There is a point in believing an idea where, regardless of where we began, we lose the habit of refining that idea. Instead of seeking to improve our positions, we begin to defend then. Instead of searching for the nuance, we begin to strip it away.
It isn’t every idea—but certain ideas seem to burrow into our politics, our religion, and our activism, and once they are firmly in place, we refuse to let them go. And we begin to vilify anyone who suggests otherwise. I cannot tell whether it is due to external elements, like deep social division, or internal elements, like an uncritical approach to one’s own beliefs. Perhaps it is both, or perhaps it is something else entirely. But I think it not coincidental that these are tribal ideas: they are ideas that mark our membership as much as they define our position.
Once you have these ideas, a move to the middle becomes very dangerous indeed. The more polarized the idea, the more incorporation of nuance becomes an act of social treason. And that, I think, is how we can best recognize these ideas in ourselves. We must ask ourselves, what would happen if I espoused a different view? Or what if I pointed out some small exception to the rule? The amount of horror and protest it would inspire in your group is a marker for how deeply that idea is entrenched.
Consider one example: any limits on guns are too many. Background checks? Waiting periods? Limitations on what ammo you can have? Limitations on what sort of gun you can buy? All of these are unacceptable assaults on the 2nd amendment. Yet this isn’t an idea that marks membership for gun owners—the majority of gun owners support such limits. Instead it is a political idea, an entrenched policy that shows, for many politicians, loyalty to a lobby that has lost touch with its own largest constituency.
Consider another: the LGBTQ “lifestyle” is immoral and unacceptable. The language of the proposition itself is aggressively erasing nuance, framing human rights as if they were about choices and immorality. Yet the separation of church and state means the morality laws of one religious group cannot be mandated for all of society. Nevertheless, we are now pursuing laws to limit the lives of trans people because some people can’t get over their own judgment.
Or what about this latest fashionable one in some circles: Clinton is a tool of the establishment, and Bernie should fight her all the way to the general election, whatever it takes. People are talking about voter fraud, and writing in Bernie in the general, and fighting for the same super delegates they deemed undemocratic mere weeks ago. And those people, when I tell them I am ready to move on and use the influence we have won to shape a platform, protest in the strongest terms.
I think, sometimes, we imbue these tribal ideas, these entrenched ideas, with a kind of sacredness. They become holy propositions, to be defended until the last. They become commandments as much as premises, and commandments become platforms, and once we are fighting hard for an idea, it is so very difficult to step back and consider it deeply. And there are so many of them.
Raising taxes is always bad. Pledge you will never raise taxes. Ignore the needs of people and strip social programs if you must, but do not raise taxes.
Any regulation is too much regulation. Promise you will deregulate in the name of the economy. Ignore the way that unregulated businesses form monopolies, destroy communities, and hide their profits outside the country while passing on the worst costs of their business to the people.
Nuclear power is dangerous and should not be used. Ignore the fact that it is possibly the only true bridge fuel that can help with climate change.
All GMOs are dangerous poison. GMOs should be labeled as a first step, and banned entirely. Ignore that genetic modification is a process, and every GMO is as different from every other as every conventional food is from any other.
Wind power is a great step forward. We should replace coal plants with wind farms. Ignore the fact that our current commercial wind turbines have been designed with the same reckless disregard for wildlife as most other human endeavors, and they kill birds and bats by the thousands.
Abortion should always be a woman’s right to choose. Or it should never be, because it’s murder. We fight about those two to the end, but please, let’s not discuss the uncomfortably arbitrary lines we draw in the continuum from fetus to person.
I don’t know what to do with most of these ideas. I have positions on many of them, yet when I apply my test those positions become less clear. What will my communities do if I question these? What would I do if someone questioned one my positions on them? I like to think I would be sober enough to consider instead of protest.
I do know that nuance is the lifeblood of knowledge. In my world, and idea that is immune from critique is dead. Yet socially, the middle on ideas like this is very difficult place to stand.
Image Credit: Michael