Monday, July 11, 2011

Label Me

If there was one thing Mike loved to do, it was label things.  Even before his descent into paranoid quasi-madness, he was always quick to identify the good guys and the bad guys, and everybody was either one or the other.  I haven't met a man or woman alive who didn't in some way use labels to identify themselves: introvert, extrovert, feeler, thinker, progressive, conservative, goth, punk, jock, prep, vegan, anarchist, Christian, lesbian...the list goes on.  In the concluding chapter of his rather apocalyptic book of cultural and political commentary Deer Hunting With Jesus, Joe Bageant laments the fact that we have all these props at our disposal with which to construct our identity as limiters upon them.  I don't know if that's true or not, but it's certain that if there are advantages conferred by them, there are also unintended consequences.  This post is an attempt to in some way explain the way these labels work, for better or worse.

I should start by talking a little bit about myself.  I have never dealt well with labels.  This is not me proclaiming myself a unique snowflake; being unique is unimportant to me.  Nor is this post in any way an attempt to claim any moral superiority.  I am the way I am because I am the product of my experiences.  That confers neither superiority nor inferiority.  It simply is what it is.  I have, however, struggled with this, mostly in my relationship to other people.  It is true that in the past 100 years, our society has grown exponentially more complex, and the amount of information available to us today is so much greater than to someone 100 years ago that I doubt an adult from that era could even make sense of our world as it is now.  Joe Bageant speaks of a time before all this as some sort of utopian ideal, when we were free to be whoever we want, but I don't know if that's really accurate.  Looking historically, if anything, the lack of access to these identifier props seems to have been a limiting factor, not a helpful one.  What were my options in 1910s New Hampshire?  Not many.  But today when I walk down the street with my hair down in a t-shirt and jeans, I am more or less identified for what I am (though of course a quick visual observation will miss the nuances), rather than some sort of deviant.  Every Christian I know certainly draws a lot of security from that label: at least as much as from their faith itself.  There is nothing wrong or illegitimate about it.  In fact, I think one could even make the argument that it's necessary.  Bombarded as we are with advertising, news, and entertainment, how could we even make sense of what we perceive without in some way labeling ourselves?  We couldn't.  No, labels themselves aren't the problem.  But there is a definite downside, and this is really the heart of the matter.

Mike is not alone in his dichotomous thinking.  In fact, I'm hard pressed to name even a single friend or acquaintance who doesn't in some way engage in this.  My Buddhist religion teaches that this dichotomy is an illusion -- a form of ignorance that prevents me from becoming enlightened.  But that simple statement belies just how difficult it is to break free from that mode of thought.  So let's examine that way of thinking a little bit closer and see just where the problem lies.

Whenever I talk philosophy, or even really politics, one particular dichotomy always seems to come up: thoughts versus feelings.  Time and again I've been told that someone is a feeler and not a thinker, as if that somehow made them any different from me or any other human.  I've heard many times that feeling things is better than thinking them.  Jon Stewart likes to lament this when talking with scientists and other skeptics on The Daily Show.  It does indeed seem to be a difficlut conundrum.  But how true is it really: that feeling things is better than thinking them, or that there is even necessarily a difference between the two?

I think it's no secret that I feel things very strongly.  My capacity to feel emotions is every bit as great as my struggles with them, and if that were the end of it, I wouldn't be writing this post.  Emotions by themselves are largely useless without an ability to understand them.  After all, if you can't explain why you feel a certain way, what hope do you have of controlling your life?  Which is not to say that most people do this--they don't.  I certainly was beholden to my feelings for most of my life, cripplingly so.  The way out was to see them for what they really were--in all their subtlety, nuance, and complexity, and think about them.  We believe that thinking and feeling are two diametrically opposed philosophies.  In fact, one cannot exist without the other.  It's like chemistry: certain combinations produce certain reactions and results.  Thoughts and feelings are two sides of the same coin.  Trusting one to the exclusion of the other is not only dangerous, it's an outright recipe for disaster.  And that is part of what makes politics and religion so maddening in this country sometimes.  There is great precedent for this dilemma throughout American history, going all the way back to the Second Great Awakening of the 1800s and even earlier.  After all what were the New Deal, the paranoia of the 1950s, the culture shocks of the 60s and 70s, the modern conservative movement, the so-called culture wars of the past thirty years, and the Tea Party but visceral emotional reactions to changing circumstances in the world at large?  At the same time, the rational skeptics, the intellectuals, and the scientists grow further disconnected from the seething masses, and that vital line of communication begins to break down, making public policy more and more dysfunctional.  We believe anything that feels right to us, especially if the rational evidence is counterintuitive.  To that end, our illiteracy is killing us--figuratively in our dysfunctional social policy, and literally in the case of vaccine denialism and wholistic medicine.

I don't have a ready solution to this.  I only attained the level of understanding that I did because of a very specific set of circumstances.  Mike was emblematic of a very typical kind of American: emotionally adolescent, not quite self-aware enough to recognize the cause of his problems, publicly immature, and much more keen to trust his gut instinct than his intellect regardless of what he may have believed.  At the same time, swinging all the way over to the other side and trusting your thoughts to the exclusion of your emotions like Nick the Magic Unicorn does doesn't work either.  Sure, you may have a more accurate picture of what's going on in a broad sense, but you're still missing the details, and forget about trying to connect and communicate with someone who isn't exactly like you.  It's up to us as individuals to find the balance and discover our own particular formulas for looking at things the way they are, rather than how they feel to us or what we think alone.  This is not a problem endemic to any one gender, subculture, religion, or group.  We need to grow up, and quickly.

You might be wondering now if I'm predicting doom and despair for America as a result of all this.  I am not one of those people.  We humans almost always rise to the occasion when faced with these sorts of dilemmas, and modernity removes most of the restrictions on recovering from such crises.  We have solutions in hand, but putting them into practice is risky and takes what we perceive to be a leap of faith.  I'll end this post with a note of hope, in that as I see it, we're already starting to make that leap.  This is a difficult problem, but not an insurmountable one.

There is a lot more that I want to say on this subject, more than I can fit into one post.  This narrative is far from finished, and so I'll save the rest for another day.  But the next time you're upset about politics, try and stop and think about what you're feeling.  You may not learn anything new and keep right on feeling what you were before.  But you might not.  The chance, however slim, is more than worth it.

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