Opinion: we often base our identities on political affiliation or religious beliefs and sometimes don’t understand what these actually stand for

As a new year begins, there are many elections swiftly approaching. The political campaign machines are already starting to purr into action as they begin the process of building up their party and candidates, while simultaneously destroying the reputations of their opponents. It is time for the people to choose sides again and display their colours proudly, for better or for worse, as they try to push the "other guys" back into the pits of irrelevance. Everyone picks their team and gets the warpaint ready for the next round of hostile engagements.

This "us versus them" mentality is one of the traits of modern politics that obstructs good civil discourse and is present in all levels of politics all over the world. Shouting matches and entrenched beliefs are soon to the fore, with volume being preferred to content in debates. Fiery exchanges will be held in all manner of venues, from courtrooms to across dinner tables, with heated disagreements sure to be the order of the day.

But why is it this way?

Delegates at the 1972 Fine Gael Ard Fheis

In discussions on taboo topics, if you take an opinion to your fellow conversationalist that is unpopular with them, there is a mechanism that many people use to shut down any and all debate that may follow. They may end up resorting to the "ugh, yuck" defence rather than acknowledging within themselves that maybe – just maybe – their adversary has a point. This is the debate equivalent of sweeping a game board off the table because you are losing and it has become worryingly commonplace.

This "ugh, yuck" reaction is a mechanism that people resort to when their deeply-held beliefs that are unexamined and emotionally-rooted come into contact with a person or argument that threatens to disprove their belief. It is a normal, if immature and close-minded, human reaction to cognitive dissonance, where it is easier and less scary to become obnoxious and unconstructive in an attempt to make the source of your discomfort go away.

People base their identities on their political affiliation or religious beliefs and a lot of the time don’t understand what they actually stand for. Because their parents and family through generations believed in this, they will do the same and, by God, so will their children. Cognitive dissonance rears its ugly head when the person is faced with the prospect of rethinking their entire belief (and all other beliefs and social circles predicated on that belief) if it is shown to be potentially wrong. 

"This "us versus them" mentality is one of the traits of modern politics that obstructs good civil discourse and is present in all levels of politics all over the world"

It becomes even worse when it is not just some random belief involved (like "today is Monday"), but rather something deeply-held and central to the person. This is especially so when they’ve incorporated something like politics, religion or some other affiliation into their identity and they think of themselves not as "John Murphy", but as "John Murphy, Christian" or "John Murphy, Democrat" or "John Murphy, Fine Gael". If another belief or affiliation comes along that threatens it, it’s no longer just the belief that they are risking losing – they’re risking a part of them dying.

This is an incredibly scary prospect and it takes real commitment to the cause of rationalism to stand up against these opposing ideals. Entire reputations and identities are based on these "memberships" and most people would be unwilling to risk losing a whole social circle and way of life to change their belief system.

A suitable analogy for this would be that people build their houses with the intention that they will stand throughout their lifetimes and protect them from winds both strong and weak. Anybody with a properly built house should be able to withstand a little wind. In fact, it can be a thrill to see your house be buffeted by gales and hurricanes and admire just how structurally sound it is.

"Once people reach a point where they feel it is necessary to change their belief system, they end up a lot better for it"

However, if you were lazy or ignorant when building your house and your house is poorly constructed with shoddy building supplies and practices, then you are liable to get very angry with the wind, and by extension anyone who makes a habit of plugging in wind machines and directing them at your house for fun. This is perhaps their own fault for cutting corners in the construction and not ensuring that they established a strong foundation, but sometimes it is just easier to take the shortcuts and move into that nice neighbourhood as soon as possible.

Is there a solution to all of this? In an ideal world, people would research the candidates, the issues, how the candidates plan to tackle these issues, the political parties and what they really stand for behind all the bluster. They would also self-examine themselves and look inwards to their own beliefs to see who aligns with these inner beliefs and cast an educated ballot with the best intentions in mind.

Once people reach a point where they feel it is necessary to change their belief system (or a point where they are satisfied with their existing ones), they end up a lot better for it. They become stronger individuals and can better the world as they see best with confidence in their own ideas. Meanwhile, the people who blindly refuse and plug their ears to avoid the pain of losing their iron-clad beliefs end up getting caught in a downward spiral of escalating ignorance.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