Idea v. Identity

Politics and religion are probably two of the most controversial topics on planet earth. In the course of human history, these two topics have really ceased being topics at all. Anymore, these topics and the ideas that they encompass have turned into identities. You can’t criticize these ideas anymore without offending another. Now, one might say that this is more of a problem with people being too thin-skinned, and I would agree to an extent. But I feel the underlying cause of this is the problem that we tend to absorb ideas as part of our identities.

While all religions are ideas, many combine these ideas to be part of their identities.

I’ve always said that one should criticize the idea and not the person, and I still think that, in general, that is the way to go. But I’ve recently grappled with the question of, “is it really possible to simply criticize an idea without criticizing the person that agrees with it? And if not, how can we go about discussing these ideas which dictate the ways in which our society functions?” Like most difficult questions, the answer depends entirely on the situation because it is just as if not more complicated than the question.

And now for a story.

I recently got into a political debate over Facebook. I know, I know, bad idea to begin with. Anyway, I’m not going to get into the topics that I discussed, as I don’t want to distract from the main topic of this, but the outcome of this debate ended with a small chunk of my extended family wishing to have nothing to do with me from that moment forward. At first, I didn’t understand why these people could hate me over a difference of opinion. I certainly don’t hate any of them.

But I eventually realized the major issue: none of them could tell the difference between ideas and identities. I realized that what I was doing was criticizing, critiquing, and analyzing not just the ideas that I put forth, but also the ideas put forth from them. However, none of them were able to separate their identities from their ideas. To them, they weren’t just ideas, they were part of them. The political and religious beliefs they hold make up who they are. They attach meaning to the ideas in a way that criticizing the ideas becomes equivalent to criticizing them.

It’s not just politics that have divided me from others, either. Being an atheist in a very religious area is kind of hit and miss. While I have had kindness given to me by religious people before, I have had more negative experiences than positive. My in laws and I have a tense relationship because of this very problem. Being Christian means more to them than being human. It is the basis of everything they believe in and every action they take. So my criticisms of their religion feels like an attack on them, even though that intention isn’t there.

I have an atheist bumper magnet on my car. About two months ago, I had to replace it because someone took it off and cut it into pieces. Now, I never got to confront the person that did this, but I am confident in the assumption that they were offended by what it said, and I’m equally confident in saying that this problem is the root of why that person felt the need to destroy my property. To them, my magnet wasn’t just attacking an idea, it was attacking that person.

So, what can we do about this problem? The cynic in me says that nothing can be done, but the realist in me say that it just takes enough people educating others on the foundations of logic, reason, and philosophy to combat this issue, even if we can’t ever completely resolve it.

No one is immune to this problem, I’m guilty of it myself, but each of us have to be able to realize when we are doing this, and then try our best to find a way to keep ourselves in check. It’s all about willpower. If we want to have adequate discussions on how to better the human race and it’s many societies, we really need to be mindful of knowing the difference between identity and ideas. We need to do our best to separate the two when possible and be open to ideas that we disagree with, no matter how uncomfortable they may be.

This is the written version of a video I posted on YouTube a few months ago.

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