How Our Identity Prevents Dialog (but it doesn’t have to)

I believe there is a direct correlation between the level to which we identify with an idea and our inability to objectively critique that idea. To put it another way, when we find our identity in something, we’re too close to see that thing from an objective perspective.

If a person self-identifies as a fan of Star Trek — a Trekker in their parlance — they are likely unable to see the ways in which Star Trek is bad. The same is true for all sorts of fans. Apple fan boys think that anything with an “i” in front of it must be sent down from on high to save the world. Fans of the NFL happily ignored the long-term, cumulative effect of concussions on players and former players. Or, try critiquing the plot holes in Disney movies to someone who can sing all the words to “The Little Mermaid” and see how far your argument gets.

Those examples are — to most — laughable. Few people find their self-identity in a sci-fi series, or in a brand of phone, or in a sport, or in cartoons. Some do, but most of us can both enjoy those things and critique them in a healthy manner. We can do that because we don’t define ourselves by those things.

But what about religion? Politics? Or sexuality?

Those are things we’re not supposed to talk about in polite conversation because the chance for argument is so high. Those are topics that can derail a Thanksgiving dinner, or a casual party, or a Facebook conversation.

In a recent, informal, totally unscientific poll of people on Facebook, there were several that thought the site was unhealthy for the simple reason that it is the medium through which arguments are started and carried out. That’s akin to saying that books are unhealthy because you disagree with what’s said in them. But it shows the tip of the problem that underlies many, if not most, of our conversations.

We identify ourselves by what we think.

How is that a problem, you might ask. Isn’t that what we ought to do? Shouldn’t we do our best to figure out what’s right and then stick to it?

Let’s come back to what we ought to do in a moment.

Have you ever known — or been — someone who has had their identity forcibly ripped away? A mother losing her child? A teacher losing his job? A speaker losing her voice? A painter losing his hands?

When a person’s identity is taken from them they go through a grieving process that is nearly identical to having a loved one die. They walk with depression. They lose hope. They vent fury. They cling to any shred of their old identity. And, eventually, if they work through the process of grieving, they build a new identity on a different foundation.

So if a person finds their self-identity in their politics or religion or sexuality and you come along with a challenge to one or more of those things, you are putting them in the position of either facing that debilitating grief or fighting you. Which do you think they’ll choose? Which would you choose?

The Need for Identity

We’re all born without an identity. It’s true. We’re born as roughly gelatinous amalgams of our parents. For months we just sit there and absorb — food, language, light, the taste of delicious toes — then discard each fascination for a new one. After years of this we start to speak, but only mimicking what our parents and siblings have already said. It’s not for many more years that we begin to think for ourselves instead of parroting the voices around us.

The first step toward identity is separating ourselves from our parents. This starts in the early toddler age when we learn the power of the word, “no.” Then we use that word ad nauseum to express our differentiation from the wishes of our parents. When we go to school for the first time, we are thrust into the world without a safety net. We weep for the loss of our home and our identity (the one we attempted to reject outright just a few short years before). But, slowly, we learn the joys of being in the world on our own. We don’t adopt our own identity yet, but at that point we see that we don’t have to be wholly identified with our family.

Throughout school we try on different identities like new clothes. We might be with the sports group or the comic book group or the music loving group. We get to experience the feelings of belonging and acceptance that our families gave us, but on our own terms — well, actually on the terms of the group, but that will come up later. As we grow we become adept at identifying the groups with which we can identify and those we cannot. We may enjoy reading and be terrible at sports, so we gravitate toward the nerds. Or we might be excellent at dancing and music. Or we might excel at art. Or we may connect with people and surround ourselves with conversation.

Even though our schooling produced a separation from our parents, it did little to form us into individuals. Instead, it led us to identify with different groups. That’s not a bad thing. In the maturing process we need waypoints along the path to help us move forward. A baby is not ready to self-identify, nor is a toddler. But as we grow, we gather the skills and knowledge necessary to carve out our own unique place in the world — our identity — and share that beautiful uniqueness. As we mature from infancy to adulthood we mature past the need for an identity that is pre-defined by our parents, or our friends at school, or the people on the sports team.

