitation: There’s something about sports, religion, and politics – where an average person can become entirely and genuinely wrapped up in supporting a team, a god, or a politician – and I want to understand what unites these seemingly different areas.
Quiddity: Identity politics is the cause of people become so passionate about these areas – and it’s difficult to understand how we can solve this. This phenomenon occurs because a person finds something of perceived importance, where they’re required to choose a side, and of which they have no control over. This is the formula for identity politics.
My team is better than yours… my god is truer than your god… my politician is way better for the country than yours.
… and yet, I don’t have any influence on the team I cheer for, I didn’t write the book of spiritual laws, and I’m not running for office.
In the west, we can clearly see that these three areas incite the most passion, the most debate, and the most destruction between people. What makes these areas so impassioned? What separates a person’s passion in these areas from, say, arguing over their favorite grocery store? In essence, what is the formula of identity politics?
For those unfamiliar with this term, identity politics refers to “a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances…” (here, I’m broadening the exclusivity of the “politics” piece of identity politics to include sports and religion). In the more eloquent words of Sam Harris, author, speaker, and neuroscientist:
“As far as I can tell, becoming a part of a movement doesn’t help anybody think clearly… I think we should talk about specific issues. I’m not the first person to notice that it’s pretty strange that knowing a person’s position on any one of these issues [abortion, gun control, climate change, et cetera] generally allows you to predict his position on the others. This shouldn’t happen; some of these issues are totally unrelated. Why should a person’s attitude towards guns be predictive of his views on climate change or immigration or abortion? And yet, it almost certainly is in our society.”
This is a helpful description of what identity politics is, but why does this occur in the first place?
Commandeering a framework from my friend, Dr. Magda Peck, I think it sets up the answer I’m looking for quite nicely [paraphrasing]: “Every successful movement needs a spark, some tinder, and a fan to flame it.” In the case of identity politics, this is indeed the formula:
In order to have a spark, there needs to be something to see and initially to latch onto. In this case, it’s the relative or perceived importance of an idea. The pride of your city or school (many times a sports team), the future of your country, and the sentencing of your life all seem like important things.
In order for the spark to ignite, there has to be tinder – something that can let the fire smolder before it erupts into a flame. What better tinder than something that requires identification with a single side?
We don’t want to be unsure. We don’t want to be challenged. If I can even entertain the idea that my sports team isn’t the greatest, my god isn’t real or isn’t likely the real god, or the politician I voted for was the wrong choice (or I don’t agree with him/her on a particular issue), then I open up myself to the possibility that my model of reality is not the right model. It seems we can’t coexist with something that threatens our identity or the meaning of our lives. When we find something that gives us identity and meaning, oftentimes this is all the spark we need.
In addition, it seems that we can’t be perceived as genuine or passionate if we support both sides in whole or in part. That’s why we can’t cheer for our home team and our rival at the same time and be perceived as patriotic – or why we can’t say we are both Christian and Atheist and be perceived as faithful – or why we shouldn’t vote for opposing parties in governmental elections.
This is where the basic example of a preference for a particular grocery store breaks down: yes, making sure I eat is important to me. No, I’m not required to shop at a Whole Foods and never at an Aldi… it’s the spark of perceived importance and the tinder of requiring identification with a single side that gets the identity politics fire smoldering…
The Fan to the Flame
Fires are sparked, smolder, and die all the time. In order to make a fire out of smoldering tinder, you need something that can forever fan the flames – and the perfect solution is to have no control over the past, present, and future.
Perhaps this seems like an obvious statement (“of course I don’t have control over the past”), but this very attribute is what fans the flames.
Let’s take sports for example: you can’t control how many championships your team won in the past, you can’t control how they’ll play today, and you can’t control what talent they’ll acquire in the future or what adversities they’ll face – and yet, your adversaries will gloat when their team beats yours and you, theirs. You have no control over this.
In religion: you have no control over what was directed in holy books, you have practical no control over present societal trends and their juxtaposition with the directives of your holy book, and you cannot change the directives of your holy book to better accommodate the future. If women were ethically subjugated by men a few thousand years ago, then reinterpreting the book for the present is awkward and controversial at best; therefore women “should” be subjugated now and forever.
In politics: you generally don’t see a politician’s hidden past, you can’t force them to vote or act in a particular way, and you can’t foresee the circumstances and decisions they’ll face in the future. When it’s revealed that the politician you openly supported has accepted bribes or cheated on their spouse, the opposition will be too quick to snidely suggest that this very situation is what they expected all along.
In all of these scenarios, a person identifies an idea of perceived importance, they take a side, and then they attach themselves to something they have no control over – from which their defense of this team or god or government must reposition itself with every new loss, win, interpretation, challenge, or scandal and their defenses must become increasingly agile, awkward, and doubtful.
The identity politics formula, represented below in visual form seems to hold up to scrutiny, in that all three points are needed to create an identity.
For example, perceived importance with being forced to choose, but you do have control over the situation could be parenting: you perceive that leaving a legacy through offspring is an important issue, you choose to have children, but you do have control over the situation. In fact, many parents share best practices and talk about their favorite books and insights about parenting. You normally wouldn’t find religions sharing holy books, for example.
On the other side, perceived importance with no control but not being forced to choose could be your choice in a grocery store: eating is important, more-or-less you can’t control prices at your store or what they decide to stock or what scandal the owner gets caught up in, and so you can choose another store; no problem.
Finally, being forced to choose with no control, but also no perceived importance could be choosing an airline: You can’t fly with both Delta and Southwest to New York and your flight may or may not be pleasant, but in the end many airlines are similar and so the perceived importance of choosing one over the other isn’t there.
In the end, we will only fall victim to these identities if we misperceive how or when an idea is meaningful, we fall into the trap of choosing a side and not being open to the merits of each side, and we endorse something which we have no control over.
To remain a free, open, and open-minded society whose basis is in facts and reason, we must embrace personal identity – and perhaps a little bit of Transcendentalism as the spark.