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Why I'm not on your team
A riff on some fruits of self-examination
Surfacing some factors underlying my refusal to be on a team turned up some thoughts worth sharing. Not because I think that anyone else ought to think this way. But because they support the idea that your underlying psyche has as much to do with where you land on contested issues as any amount of 'rational' thought about them.
For those who won't read further to see the 'working out', the conclusions are ...
Neuroticism and anxiety make you see the worst outcome in any proposition
Individuation opens your mind
Need for external validation closes it
This all began with an experience described here. Read it first, if you like, but it isn’t mandatory.
Yet another stupid story hits the headlines in France.
A 'far right' member of the Assemblée nationale is said to have said that women belong in the home.
The inevitable kerfuffle has ensued, which as usual entails people who are not 'far right' posting about it on Twitter/X and various political and public officials denouncing this sentiment to a willingly outraged media.
It's "scandalous". It's "phrase of the year". It's an "archaic and retrograde vision of the world".
It doesn't seem to matter that he didn't say it.
That headline is a bad faith interpretation of something else he said. But no one cares. The story is written.
No one cares that it’s not true because no one cares what he did say.
This is how the new student politics of identity works. In a world where everyone can instantly publish their brain. It's a perfect team sport.
What he's actually said is that the French government's mission of getting everyone of working age into employment might not benefit the women who prefer to run a home and raise families, even if they're on social benefits.
This is a perspective that you could discuss intelligently, if you wanted to. We might end up agreeing or disagreeing on the merits of paying technically unemployed people a generous (this is France, after all) amount of money to live without working for someone else. I have no skin in this particular game and I can see merit in arguments on both sides.
But whether he's 'correct' in some way about the benefits of being a 'housewife' rather than a 'worker', in cases where that's what the woman would prefer, isn't a point anyone seems to care about.
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I have always tended to favour socially and economically left-wing positions. Despite no longer identifying with any off-the-shelf belief set, I haven't updated my basic principles of 'live and let live', those of us with enough money helping people via taxation to live dignified lives by not being cold or hungry, state provision of basic services and 'safety nets' for those who can't cope without help.
But I also see that other intuitions exist, which are no less rationally or morally valid. I recognise the arguments against your money being taken to give to other people who aren't economically productive, personal individual responsibility trumping moral imperatives to bestow largesse on people you don't know and various other more socially and economically conservative viewpoints.
Weighing these matters are what politics always meant to me. Things that you could discuss and maybe even occasionally evidence more convincingly, on one side or another, as better for society in some way.
Now it's just about whose team you're on. So if someone from the other team says something even quite milquetoast that probably a majority of people would find reasonable (including you), you have to be against it - at least in public. And the best way to do that is to breathlessly straw man the argument. Better still ... align yourself with a meme that flattens the issue so completely that no one could possibly be mistaken about who you are.
This is needy. It speaks of a yearning to belong in a certain class. A desire to build an identity rather than to just be who you are. A need to influence. Because what are you, if you aren't having an impact somewhere. Trying to make other people think what you think. A quest for external validation.
What seems to have reduced this tendency in my case was a combination of leaving the most hyper space in a hyper-networked world (Twitter) and being alone in a foreign land, isolated by a pandemic.
Realising that you are what you do with the time you have and not what you think about things.
And feeling fear and anxiety less. A background hum that many of us don't even recognise - which only empowers those feelings to secretly jerk you around.
Fear and anxiety seem to be a permanent part of my psyche and it's a fools errand to imagine that you can really change something like that. What I did learn, though, was how to relate differently to fear and anxiety. To notice them as they arise. Clearly and unmistakably. See how they influence your thoughts.
I suspect that it's no coincidence that the 'feelings-led' strain of politics has replaced the more practical pursuit of answers to age old questions like how to best distribute opportunity and comfort for the maximum number of ordinary people in an era when mental neuroses are such big business.
Being afraid that you're permanently on the brink of something terrible makes you constantly vigilant for signs of it beginning.
'Implication hypervigilance' is a fancy term for a kind of neurotic suspicion that someone who isn't reciting your team's rulebook, word for word, is not just batting for the other side, but probably in an extreme way.
I like the term (which an old mutual follow on Twitter first coined) because it speaks to a kind of fear that seems to lie at the heart of modern liberal identities, which I sense is unhealthy and probably creates a feedback loop for anxious people who worry about their moral status and the motivations of others.
I'm guessing this is actually what lies behind Godwin's Law.
And all that Twitter/X silliness, such as this reply I received from a leftish mutual when I suggested that Land Of Hope And Glory can be appreciated as a rousing tune at the Last Night of the Proms without it meaning that you endorse invading and exploiting weaker countries.
This undercutting of potentially fruitful intellectual exchange by identifying with beliefs seems to be an under-appreciated phenomenon. So almost everyone just skates past it. Even Brian Caplan does in his piece The Identity of Shame by sagely advising readers to be careful in choosing groups with which they identify.
Why identify as anything? Why not just be and do? Which can obviously involve being and doing in ways that are commensurate with the things you think. This isn't a nihilist philosophy of nothing really matters. Of course things matter, so think about them all you like. While also just being you.
Learn to identify with no one and you'll see everyone's best qualities more clearly, not less.
And be less afraid of liking someone's ideas about one thing when you don't like their ideas about something else.
This fear is everywhere.
Criticise aspects of Group X - or any of its principles - and you will be seen as fully against Group X. Agree with anything that happens to also be believed by Group Y and you will be seen as fully aligned with Group Y. Criticise Group X more than you criticise Group Y and people will assume that you prefer Group Y. We all know how it works. But we don't all know why.
Neuroticism. That's why. Anxiety and fear. That’s my theory.