But that maturing is at odds with an important factor in all of our lives.

Marketing and Identity

Advertising companies make it their business to know how people work. The better they understand the inner workings of the human psyche, the more effective their marketing, the more products people buy, the more money they make, the more resources they can put into better marketing. And one of the key things that marketers have learned is how powerful our identity is in motivating us.

I’m a Toys ‘R Us kid.

Hi-C, when it’s up to me.

I wanna be like Mike.

Raise your hand if you’re Sure!

The taste of a generation.

Because I’m worth it.

Think different.

Be all you can be.

Drivers wanted.

Breakfast of Champions.

Need I go on? For generations marketers have been looking for ways to get us to identify ourselves with the products we purchase. They aren’t always successful, but when they are, it’s a powerful thing. The Apple fan boys didn’t become that because of the hardware produced by a company in Cupertino. They found an identity in the marketing — which the hardware and software could back up. They saw themselves as people who think different(ly) and connected with a company that claimed to be for them. Despite Microsoft’s overwhelming market share, they have never produced customers as committed to the product as Apple has. Apple marketed an identity that people wanted.

In some ways marketing to identity is relatively harmless. It’s a step on our maturing process — or it ought to be — and when it’s done well it gives us a community of people with whom we can connect. Get a group of Apple fans in a room and they can go on for hours about their mutual affection. The same is true of sports fans, sci-fi fans, or fans of most anything really. It’s fun to have that built in connection that we can discover. It’s easy to relate with other people based on something we have in common.

But when marketing becomes divisive it begins to harm us. See, it’s not only the purveyors of products who have learned the secrets of marketing to identity. Advertising for politics and religion have gleaned from the successes of the advertising industry and found ways to get people to identify with their position.

I like Ike.

Let’s make America great again.

It’s the economy, stupid.

Yes we can.

Believe in America.

Political affiliation has become tied to personal identity. As with product marketing, it doesn’t work just to have a catchy slogan, there has to be something of substance to back it up or it will fail. Barry Goldwater never got enough people to admit that in their hearts they knew he was right. John McCain failed to convince enough people to put “Country First.” But when the marketing has been successful it has had a powerful effect.

I’m going to say this again, because I fear being misunderstood on this point. I do not think that we are so vapid as to be swayed by nothing but marketing and slogans. I’m using the slogans to illustrate the marketing that must be tied to something of quality to be successful. People aren’t swayed by slogans, but slogans indicate what swayed people. If Yugo instead of Volkswagen had used the slogan “Drivers Wanted,” it would have been laughable (there’s a Yakov Smirnoff joke in there somewhere). But because Volkswagen made cars that lined up well with its slogan there was power. But if you look at the owners of old Volkswagens, it has very little to do with the marketing and much more to do with the community of owners who band together to share their stories and tips on owning Beetles or Vanagons. The community created the identity which allowed the company to use the slogan.

Political organizations don’t create identity with catchy slogans either, but the slogans reflect the identity of the organizations and the community to which they’re calling people. It’s not the job of a political organization to create identity, but to reflect and shape it. The Republicans don’t make people conservative; they gather the conservative thinkers together and give voice to those ideas. The Democrats don’t make people liberal. The Libertarians don’t make people into libertines. Rather, people who already identify in that way gravitate toward a community of like-minded people and find a shared identity.

Passionate Leaders

I met someone recently who threw out an obscure quote. It took me a moment, but eventually I named the source. We high-fived in joy at the connection. It’s fun to know that another person agrees with me. It feels like a validation of my thoughts and feelings. It tells me that I’m not alone and that what I think is more than my brain trying to work things out. Have you had that moment when another person perfectly describes what you’re thinking? It’s almost a giddy feeling. If it happens when you’ve first met someone, that shared thought-space can indicate the potential for friendship or even a deeper relationship.

