Monday, September 12, 2005

The birthmark: an identity is a difficult thing to change

Just recently I received an e-mail from a thoughtful reader who asked:

For most of my friends, being progressive is part of their identity. Changing their minds requires reevaluating who they are...Why do you think identity is so tied up with political beliefs?

In the post entitled "Beginnings" (part of my "A mind is a difficult thing to change" series), I tried to describe the process of formation of a political identity. A great influence is the political affiliation of a person's family. Although some people certainly break away and forge a different political identity than that of parents and relatives, there is definitely a tendency to stick with whatever is the ideology in which we are raised.

Here is a picture of the identity-forming process as a whole:

Memberships in organizations or collectives that serve as reference groups are typically emphasized as integral to the process of identity formation. These socially based identities provide potential sources of identity for the individual... Most findings suggest that identity is seldom restricted to one group...individuals may have a variety of identities or subidentities, each supported by group memberships.

So, the groups to which we belong--social, ethnic, religious, racial, class, professional, recreational, familial, political--all are pieces in the puzzle that creates our sense of identity. The majority of people are probably most comfortable when they perceive the elements within them as cohesive, and are uncomfortable when they see them as clashing with each other. But all sides--Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, "progressives" and anarchists and libertarians--take on an affiliation which becomes a basic part of personal identity and is consequently often very difficult to give up.

An excellent illustration of this phenomenon is Democrat Zell Miller, who gave a speech nominating G.W. Bush at last year's Republican convention. This earned him the enmity of most of his fellow Democrats, who considered him a traitor to the party.

Many people wondered aloud why Zell Miller had not switched parties in light of his strong alignment with the Republicans and his staunch opposition to the Democrats. A "conservative Democrat" seemed to be a sort of oxymoron.

Miller's answer? That he was born into the Democratic Party and considers his party label to be "like a birthmark"--innate, and difficult to eradicate.

Miller's not the only one who feels that way in his neck of the woods:

"We're a little bit different than the Washington Democrats," said state Rep. Charles F. Jenkins (D-Blairsville), who represents Miller's home county of Towns as well as Rabun, Union and White counties.

Jenkins said he understands why Miller refuses to join the Republican Party.

"You've got people up here who just will not switch from the Democratic Party because they've been Democrats since they were born," Jenkins said. "They're hard-headed mountain people. And hard-headed mountain people don't switch for anybody."


Well, most people are pretty hard-headed in that respect. But it's my impression that liberals may even be more hard-headed than most about changing their political identities.

That's because a liberal political identity tends to be so much more than a political identity--it's also a moral and personal identity. Liberals tend to equate their own position with such abstract (and non-political) qualities as goodness, kindness, lack of bigotry, intelligence--oh, a host of wonderful virtues. Any identity that is so identified is going to be particularly difficult to shed. Do some conservatives feel this way about their identity? Of course. But my impression is that it is a feeling even more basic to the political identities of liberals--at least the ones I know, and I know quite a few.

My sense is that this is one of the main reasons that my attempts to talk to my friends have so often been met with rage: to many of them, my espousing of any conservative causes means 1) I must be a bad (i.e.: selfish, racist, classist) person; and 2) if I ever were to convince them of the rightness of my arguments, they would be faced with leaving the fold, also, and becoming a bad person, too. Much better to let the whole edifice remain in place than to remove one little brick and risk the whole thing toppling down.

26 Comments:

At 12:40 PM, September 12, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many liberals view their political identity from a moral and ethical perspective. I.E. from a 'religious' perspective, though they would never use that word.
Failure to agree with them is 'heresy'. Failure to behave properly is a 'sin'.
To change a liberal’s political identity is tantamount to a religious conversion. This is much more difficult to accomplish through logical argument.

Conservatives on the other hand, tend to have a ‘religious’ sense that is separate from their political stance. They can change their political identity without denying who they are.

 
At 12:42 PM, September 12, 2005, Blogger Larry said...

Neo: That's because a liberal political identity tends to be so much more than a political identity--it's also a moral and personal identity. Liberals tend to equate their own position with such abstract (and non-political) qualities as goodness, kindness, lack of bigotry, intelligence--oh, a host of wonderful virtues. Any identity that is so identified is going to be particularly difficult to shed.


