Thursday, November 1, 2018

Peeling the Label

Americans love labels. On the food they buy, on their nametags at gatherings, and apply to themselves: it’s all about identification. Labels are designed to answer the question before it’s asked: What’s on the inside? Who are you? I’m a vegetarian; smoker; non-smoker; German; American; Russian; Southerner; Midwesterner; tourist; citizen; Catholic; Jew; Protestant; white; black; Asian; Latino; teacher; longshoreman; doctor; lawyer; hawk; dove; conservative; liberal; Democrat; Republican. People create their own self-identity based on their sense of who they are -- their beliefs, or what they do, or the culture they come from -- to establish their own sense of individuality and then, ironically and paradoxically, seek others who are like them. This is known as tribalism: a desire to align oneself with others of similar beliefs or backgrounds.

We all want to feel unique and special, which is why we strive to express our individualism. Yet subconsciously we realize the insecurity that comes from standing apart from the crowd. So while we want to be unique, we need the support and validation from others like us. Maybe I’m a vegetarian while most people aren’t, so that makes a statement about me and makes me somewhat more special or unique among others, yet I can still point to millions of vegetarians to prove choosing to be one does not make me weird or completely outside the mainstream. I can wear labels that establish my individuality while at the same time validating their legitimacy by pointing to all the others wearing the same labels.

This works so long as the label accurately represents the contents. If the label says “beef” but the package contains chicken, then obviously the label is worthless because it doesn’t accurately describe the contents. The same is true if the label changes from “salmon” to “seafood” to “something that came out of the ocean.” In this case, the label may be so vague that it encompasses things you wouldn’t want to include had they been specified.

While we think of physical labels as being attached adhesively to products, the opposite is true when it comes to the descriptive labels people apply to themselves. The problem is, people become emotionally attached to the labels they have chosen to describe themselves and their beliefs. If your religion, political party, or nation moves away from the values you previously shared with it, you’ll most likely find it difficult, if not impossible, to walk away from the label. “My country right or wrong,” “My party right or wrong,” “My faith right or wrong.” The flaw with tribalism is that we feel compelled to stick with the tribe, no matter what the tribe does.

This is where morality must trump tribalism. We know right from wrong. If someone in your family commits murder your first instinct is to protect them. The family member is part of your tribe: you stick together because of loyalty derived from familial love. But then you must confront the moral dilemma because you know murder is wrong and aiding and abetting murder is not the right thing to do. Yet many people would find themselves unable to walk away, just as they might be unable to walk away from a religion accused of pedophilia, or their own nation accused of war crimes or other atrocities. They are so invested in that label, and the tribalism behind it, that they turn a blind eye or rationalize the fact that label no longer represents the once shared values.

Compared with other countries, the two major political parties in America until recently have been relatively indistinct. Both parties were centrist parties, albeit the Democrats slightly to the left of center and the Republicans slightly to the right. In the 1976 presidential election, there was little to distinguish conservative Democrat Jimmy Carter from liberal Republican Gerald Ford. In succeeding elections, as the Republican Party moved more to the right so did the Democrats, still leaving little sunlight between the two major parties. Both Democrats and Republicans believed in and supported American ideals -- free speech; freedom of the press; democracy; the rule of law; the Constitution; and the sanctity of the electoral process. The fundamental bedrock precepts of American democracy were never held to be political issues by either party.

That changed in 2016  with the election of Donald Trump. But because of tribalism, Americans who wear the Republican label identify with Trump as he is the leader of their party, and take any criticism of Trump as a personal attack on themselves. “My party right or wrong.” But Americans who call themselves Republicans have to ask if the label still fits. We all know what the Republican label once stood for, just as we know it never represented trillion-dollar budget deficits; trade wars; nationalism; xenophobia; fascism; racism; anti-Semitism; misogyny; putting children in cages; or expanding executive authority to include the power to repeal constitutional amendments by executive order. The Republican label has always stood behind America’s intelligence agencies, including the FBI and CIA, and has been the political party most suspicious of, and confrontational with, America’s longtime Cold War enemy Russia. The Republican brand of years past would never sully itself by conspiring with Russians; by giving secret intelligence to Russian agents in the Oval Office; or by supporting Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin over the American intelligence services, as Donald Trump did in Helsinki. As Donald Trump leads the Republican Party further and further from the American ideals and beliefs upon which it was built, Americans who have long identified themselves as Republicans must ask if they can continue to wear that label when it no longer accurately describes their own beliefs.

When the label changes from “salmon” to “something that came out of the ocean,” you can continue buying it but you’re not eating salmon. And there are a lot of scummy, really sickening things on the ocean floor. It’s hard to walk away but there are times when you have to. Times when you must put the label aside and examine if what someone is selling you matches your ideals and beliefs, regardless of the name they slap on it. You’re not abandoning the Republican Party; they’ve already left you. Now you must decide: Do you vote them out of office and then form a new party that more accurately represents your beliefs, or do you vote for a party that now preaches hatred toward your fellow citizens and seeks to divide Americans? Are you willing to put country before party? Or will you wear the label to the grave no matter what it may come to represent, or how far it may stray from your own beliefs and ideals?

The only label you should wear this Tuesday on election day is the sticker that says “I voted.” And when you enter the voting booth, the only label you should bring with you is not “Republican” or “Democrat” but rather “American.” And when you pull the lever it should be because the candidate shares your beliefs and morality, not because he or she slapped an “R” label on their back.

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