The American Identity Crisis

During a discussion on NPR a few months back, there was a heated exchange between a young man who identified as transgender and another guest opposed to allowing trans-gendered folks the right to select the restroom connected to their identity.

At first, the whole debate seemed silly to me. Why does something like who gets to use which bathroom have to become a matter of national interest? I mean, at my house it’s a diplomatic crisis every morning, but do I really need to read about this shit on Facebook too?

On one hand, one can simply say, “Just use the bathroom you want to use. No one is going to make a big deal out of it. If they do, they would’ve probably done the same if it were legal.” On the other hand, one could say, “Why be so concerned about what amounts to a tiny fraction of the population? The likelihood of someone sharing a bathroom with someone who identifies as transgender is probably smaller than my linen closet.”

I have a really small linen closet. Tiny.

Contrary to popular belief, Aristotle is the father of modern psychology and took a very early crack at helping folks achieve happiness. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle attempted to define the good life—a term that had a very different meaning then. Aristotle believed that happiness was determined by a person’s understanding of virtue and how closely their behaviors mirrored those virtues. Good action, if practiced enough, turned into good habits, which led to a good life—even in suffering.

In other words, virtue was not simply a matter of what one believed, but rather how those beliefs translated into how one behaved. In striving for identity, then, what you do is as important as what you believe.

This is a fundamental concept in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Positive Psychology. It’s also a tough sell and can feel invalidating for folks who are struggling with depression and anxiety and whose symptoms may be acting as strong barriers to living a life for which they believe in. Therapists attempt to offset this by explaining that virtue is something we work towards and that being virtuous isn’t about being perfect—it is not a black and white category. Striving for virtue is virtuous.

What we do—on the ground level—creates and allows us to claim our identity. If Aristotle was right, the debate that played out on my car radio was more than about a bathroom. For one side, it is about engaging in a behavior congruent with an identity. For the other, it represents an affront to their understanding of an identity—maybe even their own.

I’m not getting into who is wrong or right. This is more about understanding how and why these issues become so heated.

Politics have become central to our identity, and we’ve come to understand law and politics as a validation of our worldview and who we are. It is no longer enough to believe something. That belief must be codified, almost as if we cannot distinguish who we are from the state or the larger context. Law becomes the ultimate validation of our world view.

One can argue this is because the very definition of identity is under the microscope with the recent national legalization of gay marriage, spotlight on transgender rights, etc. However, this explanation falls short.

Take health care as an example. How did this issue become so personal? Taking a position against universal health care now means “You want me to die.” Or being for universal health care means the same thing?

Many people believe a market-based health care system invalidates values connected to altruism, while others perceive universal health care as invalidating values connected to freedom. Each camp views their position as “the one true way” and the other side as being either too stupid to understand or just evil.  The result is a secular “crusade for souls” instead of a reasoned approach to solving the problem. What kind of person would negotiate with the devil?

Like organized religions of old (and some not so old), political parties make it easy to join a team. While there are contradictions and myths that don’t make sense (an all-forgiving God who sends souls to Hell and claiming fiscal responsibility while supporting billions on militarization), the flock ignores these, as defeating the enemy is more important.

If  you really believe that the “other camp” simply has it wrong and that there is one group (probably yours) that has a monopoly on the truth, consider the outcome of one study whose authors penned an article for the Los Angeles Times on their findings of how open folks were to hearing views that contradicted their own:

So we created some experiments to check. In one, we offered a chance to win $10 to participants who opposed letting gay couples marry. There was a catch: To qualify for the prize drawing, they had to read eight arguments for legalizing same-sex marriage. As an alternative, they could read eight anti-same-sex marriage statements — but any potential prize money would be reduced to $7. Greed and curiosity were teamed up against motivated ignorance.

Motivated ignorance won. Most conservatives (61%) chose to stay in their bubble and forgo the extra cash.

And when we gave liberals the same dilemma? Slightly more, 64%, chose to stay in their bubble.

To know whether you have it absolutely right, wouldn’t you need to know every possible angle? If one were so confident that the facts supported their view, then why not just tolerate the opposite view and grab the $10 bucks? Because it’s really not about facts. It’s about values and priorities—the core of identity—and anything that challenges that is really uncomfortable. In fact, we MAY be biologically wired to find the opposing view aversive.