Doesn't this also remind you of religion, at least a little? Isn't a sense of moral identity, meaning and purpose in life among the things that a religion traditionally provides people? And might that not be part of the reason that liberals react so badly to "apostates"? Especially since so many liberals, particularly of the sort that describe themselves as "progressives", have lost or abandoned religion in the traditional sense by now, or have retained only a tenuous, formulaic connection, or have veered off into various unsatisfying concoctions of "spirituality". These people can become bonded to their political beliefs with a quasi-religious force that's much more powerful than conscious or rational processes. And when those beliefs appear to be threatened, one could predict that, as with any religious belief system under strain, a certain percentage of adherents will retreat into a kind of political fundamentalism. Which I think we see.

Another insightful post.

 
At 12:50 PM, September 12, 2005, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...

I dunno, Larry. Most religions promote humility about as zealously as Marine Corps Drill Instructors dealing with rookies.

Humility is not a visible characteristic of many liberal/progressives. I think this is neo's point, although she can speak for herself.

 
At 1:12 PM, September 12, 2005, Anonymous mizpants said...

Some of my liberal friends have adjusted some of their beliefs under the pressure of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, so that in the end they and I see particular issues in the same way. Welfare reform is an example. Political correctness is another. But, interestingly, this agreement fails to heal the division between us, because these liberal friends (or former friends) insist that if I haven't suffered through the same process of resistance and reluctance to come to terms with these uncomfortable truths that they have, then we really don't see eye to eye at all. Far from being credited with farsightedness, I'm seen as having reached the right conclusions for the wrong reasons.

 
At 1:34 PM, September 12, 2005, Anonymous Independent George said...

This reminds me of Thomas Sowell's differentiation of the contrained vision vs. the utopian vision. For many people, I think that abandoning the constrained vision would actually come as a relief, whereas abandoning the utopian vision is tantamount to giving up all hope for humanity

 
At 1:45 PM, September 12, 2005, Blogger Brad said...

Neo quoted: "Memberships in organizations or collectives that serve as reference groups are typically emphasized as integral to the process of identity formation."

Might this be the source of much of the hostility towards traditional organizations (like the Boy Scouts or non-political women's groups, etc) that is demonstrated by the Left?

Richard,
You are right that "humility" is absent from the Left; however, despite that specific difference I think Larry's comparison to traditional religion is absolutely valid. The difference is probably related to what Neo lists as the qualities associated with progressiveness (“goodness, kindness, lack of bigotry, intelligence”). Note that the first three examples can easily be correlated to religious virtues (and could engender humility), whereas the last one is unrelated to religion and may be the source of arrogance.

 
At 3:04 PM, September 12, 2005, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...

Brad. Disagree.

We are constantly told by our religions that we must be MORE brave, compassionate, and so forth. The implication is that we are inadequate in those areas.

Liberal/progressives believe they have a surfeit of the virtues without having to work at it.

Even if those virtues are the same--truth in labelling alert--their manifestation by individuals differs substantially.

 
At 3:50 PM, September 12, 2005, Blogger still realizing said...

Liberals are pretty rare these days. For example, the following people are leftists, not liberals, in the US sense: George Galloway, Jane Fonda, Helena Cobban, Justin Raimondo, Cindy Sheehan. Neither is Christopher Hitchens a liberal. I consider myself a paleo-liberal since I support Universal health care (or single-payer) and some affirmative action for the descendants of slaves. On the other hand I am adamantly opposed to Islamofascism and the more extreme forms of multi-culturism (often criticized on the Frontpage website, which is otherwise too Republican for my tastes).

People like neo and myself reject the left because of its paranoia, its vindictive and hateful anti-Americanism, the offensive and silly GLBTQA rules (see this Frontpage article. That doesn't mean you aren't still a Liberal in some sense.

Think about it, the current US medical system is the most expensive in the world yet you can lose your coverage if you lose your job. Your children lose their medical coverage! True conservatives think that too much medical coverage is the problem -- yet most people know that the problem is too little.