Look at these thinking patterns caused by neuroticism. Believe me, I'm more familiar with them than I'd prefer to be - and relieved to have learned to glance at them askance when they arise, rather than find myself entirely captured. See how they broadly overlay with political team chatter now - especially the politics of identity, rather than material reform.
Negative Cognitive Patterns: Neurotic individuals often have negative thought patterns. They may be more prone to catastrophic thinking, rumination (repeatedly dwelling on distressing thoughts), and excessive worry. This can lead to distorted perceptions of reality and an overemphasis on potential negative outcomes.
Increased Sensitivity to Threat: Neuroticism is associated with heightened sensitivity to potential threats or dangers in the environment. This can lead to a tendency to perceive ordinary situations as more threatening than they actually are, which in turn can influence decision-making and problem-solving.
Difficulty Coping with Stress: Neurotic individuals may find it more challenging to cope with stress and adversity. Their thinking patterns may become more rigid, and they may struggle to find adaptive solutions to problems. They may also be more likely to engage in avoidance behaviors.
Negative Self-Perception: Neuroticism is often linked to lower self-esteem and self-confidence. This can affect how individuals think about themselves and their abilities, leading to self-doubt and self-criticism.
Impact on Relationships: Neurotic thinking can influence how individuals perceive and interact with others. They may be more sensitive to perceived slights, rejection, or criticism, leading to interpersonal difficulties and misunderstandings.
Impact on Decision-Making: Neuroticism can influence decision-making by causing individuals to focus more on potential negative outcomes rather than positive ones. This can lead to a more cautious approach and reluctance to take risks.
Influence on Memory: Negative emotional states associated with neuroticism can affect memory. Individuals may have a tendency to remember negative events or experiences more vividly and for longer durations, which can further reinforce negative thinking patterns.
Having almost physically assaulted people - or entirely deleted them from my life - just because they didn't see things through the same lens as me, it's been quite calming to park those feelings and become more curious instead. Intellectual life also became more interesting.
After a lifetime of criticising the other side (broadly small c conservatives and the right in general) I realised that I was largely doing this from a position of ignorance. And that I was engaging in a kind of ritual self-stroking, because it was nice to remind myself of how much more intelligent and morally righteous I am than them over there.
But then I began to see what them over there were seeing in us over here.
Our conspiracy theories, our hypocrisies, our sanctimony, our sneering, our insincerity, our incuriosity, blind spots and all the other things I now roll my eyes at.
So I stopped being one of 'us' and became just me.
At that point everything became more interesting. The full panoply of human frailty was revealed. How scared we all seem to be about losing status, being mistaken, sharing a world with people who don't pay us the tribute of their automatic deference.
I had an amusing thought about how much quieter the world of political chatter would be if our software were modified so that we couldn't opine on how wrong someone is if we didn't really understand their perspective.
Imagine it was impossible to mount an argument for not-X unless you were also capable of mounting the best argument for X. This is fun to simulate in your actual life. Try it. Take a position you've heard about which annoys or offends you and 'steel man' it yourself.
It's really hard. It fries your brain.
It makes you anxious and stressed. Try it and see what I mean.
This is partly why I suspect that we're mostly unable to discuss contentious things. Because at heart these things feel existentially threatening. And that is because we identify with beliefs and if our beliefs turn out to be mistaken, then we are somehow diminished.
Teams probably protect us from these fears by absolving us of any responsibility to actually think. But they amplify and scale up our fear and neurosis, righteousness, self-regard and disdain for the repugnant other.
Whether it's the right droning on for decades about the same old subjugation narrative, or leftish libs pretending that indigenous peoples' societies are always lovely until white people turn up it's all about creating tunnel vision.
And it's boring.
I was bored this morning. A reader on another page took umbrage at me suggesting that some people just don't like having immigrants around regardless of the contribution to national life that could be made by young, healthy, determined incomers who want a better life. They assumed I was tarring them as racist. Implication hypervigilance in action. Team Y defending itself from imagined attack from an imagined member of Team X.
I'll occasionally practice making a nuanced observation in the comments on a partisan page, like that. Probing for the space in between pre-formatted positions, to find a synthesis of opinion. Then watch everyone react as if by positing a third way of seeing, you're wholly invalidating all of their principles. And therefore - by extension - them.
This confusion of identity with beliefs is so commonplace that we barely notice it, but achieving separation between what you think and who you are seems to help, if you care about individuation and reducing dependency on others for validation.
There's also another good reason for separating the self from thoughts and it's not just for Zen reasons.
Strokes for what you think, rather than who you are is the definition of conditional validation.
As Claude Steiner, the Transactional Analysis theorist, put it ... 'I'm OK, you're OK if you live up to my expectations'.
How about just I'm OK, you're OK and that's that. The rest is gravy.
The reason I riff on this theme so often is because I keep noticing the connection between feeling less perturbed about what other people think and experiencing a pleasing steady state in terms of subjective wellbeing.
I remember the fury of my Twitter habit or when I wanted to punch M*** M****y's lights out for parroting something from a Tory newspaper, or when I deleted my friend I*** R******** from my life entirely for voicing support for UKIP and Brexit (the latter act I now regret and intend to fix). I really prefer feeling pretty good, most of the time, so I hope some ideas may help others to get there too.
These experiences seemed to show that feeling-led identities make the ties between us weak and conditional, which seems sad given the infinitesimally small amount of time we exist.
Today's religiously-flavoured politics - along with the political contamination of other great disciplines as everyone sorts into teams - seems designed to inspire nothing but frustration and disdain.
But, like almost every issue we believe someone else is responsible for - and even responsible for fixing - the work begins at home. It begins with seeing.
If this doesn't make sense, it's probably my fault for failing to articulate it. But it may also be because real seeing is hard. And you don't see that until you do.