Monday, August 4, 2014

Toxic Identities: The Corrosive Effects of Tribal Identities and Enemy Thinking

Imagine a land in which two groups exist side by side. They don't mix much and increasingly segregate themselves and live among their own kind. Each has a narrative about the evil of the other group, how the other is out to destroy everything worth fighting for, and how there can be no real co-existence. They may inhabit the same space, but they are worlds apart.

Sound familiar? This could describe the current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Or between eastern and western Ukrainians. Or Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq.

But it's also here in the United States.

True, we don't have people shooting each other in the streets. And the majority of Americans don't really think this way. But there are some among us who do - members of our own society who have drawn their own identities in so extreme a fashion that their rhetoric looks a lot like Hamas, or the rebels in Donetsk, or the leaders of the Islamic State.

Who are these Americans? They exist on various ends of the ideological spectrum. But today the loudest, most vocal, and most numerous are hijacking the title of "Conservative". And they are becoming increasingly shrill.

To be clear, the majority of Americans who identify themselves as conservatives don't think this way. But there is a minority - a splinter group, if you will - who are working hard to hijack the label. And like all revolutionaries, they will turn on their own kind as readily as on their ideological enemies.

This is an identity battle fought to a large degree in social media, the great public conversation of our day. Here are a couple of recently-circulated examples:

The message here isn't subtle. For these to make any sense at all, you have to believe that there are "Conservatives" and "Liberals" in the same way that there are "Israelis" and "Palestinians", or "Sunnis" and "Shiites" - that is, that these are essentially fixed groups with nothing in common. Both memes are broadly and vaguely disparaging, the latter in the kind of screaming-tantrum-at-the-top-of-your-lungs sort of way. Really, I'm surprised there isn't a Hitler reference in there somewhere.

If you happen to identify as a Conservative who thinks along these lines, and you've read this far, your reaction might be, "Hey, Liberals do this too! Why aren't you picking on them, you commie?" Recognize that "the other guy does it too" is the defense of the three year old who knows he's wrong. Grow up.

I don't much care about whether people hold conservative or liberal political ideas. I have found many times that when people engage in real dialogue, they often find that they have far more in common than otherwise. And I know many folks of various stripes (but of late, especially conservatives) who have abandoned politics because of precisely this kind of rhetoric.

We are, or ought to be, better than this. We are not Palestine, Ukraine, or Iraq. One of the great contributions of the United States to the world in the last 200 years is the ongoing experiment, however fitful and imperfect, in creating a national identity out of so many different kinds of people. The folks who spread the memes above apparently want to undo all of that, and return to some kind of "purer" politics where only they and their ilk are in charge. When they see "E Pluribus Unum" perhaps they think it means "I'm right, you're wrong".

Whether you engage in this kind of rhetoric in the name of Conservatism or Communism is immaterial. It is the one kind of politics that is fundamentally un-American.

So if you're passing this kind of nonsense unchallenged (or even approvingly) on social media, please stop. You are neither better nor worse than your fellow Americans. And "they" are not the Enemy. Walt Kelly was right - we have met the enemy, and He is Us.

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