The Rigid Identity

The comforting unity immediately after 9/11 didn't last long.

Remember how closely knit the country felt in the days immediately after 9/11?  There was a palpable sense of unity.  The shock and horror of that day uncovered a deep sense of our connection to each other.

A friend of mine who worked in New York City told me how driving home that day, no-one drove past the speed limit.  No one passed anyone else.  People would look into each other’s cars  to acknowledge their fellow human being.  I recall getting e-mails from friends around the world stating that they, too, were Americans that day.

The common loss uncovered our common humanity.  In a world of pain, it was comforting.

And then it all changed.

It took about 2 weeks.  Comments in the news and on blogs started to appear that certain people were not patriots.  Simple differences of opinion led to accusations of others being “traitors.”  Our President told the world, “You are with us.  Or, you are against us.”  Engaging in basic discussions that need to occur within a democracy to analyze the nation’s options became grounds to be accused of treason.

Over time, people’s anger has taken a much more strident tone and found form in extreme partisanship.  This extremism has its roots in what I call a Rigid Identity.

We invest emotional "chips" in the various parts of our identity.

A “Rigid Identity” is a bit like the game of roulette.  Imagine a roulette table with the various numbers spread across the board.  Each number is a different part of our identity.  We might “invest” ten chips of emotional attachment on being a brother or sister;  twenty chips on being a mother or father or spouse;  three chips on the Republican or Democrat number,  several on  our ethnic group, some on our bowling team, several on our religion and on our friends.  Together this spread of “emotional chips” defines our overall emotional attachments in our identity.

When something bad happens, like 9/11, there is a tendency for some to take all of these emotional chips and place them on one number, say, the black 22.  All of our emotional investments get concentrated on that one identity.  It might be our religion, our political party, our ethnic group or a sports team.  We become a hyper-Christian, a hyper-Jew, a hyper-Muslim.  We become a hyper-Republican or a hyper-Democrat.

This becomes a problem when the various “uber-groups” start talking to each other.  Once we adopt a Rigid Identity, all of our judgments are filtered through this lens.  Everything with our group is the ideal good.  Other groups are seen as inherently wrong, evil, ignorant, untrustworthy, immoral.  Worse, they can be seen as sub-human and dangerous .  This sets the stage for conflictual styles of problem solving and ultimately, violence.

So, one Rigid Identity trys to dominate another Rigid Identity.  Or, they try to recruit or dominate those with a Weakened Identity.  Unlike those with a Weakened Identity, those with a Rigid Identity have no uncertainty.  They are convinced of the ultimate and absolute right of their group.  They have no doubt.  Unlike those with a Weakened Identity, those with a Rigid Identity are highly motivated to have their group succeed.  They define problems in terms of survival.  As  a result, they see there is no compromise in their group’s point of view, because to do so challenges survival itself.  All problems are cast in absolute terms.  This absolutism is confused with virtuous principle.  Since a person with a Rigid Identity feels as though survival itself is at stake, to entertain a doubt or alternative views risks death.  Stubborn closedmindeness is confused with courageous fidelity and commitment to principle. There is no nuance, only black and white.

It’s not only true in partisan politics.

The same basic neurological and psychological forces are at work when couples argue, political partisans argue or fans of different teams argue.   Remember in the last post, we talked about how the brain responds to threats?  Our survival instincts kick in and commandeer our brain.  When we think we are facing a threat, all of our brain functions are geared to either fleeing from the threat or fighting it: the Fight or Flight Response.  (see link for a great explanation)

When our emergency survival system is activated (i.e. the Fight or Flight Response)  adrenalin ( the English name) or norepinephrine (the American name) kicks in and commandeers our brain to control our thinking, feeling, our body and behavior in order to deal with the threat by fleeing or fighting.  When a person is more prone to fighting then fleeing, their system activtates the part of the brain called the “amygdala” and other centers to color all of their experiences with the strong survival emotion of anger.

When anger is activated in the brain, it acts as a filter for every activity of our thinking, feeling, body and behavior.  All of our perception and thinking is directed toward identifying threats.  When we are angry and argue with someone, everything they say we see as proof of their incompetence, their moral weakness, their evil intentions, their manipulations.  We are not thinking of anything else, other then our moral virtue, our humanity, our logic and good intentions. In fact, the dictatorial control of adrenaline and the amygdala over our brain will not allow us to think in any other way.  Our brain is not geared to cooperative and creative social exploration when we are angry.  It is wired for battle and the elimination of the perceived threat.

One of the worst things that can happen when we are being threatened is to be uncertain about what the threat is.  Ambiguity and uncertainty are not well-tolerated by the brain.  For many of us, ambiguity and uncertainty are experienced as a kind of threat that must be eliminated.  (In fact, a good definition of “paranoia” is the lack of information when the possibility of a threat exists.  A Rigid Identity is a little paranoid.)  The brain will work overtime to label a particular person or group “the enemy” in order to eliminate the anxiety caused by uncertainty and ambiguity.

This is not a good thing most of the time.  When we are surrounded by hungry tigers, striking out with a stick at everything that approaches us might be a good idea.  But, in a social situation, this same instinctual survival mechanism is disastrous for good relations, for creative and effective problem solving and even good health.

