Friday, June 2, 2023

Social Identity and Narratives

 From Alan Levinoitz:

A lot of politics can be explained by ignoring Maslow's hierarchy and realizing that people care as much about symbolic meaning, a sense of dignity, narratives in which 'your people' are the heroes, as they do about promises of material well-being. 

Why--ask liberals--do conservatives vote against policies that would secure material well-being, like healthcare, housing, education? Because those policies come at a cost. Not a financial cost, but the cost of letting go of a narrative about what forces make the world better. 

Why--ask conservatives--do liberals play down material costs of reduced policing, such as increased theft and crime, in areas that need police? Because acknowledging that in some cases increased policing is good comes at a cost: the dismantling of a quasi-mythic truth about police.

Why--ask some environmentalists--are other environmentalists vehemently anti-nuclear, when nuclear energy can help produce climate friendly energy? Because supporting nuclear means revising a vision of what 'clean' energy looks like: natural (sun and wind) vs. unnatural (nuclear). 

Abandoning narratives, especially those with deep symbolic power IS A BIG COST. It is painful. It is difficult. It can alienate you from friends and family. Ignoring those costs, or dismissing them as irrational, is a mistake.

I think a big part of this is that most people craft their identity around their affiliations. We want to have a sense of who we are, but searching inward is difficult and time consuming and sometimes frightening. Far easier is to look outward to branding through clothes and allegiances. This provokes people to take on all the values of their tribe because taking on just a few and rejecting others causes conflict within their group and we've forgotten how to work through that, how to meet a thesis with an antithesis in order to form a new and often enlightening synthesis. 

When students in my classes would say they're right or left-wing--or anyone for that matter--my first question is always, "What does that look like to you?" Only when we get into the nitty-gritty of what we actually value do we see how closely aligned we all are on so many issues. Nobody really thinks people should be kicked to the street if they can't pay rent when rents are beyond the reach of anyone working a minimum wage job - or jobs. Nobody wants to have to wait 20 hours in emerge or to have to pay for a private clinic so that have the people can't afford help. So it can help to ask people to go beyond their labels of social identity to find themselves again.  

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