Recently someone asked me whether I’m a feminist like them and I said no. Same goes for whether I’m a Christian, leftist, rightist, centrist, chauvinist, Calvinist, Muslim, a crossfitter, vegan, paleo, a yogi, a Trekkie, and whatever other labels you can think of, except maybe that of being human.
Each of these labels is an invitation to belong to a group. But, not all labels are created equal. Some, like being a Muslim or a Christian, you have most likely swallowed just by chance of being born in a Muslim or a Christian family. Same goes for political views or fervent nationalism. You were fed these labels, same as I was. There was no conscious choice on your part. There was no point during your childhood that you decided to subscribe to one — instead, it was imprinted on you, by your equally unconscious family and surroundings.
Most of us operate on these beliefs by default. It’s not a chance that the vast majority of people who profess Islam, Christianity, communism, capitalism, or outright chauvinism also happen to have been raised in those social circumstances. How we are nurtured does not define all we are, but it does define much of what we are.
Most people never think to question their beliefs and playact them from the cradle to the grave.
Everyone knows this but it’s difficult to admit to because the alternative forces us to offer our deepest beliefs up to scrutiny. And that is not easy for the human animal to do, because beliefs are how we operate in the world. We use labels and beliefs as filters to automatically weed out what we believe is irrelevant. If I believe in Yahweh, then Allah is immediately ruled out as irrelevant. If I subscribe to a right-wing party, then the left wing one is irrelevant. This mode of operating makes life easier because it allows us to avoid doubts, dilemmas, and thinking in general, leading up to much of what people are capable of — hate and intolerance.
The ironic thing about these beliefs is not that they’re evil or devilish — it is that they are not conscious. They are the spoon-fed, wholesale scripts that seem more potent than reality because they paint an easy, uniform picture that does not upset the stomach.
Maybe you managed too. At some point in your life, during adolescence or later, you realized you’ve been played the fool. So you convulsed and retched until you vomited out what was swallowed in, all those years ago.
Then, soon after the initial exhilaration, a sense of anxiety set in. Much like after vomiting, you’ve realized your stomach was empty. You become hungry for something to believe in, for a group to belong to again.
That’s where the obstinate believer becomes an equally obstinate atheist, the dedicated carnivore becomes a holy vegan Buddha, the couch potato buys all the crossfit gear, and disillusioned people become neo-fascists. They forget that the opposite of crazy is still crazy while they scream their new convictions on social media. Just think of the many Internet Warriors who crusade the comments section, screaming at things that are not aligned with their [INSERT HERE] views of the world. They have an emotional reaction to anything that does not fall under their chosen belief, which renders their reason unable to function.
Even though they’ve done it consciously now, they’ve landed in exactly the same place. They’ve slapped on a new label on their forehead, joined a new group – happy to belong again, without a thought toward what it all means.
To be clear and fair, labels are useful tools. They’re a way for us to convey complex ideas and many years of human insight in a relatively short amount of time. As such, they’re not something we ought to dispense with.
Think of labels as second-hand shops replete with an incredible amount of stuff. Going into the shop, you browse around and figure out what you want to buy, if anything, and you leave the shop eventually with a thing or two or ten.
Notice that you don’t leave the shop with all of the things, which would be the equivalent to accepting a label as is, without modification. Every time you accept a label as 100% true and appropriate is like going into a second-hand shop and buying everything inside, including that nineties multicolored tracksuit. It might feel good initially, but in the long run, it’s not good for you.
The way to break away is twofold.
First, slow down to realize that no label is entirely right, nor (most likely) entirely wrong. Once this is our perspective of the world, we can approach everything with a different kind of question in our minds:
Is there anything here, however slight, that can be of benefit to me?
If there is, take it, fit it into your inner landscape, and dispense with the rest. If you are drawn to the social antics of Christianity, take them. If the warmup routine crossfitters use makes you feel fantastic, take it, it’s yours. If you prefer a vegan dinner after the heavier meals of the day, eat a vegan dinner. You don’t have to call yourself vegan to sometimes eat vegan, you don’t have to call yourself feminist to see women as equal, and you don’t have to buy into the whole crossfit madness just because you like the warmup routine.
Second, understand that swallowing a belief wholesale entombs you into a Fortress of No Differing Opinions. This fortress keeps you sheltered from anything that goes against what you’ve been led to believe. History is a pomegranate of examples: book burnings, witch trials, public demonization, and the modern outrage culture. Highly emotional experiences replete with calls to purity, truth, and tradition, without ever considering individual thought, integrity, and healthy curiosity.
You have to consciously place yourself in the vicinity of people and content (books, movies, music, etc.) who will force you to see the borders of your beliefs. Not only that, but they will force you to realize that, beyond the borders, lies an entire world to play with.
None of this is easy, especially the first time around. We are trained to react with intense emotion to differing points of view. I know I am. This is a direct indicator that there’s shallow thinking behind our own point of view that causes us to ostracize opposing ideas, instead of debating them.
Labels, beliefs, and ideologies are constructs that can serve as useful tools. When swallowed whole, they limit your mind to what someone else was able to come up with, filtering out everything else. But the world is larger than any one idea or belief. Expose yourself to opposing ideas, especially the ones you have an emotional reaction to and sit with them for a while.
In meditation, there’s an exercise called mirroring. It calls for picturing someone or something you violently disagree with and just sitting with it for a while, slowly achieving what F. Scott Fitzgerald called a first-rate intelligence — an ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time while retaining the ability to function.
Don’t argue, don’t scream, don’t nod, and don’t agree — just sit with it for a while, until you’re able to think for yourself, deconstructing many beliefs and, most importantly, constructing your own.