Calls to political and social action are common nowadays, as national tragedies seem to appear in the news on a weekly basis. Peaceful protests ending in bloodshed, senseless acts of terrorism and President Donald Trump’s abuse of power have all prompted calls for mobilization. The general sentiment is that now is the time to define ourselves by what we believe, to come out and identify ourselves with “Antifa,” or the Democrats, or the Feminists, or the “alt-Right,” or the NRA, or any other ideologically-driven institutions for the sake of social progress. While taking political action is necessary to achieve social change, there is a special danger to joining or identifying with a group that defines itself by its beliefs — doing so can actually undermine the integrity of those beliefs and put everyone in danger.
When people associates an opinion — for example, whether or not the Antifa protesters are justified — with personal identities, it takes on a special significance in brains. Instead of accepting new or contradictory information on this topic objectively, as they would with anything else, people instead tend to view attacks on their core beliefs as attacks on them specifically. In fact, being attacked on a core belief activates the same parts of the brain that identify real, bodily pain.
Joining and identifying with a group like a political party that de nes itself by its opinions elevates these opinions such that they become tied up in status consciousness, internal narratives and, worst of all, passions. When friendships, careers and even relationships are built on shared opinions, those opinions become more than convictions — they become as fundamentally necessary to our psychology as arms and legs are to our bodies.
This means that joining a group neuters our ability to consider arguments objectively. People who disagree with us become embodiments of everything we hate, not human beings with all the biases and short-sightedness that we ourselves possess, but monsters who seek to tear our identities apart. While being right on an issue is important, it is equally important that this rightness be arrived at by evidence and critical thinking, not passionate loyalty to a cause.
Having strong opinions is not the problem. The problem is believing that only these opinions define us. Instead of feeling personally attacked by opposing belief systems, we need to judge all opinions in the abstract and reject institutions that ask us to do otherwise. Groups that put forth a “you’re either with us or against us” false dichotomy are extremely dangerous, and they end up creating the kinds of people who feel it is acceptable to assault and murder people they disagree with. These violent people are able to justify their actions because in their minds, they are not acting as individuals, but as representatives of a group. Everyone is susceptible to this kind of crowd psychology, and it must be actively and constantly resisted by all.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them. Email Henry Cohen at [email protected]
A version of this appeared in the Monday, Oct. 23 print edition. Email [email protected]