The left has embraced the terrorist movement in a sort of replay of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and people of decency jump ship. The left is even absorbing some of the anti-Semitism of the Islamofascists. There was a Hamas leader named Yassin whose primary claim to fame and lifes work was persuading teenagers to commit suicide and murder. When the Israelis, in self-defense, killed him, the left complained and were outraged since Yassin was in a wheelchair and provided healthcare to people. Well, the Pentagon provides a lot of healthcare, too. People of decency, like many liberals, are repelled by the left's support of terrorism.

I think you push the group-identity theme a bit too far. Many people who've left the left (!) weren't members of organizations they could quit and didn't join any new ones, the just shifted their ideas based on what they saw, read, and heard about.

There's a word for nearly-a-religion and that's "Ideology". The liberal and left have a wide nearly all -encompassing ideology. I think the word religion implies worship. And I don't think it's psychologically the same unless you're a Unitarian, maybe. The stress and dissonance involved in believing in a caring diety in this culture makes for a difference. Also, religion usually involves some self-restraint, and that is a taboo in Western society. Especially sexual self-restraint. So I think there's a difference. But the idea of the left/liberal side of things being "Like" a religion in an emotional/psychological way is basically right.

Some conservatives separate religious ideas from politics but some don't. I know some very religious people who say they always vote Democrat.

Being violently opposed to the people who suicided airliners into the World Trade Center doesn't mean you can't be a liberal, it means you can't be a leftist.

 
At 3:52 PM, September 12, 2005, Blogger still realizing said...

Liberals are pretty rare these days. For example, the following people are leftists, not liberals, in the US sense: George Galloway, Jane Fonda, Helena Cobban, Justin Raimondo, Cindy Sheehan. Neither is Christopher Hitchens a liberal. I consider myself a paleo-liberal since I support Universal health care (or single-payer) and some affirmative action for the descendants of slaves. On the other hand I am adamantly opposed to Islamofascism and the more extreme forms of multi-culturism (often criticized on the Frontpage website, which is otherwise too Republican for my tastes).

People like neo and myself reject the left because of its paranoia, its vindictive and hateful anti-Americanism, the offensive and silly GLBTQA rules (see this Frontpage article. That doesn't mean you aren't still a Liberal in some sense.

Think about it, the current US medical system is the most expensive in the world yet you can lose your coverage if you lose your job. Your children lose their medical coverage! True conservatives think that too much medical coverage is the problem -- yet most people know that the problem is too little.

The left has embraced the terrorist movement in a sort of replay of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and people of decency jump ship. The left is even absorbing some of the anti-Semitism of the Islamofascists. There was a Hamas leader named Yassin whose primary claim to fame and lifes work was persuading teenagers to commit suicide and murder. When the Israelis, in self-defense, killed him, the left complained and were outraged since Yassin was in a wheelchair and provided healthcare to people. Well, the Pentagon provides a lot of healthcare, too. People of decency, like many liberals, are repelled by the left's support of terrorism.

I think you push the group-identity theme a bit too far. Many people who've left the left (!) weren't members of organizations they could quit and didn't join any new ones, the just shifted their ideas based on what they saw, read, and heard about.

There's a word for nearly-a-religion and that's "Ideology". The liberal and left have a wide nearly all -encompassing ideology. I think the word religion implies worship. And I don't think it's psychologically the same unless you're a Unitarian, maybe. The stress and dissonance involved in believing in a caring diety in this culture makes for a difference. Also, religion usually involves some self-restraint, and that is a taboo in Western society. Especially sexual self-restraint. So I think there's a difference. But the idea of the left/liberal side of things being "Like" a religion in an emotional/psychological way is basically right.

Some conservatives separate religious ideas from politics but some don't. I know some very religious people who say they always vote Democrat.

Being violently opposed to the people who suicided airliners into the World Trade Center doesn't mean you can't be a liberal, it means you can't be a leftist.

 
At 4:44 PM, September 12, 2005, Blogger Huan said...

Is it easier to go from liberal to conservative than the reverse? seems there has been quite a few who made the move like neo-neocon but i have not encountered many who done the opposite.