Unfortunately, unless we consciously choose to turn off our anger, it establishes enduring neural patterns in the brain. More and more, our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are modified to support the reasons for our initial anger.  A tone is established for all of our personal and social experience.  It stays this way until we make a conscious effort to tone the anger down.

When we do make this choice and take positive steps to quiet our anger, gradually the amygdala will relax its grip on the rest of the brain and allow the vast potential of the cortex to become engaged in creative thinking and comprehensive problem solving.

So long as adrenaline and the amygdala have control of our brain, we cannot learn or think of anythng that is not colored by a survival emotion, in this case, anger.  We are not so much thinking creatively when we are angry as we are rehearsing stories we tell ourselves about why we should be angry.  We are engaged in what psychologists call, “stereotypic” thinking.  We are rehearsing a bias, not investigating reality.

You see this when pundits argue on tv.  One will site some facts to make their case.  The other will entirely ignore the facts presented and state their own facts.  (As if “facts” were the property of one group.)  The conversation has nothing to do with finding the truth.  It is about dominating the other.  Actual facts are less important than finding arguments to prevail.  The more rigid the identity, the more immune to facts the person becomes.

Who is offering the information is more important than the veracity of the information.  If a third party confirms our bias, they are seen as correct.  If they contradict our bias, they are labelled as a threat and their information is entirely discounted.  What suffers most when interacting with a Rigid Identity is an impartial examination of the facts.  Consequently, problem solving is ineffective as positions that are presented deliberately exclude information needed for a comprehensive solution.  In this light, a Rigid Identity creates the very instability and uncertainty it hates most.

Roger Fisher

Roger Fisher, the Harvard Professor of Law who co-authored the famous book on negotiation Getting to Yes, has a saying: “Solutions are not the solution.”  By this he means that we can’t enter into an effective problem solving situation with a pre-conceived idea of what the ultimate solution is.  We have to engage in a process of inquiry.  This inquiry is not possible when someone is gripped in a Rigid Identity.

There is much to say about the Rigid Identity. Most of which I’ll have to save for my forthcoming book.  The final point for this post is an important one, however.  It has to do with how our identity determines our sense of what is fair.

A funny thing happened to me on a bus in Israel that makes the point.  I was at a conference in Israel many years ago sponsored by the International Society of Political Psychology.  I was getting on a tour bus with a colleague talking about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.  We climbed the stairs discussing preconditions needed to start a sustainable peace process.  I had been making the case that there needed to be effort to create a sense of a common identity before effective and sustainable negotiations could begin.  Moving toward two empty seats, I said, “Our sense of justice is determined by our identity.  Until there is a common sense of identity, they will disagree on what is fair.”

As we sat she said, “huh?”

Just at that moment, a man who was sitting across from us stood up and took his coat off the hook in front of him.  The coat had prevented him from seeing out his window.  He leaned across the aisle and reached in front of the two of us saying, “Excuse me,” as he hung up his coat on our hook, blocking our view!

“You see!  There is it!”  I said.  “He doesn’t see us as a part of his identity.  So, to him, it is perfectly fair to hang up his coat in front of us.  He didn’t think about whether we could see or not.  We do not fit into his calculation of what is fair!  His identity restricts his sense of fairness to what is good for him only.”

Like Michaelangelo's "The Bearded Slave," we can become hardened and enslaved to a Rigid Identity.

And so it is with the Rigid Identity.  A person in this identity posture will not include the values, points of view or needs of others in their equation of justice.  Everyone wants to be on the side of justice.  But, justice is not a one sided proposition.  The person with a Rigid Identity will convince themselves they fight for justice when they make their heated political statements.  They will robe themselves with the mantle of virtue as defenders of justice, and they mean it.  But, it is not justice they defend.  It is entitlement for their identity that they confuse with justice.

Those who advocate from a position of a Rigid Identity add to the problems they say they are committed to fixing by not entertaining new information and insisting on domineering styles of interaction that exacerbate human relationships turning problems into outright conflict.

The preconditions of any real virtue are personal humility and dispassionate intellectual honesty.  These two traits are absent in the Rigid Identity.  Not necessarily out of vice.  But, they have not trained their amygdala to quiet down enough to entertain points of view that do not “prove” their a priori convictions.

The Rigid Identity and the Weakened Identity, we have seen, are natural social outcomes of the misapplication of instinctual responses to threat.  When we say they are instinctual, we mean that they are unthinking, automatic, stereotypic responses, not the result of open, unbiased and dispassionate inquiry.  They are geared to preserve our survival.  In that light, they impose severe constraints on the way we think, feel and act.  If we are not facing an imminent threat they can cause far more problems then they solve.

The next few posts will go into the dilemma posed by the Rigid Identity in balanced problem solving and extreme partisanship.  Then, we’ll explore how we can liberate ourselves from these instinctual responses and move into what makes us truly human, our “Compassionate Identity.”

Related Posts:

The “Weakened Identity” is the mirror image of the Rigid Identity.

The Three Identities: Weakened, Rigid and Compassionate

George Washington: Partisanship is the Country’s “Worst Enemy” is next.

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