The idea/identity nexus

In order for human beings to maintain sanity, we have to tell ourselves little stories. These stories are about the way the world works and who we are in this world. These stories are not always true and this famous quote cuts to the heart of the matter.

“It’s hard to get a man to understand something if his paycheck depends upon him not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair

While the literal reading of this quote might indicate that it was purely about money, I prefer to substitute the word “livelihood” for paycheck. For those people who have a career I think many would like to see that it is for some meaningful endeavor, or at the very least that they are able to provide for people they care about through the work. Nobody wants to believe that they are hurtful in their work, and our minds will go to great lengths to allow us to continue seeing the world this way.

There is a key threshold in out internal machinery. It is the threshold past which we cease to use our energy in rationalization and instead attempt to understand alternatives. This is an equivalent to the common “fight or flight” response. Most minds will default to a rationalization posture publicly. Even if there are deep seeded doubts, individuals have great ability to suppress these creeping suspicions. However, no matter how confident publicly – those seeds planted by challenging questions begin to grow unless better ego defenses can be prepared.

Enter the group…

The individual ego machinery can only put up with so much assault on identity ideals. It requires great strength of will not to succumb to self-doubt. However, if we can depersonalize and externalize that function then it can present a simple shortcut to rationalization. “are cigarettes bad for people? Of course not – could 43 Million smokers be wrong?”. Safety in numbers applies to mental defense of ideology, not just to military security.

Our identities are bound up in our beliefs. These beliefs are supported by groups of people formed around these commonly held beliefs. When you seek to change someones mind, you may be attempting to alter a value structure, social structure and entire self-image. This is why when it comes down to fundamental issues, it is not about the logic. People have simply formed their identity around a set of beliefs. When it comes to that, we can only structure arguments that appeal to these beliefs or find reasonable compromise.


About livingthememe

engineer and armchair philosopher
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