Politics isn’t only what we’ve connected to our identity—it is what we use to formulate an opinion on the identity of those who disagree with us.

Other countries such as Russia, China, Germany have or are in the process of learning where this road leads. The more we demonize what or who is different, the more justified we feel to commit violence against that which we demonize. To do this we oversimplify the intentions of the other side and represent these intentions in the worst possible way. Being pro-choice makes you a murderer, but being against universal health care makes you a murderer. Being against gun laws makes you a murderer, and murderers deserve violence in return.

The business of saving souls is dirty, messy work.

And so while we wrangle with what we are allowed to do or not do in forming a national identity through law, we judge individuals based on their beliefs—or rather what we interpret those beliefs to be in order to stereotype the person who holds them—what their life looks like, the experiences that shaped their beliefs, and what they actually do. Their day-to-day behaviors have little relevance.

This judgment of the other prevents us from discussing issues in a way that challenges our own assumptions about what things mean. It becomes more about winning than taking a critical look at whether the thing you believe should happen actually makes sense.

This is very different from where we were 70 years ago. The ’60s was the era that introduced this way of thinking/being, for better or worse. It is the stuff civil wars are made of. Think I’m being hyperbolic? Check out your Facebook feed. Notice the announcements of people “de-friending” others, advocating violence, and claims that issues are settled, no longer within the realm of discussion. The lines are drawn.

This touches upon another Aristotlean concept connected to virtue, the idea of virtue existing in between two extreme positions.  While this thinking has served us well throughout the centuries and is actually the philosophical basis for at least one major religion (Catholicism), we’ve recently abandoned the concept entirely as a culture. We’ve moved from courageous to brash, liberality to meanness, magnificence to pettiness and from patience to irritability.  Politics and political discourse are just one of many casualties.

How did this happen?

The problem becomes amplified and perhaps started with political and media establishments that have an interest in polarizing the public and agitating each side’s base. The individuals charged with maintaining cohesion in this balancing act of freedom and order are the same ones shaking the tree.

1968 represented a turning point in the country’s relationship with its representatives and media’s role in informing the public. The Vietnam war was raging and Robert Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California primary. The Democratic party and the country as a whole were in a state of chaos. The Vidal/Buckley debates in 1968 represented the first demonstrable step in American media’s evolution to what we experience today on an almost daily basis.

At the time, this was considered an incredible breach of decorum, but networks learned something about the American approach to politics. The incident represented more benefit than liability with regard to ratings and influence. It also represented the legitimization of violence in our political discourse, when two intellectual powerhouses resorted to threats as the whole country watched.

There were and are other factors at play, of course. The free and pluralistic nature of our society, which is typically viewed as a strength also presents challenges. In culturally monolithic societies, differences may exist, but the norms are largely reinforced and there are common values that are shared with the same degree of priority from household to household. We are also relatively young and our demographics have been in flux. Unlike England, Spain, or France, our national identity doesn’t span centuries to the same extent, and with different groups of people from different cultures who hold different priorities entering the scene at different times, our national identity has evolved at a quicker pace.

This American democracy experiment has been largely successful but is meeting increasingly difficult tests. Luckily, the modern view of war and the relative comfort of our lives makes a full-blown civil war unlikely. Skirmishes and the like? Probably. But not all-out war.

Aristotle provided a useful framework through which to understand identity, but Erik Erickson provides a useful framework for understanding its formation. Erickson believed each stage of a person’s development represented a crisis that, if managed effectively led to the development of a virtue. Erickson’s fifth stage of development is adolescence—identity v. confusion—a stage he felt was important, perhaps more important than the other stages.

Given our age as a nation and our behavior, maybe this makes sense and maybe there is reason to believe that this current state of affairs is something we need to get through and get right. During this process, it might be helpful to remember that being virtuous is not the same as being perfect.


  1. Bravo, old mate! Although I must admit that (at first) I was frustrated about how you conflated so many issues into this fine piece. Upon further contemplation, I arrived at the point of it all — that EVERY issue turns into identity politics. Instead of discussing the issue at hand, we quickly devolve into debating the history of everything, bringing up old wounds that never heal. Nothing gets done and we fall further behind! This is an epic problem in an individualistic nation which has no universal culture / identity. Cheerio

    Liked by 1 person

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