When a leader says that thing that you’ve been trying to put words to, it’s a very similar feeling. They are able to sum up your thoughts on a topic in a way that not only describes what you’ve been feeling, but it also motivates you to deeper feelings. The crystallization of your thoughts — through the words of a passionate leader — helps you to share that passion and begin to do something about it.

Think about the scene in “Braveheart” just before the first big battle. The noble leaders struggle to keep the Scots together. People start wandering off. They plead and supplicate, but their feckless words do nothing to staunch the flow of deserters. Then William Wallace rides up, face painted, nostrils flaring, and eyes flashing danger and hope. He speaks too, but not with weak pleading. Instead he asks the people to consider their future. He asks the Scottish warriors how they will feel about their deeds on that battlefield when their lives are over. He asks them about their identity. And the passion of his words — coupled with the skill of his fighting — carries the day. The Scottish win the battle.

Who, when you hear them speak, sounds like William Wallace to you? Not blue-faced shouting in a faked accent, but those people who transmit fire into your belly and a desperate need to act into your limbs. Who speaks that way? Whose voice echoes in your mind long after they’ve stopped speaking? Whose words make your heart beat faster and your breath become shallow?

Who is speaking to your identity?

Who helps to define who you are? Who tells you that you’re a writer? You are an athlete? You are a mother? You are a scientist? You are a pastor? You are a dancer? You are a…

Those voices are powerful, necessary voices in our world. Those voices help us to move forward, accomplish more, and find a path to the future. But those voices also come from people — just like us — who can be wrong.

The Death of Dialog

Remember the mother who lost her identity as a mom? She would give anything to be able to go back and be a mother again. The loss of identity is a gut-wrenching, soul-crushing experience that we instinctively avoid. The pain of identity loss is similar to the pain of death so our bodies treat it the same.

Within our brains we have the rational bits up front that let us evaluate ideas and think through concepts in a dispassionate manner. Toward the middle we have our sensory, emotional, and memory processing areas that serve to feed information to the front of our brains for processing and evaluation. But tucked way down in the bottom of our heads is our unthinking, reactive brain — some call it our lizard brain — where there is no processing, only stimulus and response. Most of the time that’s a good thing. When a bear jumps out of the woods, we don’t have time to ponder the type of bear, the season, and the likelihood that the bear is on its way to the water for a drink. No, we just react. Fight or flight. Live or die.

When we hold our ideas so closely that they become our identity, any challenge to them is like a challenge to our very lives. We don’t think; we just react. Fight or flight. Live or die. There is no dialog with the bear.

The death of dialog is a byproduct of people’s attempts to gain, keep, and motivate their followers to action. If you’ve ever tried to lead people to do anything for any reason, you know that it’s not an easy task. The larger the group, the more opinions there are to account for, and the more slowly everything moves.

Think about ordering pizza. If it’s just you, order what you want — even anchovies, if that’s your thing. But if you add another person, the ordering process becomes that much more difficult. Add a third or a fourth and usually the only option is to get two pizzas — and anchovies are out. But something happens when the groups get even larger. If you’re ordering pizza for a dozen people or a hundred people the choices get easier again. You order some cheese, some peperoni, and some combination. Done. No arguments, no voting, and certainly no splitting of a pizza to accommodate individual tastes.

The same principle applies to organizations and groups of people. Each opinion weighs down the whole until there comes a point of decision. The easiest thing to do at that point is to cut loose the opinions of the masses and go with that of the leader. It certainly gets pizza on the table more quickly.

When leaders face that moment where the group’s opinions are holding the group back, they must make a choice. The group could get smaller, break up, and find more space for each opinion. The group could organize into sub-groups that allow individuals to express opinions, but then only send up the best ideas through the chain of command to the leaders. Or the group could use a filter system to pre-determine which opinions get a hearing. The last option is often the easiest. It doesn’t require extensive training or organization. It doesn’t require breaking the group apart. But, it’s often the death knell for dialog.