 
At 6:33 PM, September 12, 2005, Anonymous thedragonflies.blogspot.com said...

LIberal means good; conservative means bad.

But, there is something else. To abandon an ideology is to lose your map of the world, and the world becomes chaos, with you adrift and feeling helpless in it. To cling to an ideology is to stay in the comfort and safety of having a map. Even if the map is wrong it is comforting to have it. All things can be explained because all things are clearly shown on the map.

That is why it is so painful to switch ideologies. You go into very dangerous, chaotic, unknown territory. What to do? Grab the map of your enemies? Does Michael Moore transform from wise guide to fool? while Mark Styne switches from evil deceiver to wise guide? Yes, eventually, but it takes courage, and time.

 
At 7:44 PM, September 12, 2005, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...

And here I am, who's never moved.

What am I?

 
At 7:45 PM, September 12, 2005, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

For Boomers, and perhaps others, liberalism was also a fashion identity. I would accuse few of having their political beliefs for coolness alone, but I think it is a partial reason for almost every liberal. As evidence I would cite 1) the overwhelming percentage of people who make their living by entertainment and fashion are liberal; 2) the frequency with which socially disparaging comments are made about conservatives, focussing on those "yahoos" who follow NASCAR and listen to country music. Sarah Stillman's screed in HuffPo, for one example, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/
sarah-stillman/whatas-up-with-
airport-_b_4877.html*
mentions the uncool clothes, as do several of the commenters. Mark Steyn has compared Maureen Dowd to a Queen of Snark high school girl who passes judgement on the cool and uncool (makes a damning case, too); 3) the similar description given by George Orwell, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and Malcolm Muggeridge of socialists in the 1940's; and 4) The argument by sneer and condescension, which are elements of social pressure, rather than intellectual arguments put forth when one leaves the fold.

To leave liberalism thus means becoming one of "them," though one can become apolitical and escape altogether.

* two spaces inserted in the link for readability, the first between .com/ and sarah, the second between with- and airport. Sorry.

 
At 7:50 PM, September 12, 2005, Blogger Kalroy said...

My in laws are far more conservative than I am. Lifelong Democrats. A large chunk of the union members I've worked with in my life are more conservative than I am (especially regarding homosexuality). Lifelong Democrats. I consider myself as liberal now as I was when I was a "lifelong Democrat" and during my nine years in the AF. I'm probably considered conservative now, though my beliefs haven't changed at all. I'm now a registered Republican (wanted to vote for Arnie). It's the "conservative, Republican Christians" that I hang out with who seem to have more tolerance towards homosexuality than the secular (or agnostic) Democrats I've known (oh, and the religious Democrats).

Topsy turvey world, the conservative listens to NPR and his Democrat partner (work partner) listens to Rush Limbaugh.

Kalroy

 
At 8:57 PM, September 12, 2005, Blogger Holmes said...

David Horowitz has written of Liberalism as a Cause. And liberals see themselves as the transformational figures, the center of this Cause. (Here is his profile of Hillary Clinton: http://www.discoverthenetwork.org/individualProfile.asp?indid=18) The attaining of a utopia with Liberals as the paternalistic keepers of this society is the goal. As mentioned by several above, to give up the Cause is to give up on this political gospel entirely and to reduce themselves to the level of the normal people they now try to save.

Most Conservatives I know are more concerned with practical solutions that work within the framework of the known world- not changing that known world entirely. Perhaps the "Neocon" goal of spreading Democracy would then be labeled a Cause by Liberals, but Neocons see it as the only rational response to the world today. And the emphasis is not the Neocons themselves, but the results that are attained.

 
At 10:32 PM, September 12, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The title and theme of your essay captures the essence of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Birth-Mark." (www.bioethics.gov/ bookshelf/birthmark.html). In that story, the scientist husband becomes obsessed with removing a small birthmark from his wife's face. However, in removing the birthmark, the scientist ends up killing his otherwise perfect wife. From the story: "As the last crimson tint of the birthmark — that sole token of human imperfection — faded from her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband, took its heavenward flight."

I would assume that Zell Miller feels the same way.

