The More You Define Yourself, the More You Need to Defend Yourself

On my walk to work this morning (I park in the farthest lot on campus, so I can have a walk each day), I was thinking about the various ways I define myself. (I got a new BYU jacket for my birthday–thanks Dad!–and was wearing it for the first time, hence the train of thought.) If I had to define myself with various labels, these are the main labels I’d come up with, not necessarily in order:

  • Father
  • Son
  • Husband
  • Mormon
  • Librarian
  • Author
  • BYU Fan
  • Yankee Fan
  • Gamer
  • Board Game Geek
  • Magic the Gathering Player
  • Reader
  • Independent
  • Conservative
  • White
  • Male
  • Straight
  • American
  • Film Buff

It’s a fair number of labels, but honestly, I think that’s healthy. It spreads the load around. It means that I’m not unnecessarily tied up with any one particular definition. The thing is, when you define yourself by a label or category, then any time that label or category comes under attack, you feel like you’re being attacked personally. The more closely you define yourself by that category, the more you feel you’re attacked.

“Librarians will be history within a decade.” I see that, and the part of me that identifies as a librarian wants to argue it. I’m not going to be history. My job is important. That person is attacking me!

“Yankees fans are the worst fans in sports.” Again, when I read those claims, I stop thinking about the issue objectively, and I single myself out almost voluntarily. I have a chance to take personal offense at the claim. I am a Yankee fan, and that person said Yankee fans are terrible, therefore that person said I am terrible. The claws come out, and things go downhill from there.

One of the reasons I don’t think I get too bent out of shape over many issues is that I don’t strongly define myself by any of those labels. Yes, I’m Mormon, but I look around at plenty of other Mormons and realize that it’s a pretty big group. There’s a whole range of “Mormon,” and my personal approach to it is only one of many. That doesn’t mean that when someone says something like “Mormons are a bunch of brain-washed cultists,” that I don’t take umbrage, but it does help soften the blow.

Sure, I might have some knee jerk reactions to the various accusations lobbed around online against one or another of the definitions I give myself, but I’m generally able to take a step back after that initial response passes and see things from a more objective manner.

But the more I think and write about this topic, the more I see the flip side: the dangers of people making judgements based solely on labels. Unfortunately, this is what happens in everyday politics, and it’s one of the reasons our system is bogging down the way it is. We’re too ready to clump people together under broad terms: “the poor.” “Hispanics.” “Small business owners.”

I get a kick out of listening to the stock market reports each day and finding out what “the market” and “investors” thought of various different developments. If there’s unrest in an area of the world, “the market” responds by having a bad day in tech stocks or pharmaceuticals. I’m not saying these aren’t related, but if you listen to too much of this, you start to get a skewed picture of the world. There is no market. There’s no group of people who get together and talk about what’s going on, and then make decisions as a block. There’s a bunch of individuals who make decisions independently, and those small decisions can add up to generalizations that are on the whole, accurate.

i see a parallel between “the market” and the other labels politicians and newscasters like to use. They’ll say things like “Hispanics want ______” or “Small business owners are really only interested in ________.” Of course, some of these generalizations might be backed up by statistics, but they’re still just that: generalizations. They might work well on a broad level, but break down easily when it comes to individuals. This can cause two different problems. Sometimes individuals try to dismiss the broad generalizations. (“I’m a small business owner, and I don’t think that, so it must be wrong.”) Sometimes people try to apply those generalizations to individuals. (“You’re a small business owner, so you must think _____.”)

And as I discussed at the beginning, the more closely tied an individual is to a particular definition, the bigger the problems these misapplications of generalizations may become. Bottom line? It helps if everyone involved in the process keeps things in perspective. It also helps if everyone cuts one another a bit of slack. Of course, all of this goes out the window when it comes to issues that really matter. I don’t mean for this to apply to situations where people are being racially profiled or otherwise discriminated against. (Telling people in those cases to “give the other side some slack” is incredibly boneheaded.)

But for general internet use? I think it’s something that would help everyone a fair bit. And in day to day application, it’s something that has helped me be a generally happier person, with less stress and less grudges to keep track of. It’s good to belong to a community. It’s important, and it can help you out in many ways, but the more closely you tie yourself and your core identity to any one community, the more you open yourself up to a whole bunch of heartbreak and drama. Sometimes it’s worth it. Sometimes it isn’t.

Try to avoid the situations where it isn’t.

And with that, I’ve rambled on enough for a Friday. Happy weekend all. See you on the flip side!

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