The pre-determined filter system for weighing opinions needs both a creator and people to engage with it. I remember taking a literature class where we were told that the forest always symbolizes chaos and evil (we were reading The Scarlet Letter). That’s all well and good, but I didn’t buy it. The teacher gave me the pre-determined system, but I wasn’t willing to engage with it. Or, think about Trekkers when they first started out. There wasn’t an infrastructure in place telling them what to do or what to like. They had high engagement, but very little in the way of the filter system. Bringing together both the creator and the engagement makes the filter system work.

For the creator of the system it’s possible to engage people through thoughtful presentations, carefully articulated arguments, and evenhanded comparisons between ideas. But that’s more hard work. It takes far longer to create the engagement, longer to gather a group, longer to crystalize ideas, and longer go move from idea to action. The easy way is to equate the identity of the group with the filter system of the creator so that any questioning of the filter system is tantamount to fighting a bear in the woods.

We see it in marketing to be sure, but it’s also in politics, religion, academics, and nearly any association of people that’s too large to order pizza together. If you lead a religious organization, you can spend your time trying to get everyone to hold the same opinion, or you can create a system that informs them of the opinions they ought to hold. The first is difficult and time consuming, the second is relatively easy and quick. Repeat the same steps with a political organization, or a business, or a club. It gets easier because you can actually get things done. But dialog has died.

Passion Driving Identity

At the same time that identifying with an idea can seem like a bad thing, it’s also a good thing. Quick, what did Gandhi stand for? Or Martin Luther King Jr.? Or Eleanor Roosevelt? Or Steve Jobs? Or Susan B. Anthony? In an instant you can sum up a whole set of ideas with a name. It’s a convenient shorthand, but it’s also a reflection of the singular passion of those people. To be sure each person has a variety of thoughts — some contradictory — that make them who they are, but the passionate few who help to drive culture become more figurehead than individual. Their passion creates an identity that is both laudable and, at the same time, dismissible. For all of the people who bought into the identity of Gandhi or Anthony and joined in their crusades to change the world, those that opposed them could do so without the need for relationship or conversation.

Joining with a group, finding identity there, and using that group-identity as a self-identity is not a thing to be done lightly or without thought. It carries both the possibility of changing the world — as through the Civil Rights Movement — and the possibility of miring the world more deeply into intransigence.

Passion — the kind of passion that creates an identity that can motivate a group — is blinding. It’s not dissimilar from love. When we fall in love, what’s actually happening is that neurotransmitters in our brains shift toward those that promote connection and euphoria. As that happens our critical thinking reduces — we turn a special kind of stupid — and we relish every minute of it. The object of our love can do no wrong so long as those neurotransmitters are flowing. Similarly, when we buy into the passion of a charismatic leader, we turn a special kind of stupid. I’ve done it. I’ll do it again. You’ve done it too. It may have been that teacher that just connected with you, or a coach that motivated you to do more than you thought possible, or a boss, or a politician, or a preacher, or a professor.

The solution isn’t to avoid passion, or joining group-identities, or ordering pizza for the masses. The solution is learning when to jump into the group and when to take a pass. You can only do that when you have your own identity solidly in place.

Be Who You Are

Bees are incredibly wise. The hive has a memory that spans generations and can guide them through experiences that no individual insect has ever seen. Together they are much smarter than they are individually. The same is true of many group animals, but certainly not people. Humans tend to get dumber in groups. If you think I’m wrong, just go to any sporting event ever. The crowd might be made up of highly educated people, but put them together and they’ll turn into a mob.

By contrast, when people are alone, they tend to come up with wonderful, creative ideas. Henry David Thoreau is a prime example of ideas from isolation. Isaac Asimov also extolled the virtues of solitude for the creation of new ideas. When we go away and we spend time by ourselves we let the conversations within our own minds run free. They can play out many times over and refine themselves into something that might be greater than what we started with.