 
At 11:31 PM, September 12, 2005, Anonymous neo-neocon said...

Huan: To answer your question, take a look at this post.

 
At 1:11 AM, September 13, 2005, Blogger Steve J. said...

Much better to let the whole edifice remain in place

Yes, we liberals do feel Western Civilization should remain in place, free and unafraid.

After all, we invented it.

 
At 7:27 AM, September 13, 2005, Anonymous Paul said...

The abity to change and adapt to circumstances set homo sapiens apart from the rest if creation. My identity grows as well as changes, but the core of me remains essentially the same.

 
At 7:39 AM, September 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As long as Liberalism continues down the totalitarian Road to Serfdom, I will reject such tyranny.

After re-reading "Radical Son", I understand why Horowitz embraced such transformation. I believe what separates us are not political parties, ie Republican or Democrat, but are the ideals of Equality vs Liberty which separate us.

Liberalism believes Equality leads to a just and free society, whereas Conservatism believes Liberty leads to a just and free society.

Clearly Horowitz saw the resulting influence of Liberalism is that
Equality inevitably leads to Collective Serfdom whereas Liberty leads to Individual Freedom.

When we attempt to Equalize everyone we subject them to tyranny under Collective group-think which ultimately destroys the foundation of Liberty.

 
At 8:18 AM, September 13, 2005, Anonymous Shouting Thomas said...

The religion issue is probably accurate, but I don't think any of you have gone far enough.

Politics has been the religion of intellectuals throughout my lifetime... doesn't matter whether they are liberals or conservatives.

Even on this blog, the belief that politics can achieve what people once looked for in religious belief prevails.

The denial of the spiritual, non-intellectual side of humans and the elevation of the purportedly logical side is now a global phenomenon of the over-educated modern person.

Witness the gay marriage debate. Here we can see the epitome of the elevation of "reasoned" argument over tradition and faith. The argument that "it's just plain wrong and crazy" or "that it violates the will of God" marks one as a yokel.

Both sides embrace politics as religion.

 
At 8:26 AM, September 13, 2005, Anonymous Andres Kupfer said...

I have gone through a similar process of re-defining my political identity over the last few years, although the distance I travelled from liberalism to conservatism seems shorter than what you describe.

The road to from liberal to conservative thinking, has many lanes: foreign policy, social issues, economics, others.

I find that some people that grew up in a liberally-minded household may become more conservative over time on one or two of these areas, but not all.

Most people with a liberal background don't end up living in a cabin in Montana; they tend to became centre or right of centre and they may still retain some liberal attitudes.

 
At 11:21 AM, September 13, 2005, Blogger Goesh said...

For me it was the systemic, almost ritual abrogation of individual responsibility foisted by Liberals that drove me further and further to the Right. When it became apparent that islamic terrorism was directed at all of Western civilization, the same ideology that generally refuses to hold individuals accountable for their actions became in my mind somewhat of a menace to our collective well being.

 
At 12:30 PM, September 13, 2005, Anonymous The Unkown Blogger said...

This post reminds me of an old anecdote I once heard:

A republican candidate was campaigning in the Old South (back when it was staunchly democratic).

At one stop, every time he paused in his speech, an old timer would interrupt to proclaim loudly:

"My granpappy was a demmycrat, my pappy was a demmycrat, an' I'm a demmycrat"

After a few instances of this, the politician grew exasperated and said to the old timer:

"Well let me ask you this, sir: if your granpappy was a republican, and your pappy was a republican, what would that make you?"

"A jackass!!!"

UB

 
At 2:56 PM, September 13, 2005, Blogger David said...

I think that modern "progressivism" is, to a very substantial extent, a status marker rather than a coherent set of ideas. Status-hungry NYT readers get the products they think will mark them properly from the ads in the NYT magazine, and the opinions serving the same function from the news and editiorial pages.

 
At 2:00 AM, September 14, 2005, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...

David. Your point about statusism is interesting. If you are right, even to a partial extent, it would be depressing, because that says very sad things about the intellectual and emotional maturity of the folks in question.

While my life is only one life and thus my encounters amount to a small sample, they agree with your point.
Too bad.

 

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