No, I’m not saying we should all move out to a pond or become hermits. What I’m saying is that the more we eschew isolation, the less we’ll develop individual ideas. And it’s those individual ideas that are necessary for creating our own individual identities.

I’m writing this on a computer that’s connected to the internet. I have a smartphone in my pocket. When I’m done with this I’ll email it to some people to read over. I’ve already posted to Facebook and Twitter a few times today. I’m not a Luddite. I’m not against the internet or social media. I think they’re good and, hopefully, we can learn to make them even better. With those caveats out of the way, please hear me for what I’m saying: We need to stop being so connected.

It’s not that we need to move to Amish country, it’s that we need to have regular time to ourselves, consistent moments for our brains to be free of the hive-mind of humanity. We need breathing space. We need some margin. For most people the only times when we’re really disconnected are when we are asleep and when we are in the shower. That’s not nearly enough time to let our brains do what they do best and process.

If you take the time, I’m confident that you can sort through all the group-identities out there and figure out which ones are beneficial and which ones are detrimental. Which ones call you to be better and which ones benefit from you staying the same? Gandhi called people to change, even though it cost them; Coke wants people to stay the same, because it profits Coke.

We Need You

In general, the group-identities that exist aren’t what we need more of in this world. We don’t need more people to drink a certain drink or drive a certain car or vote for a certain party or go to a certain church. We need more people — people like you — to say new and interesting things. We need you. We desperately need you. The true you. The you that comes out when you’re by yourself. The you that doesn’t Tweet or Instagram or Facebook. We need the you that won’t get likes or up-votes or retweets. We need it. The whole world needs it.

Dale Carnegie wrote — and my father-in-law was fond of saying — that if two people think exactly the same things on every topic then one of them isn’t necessary. You are necessary. You are vital. We will never have the same collection of thoughts and experiences as you have. But if your voice is wholly subsumed by the party, or the church, or the brand, then we’ve lost something precious, something that the world can never get back.

But there’s a risk to being you. There’s a risk that the group won’t like it. Your party or your church or your brand might reject you if you say the wrong thing. The community that you’ve found among them might evaporate if you violate the rules of the pack. You may become an outcast. It’s a big risk. What if you vote the wrong way? What if you don’t believe what everyone else believes? What if you’re wrong?

What if? What if it all falls apart? What if the group — the one that offered you community and belonging — rejects you for nonconformity? What if they tell you that you can’t play in their clubhouse because you didn’t follow the rules? What if?

It’s all back to the Darwinian nightmare that is Junior High School — or Middle School or whatever you want to call it. Bullies and cliques and the popular people get together like the alphas in the pack and decide whom is too weak, too uncool, too outside to belong. Those people are outcast based on a set of random rules that change without warning.

So when we finally escape the jungle that even Upton Sinclair dared not write about and move on into High School and College we’re offered a choice. We can continue to seek the approval of the group, but simply find one that has rules that will accept us, or we can do the hard work of becoming individuals.

Too few are doing the work.

But we need them to. We need you to. We need more individuals and fewer group-thinkers. Dialog needs it. Our churches and political parties need it. Our society needs it.

C̶o̶n̶c̶l̶u̶s̶i̶o̶n̶ Beginning

Now comes the awkward part after I’ve told you to think for yourselves and before I ask you to agree with me.

Are you ready?

I think I’m right. I might not be. I’ve been wrong before and I’ll be wrong again. But the only way to discover if you’re wrong — or if I’m wrong — is to put the ideas out there and test them. Test this idea. Think through it. Talk through it. Live through it. Then tell me if I’m right or wrong. Tell me what I missed. Tell me why I’m stupid and should never write another word again. Tell me how I changed your life with my powerful prose. Tell me what works and what does not.

Seriously.