The good people at The Iowa Review decided to extend the deadline for their contest, thereby giving entrants two more weeks to procrastinate (they wittily declared). It is now two days until the extended deadline, and guess what I'm doing.
What I'm thinking about instead: "ists" and "isms." What came to mind specifically is the idea that neither "idealist" nor "feminist" are normally capitalized, yet the latter is used in a much more definitive and politicized sense than the former. In other words, when spoken, it often sounds as though it is capitalized. So I started trying to think of how this applies to other terms. "Atheist," like "feminist," holds a higher level of potency and is more likely to ruffle feathers in either direction whereas "anarchist" veers closer to "idealist," and almost rings of pure idealism itself. The difference does not have to do with the importance of the concepts represented. Supporting anarchy is likely to be just as consequential as declaring a disbelief in the existence of a god or gods, if not more so. At least in theory. But it is less of a social concern in the developed world right now and also more difficult of a trend to track. Idealism might save or break the world, but we would likely have no way of knowing if it did, and if we tried to figure it out, we would first have to fight amongst ourselves about what it really meant.
But there are certain named beliefs which, when they gain a particular social status, develop a perceived power to change the world through sheer numbers of identification. I don't know if this power is real, false, or simply becomes real through faith. What I have noticed, though, is that identification of these terms is often encouraged by reason of the obvious simplicity of the definition, and yet I've rarely (I think never) witnessed encouragement of this type from anyone who did not also attach importance to the level of public identification with this term. (Which is a bit "duh," I know, as any other situation would assume the encourager to simply be in love with the idea of proper definition of self. Actually, I think there are some people like that, but I think usually they take it out on themselves rather than others.) For example, someone asks me if I am a feminist. I reply that I don't call myself a feminist or identify as one, but that I don't mind if they think I am. They ask me if I believe women and men should have equal rights. I say yes. They ask if I am for the removal of societal barriers that prevent women from living as equal to men. I say yes. (This is an example, so it doesn't really matter, but for the record, I find even this language vague and worthy of consideration. It's a question asked in a vacuum that presupposes it is possible to know what constitutes a "barrier" for an entire gender and what it would mean for entire gender to be entirely equal to the opposite. I know that this "individualist" argument is used by people who are in reality against the idea of all people just being treated generally equally and fairly and decently--which I am all for--but that doesn't change the fact that for me it's a worthy consideration.) So then the question of why I don't call myself a feminist arises. What do I have against it? Nothing. It simply doesn't occur to me as being the obvious course of action. It in fact does not occur to me as being much of a course of action at all. I can consider myself a feminist in the privacy of my own home. I can say to myself that I am a feminist while I am sitting on my couch eating organic cheese puffs from Trader Joe's and I feel with confidence that in this scenario my choice of snack food has more of an effect on the world at large than me calling myself a feminist. However, let's take another scenario. Let's say that if I wake up every morning and tell myself that I am a feminist, that if I repeat this phrase in my head, it somehow makes me feel better. Let's say that I think it has a positive effect on my life, that I think it makes me a stronger person. In this scenario, I would say that there is exponentially greater value to the concept of feminism in my life than the presence of cheese puffs (barring the possibility of my having a deep spiritual or romantic relationship with the cheese puffs, which I am not willing to outright overlook even in this hypothetical scenario). Even if there were no way to assign any objective value to it (which there may or may not be, I'm not judging that here) there would still be a very real value for me. Even if it were somehow proven that the idea of feminism was detrimental to society in general, it might make sense for me to overlook that knowledge, considering the personal benefit. However, this logic could be applied to nearly anything, from religion to Botox to cheese puffs, and that, I believe, is the reason why people feel the need to seek out counterparts. (Again definitely "duh," but I'm working this out as I'm going along.)
If what you feel is good only makes you feel good, you're likely to feel, as a social creature, anxiety concerning both the feelings of those around you as well as your own dark recesses. And in many ways this may be a good, healthy instinct. But what bothers me about it (to finally get to my long-awaited point) is that we tend to frighten each other so much when we are unable to immediately "identify" with one another. I don't think that this is a new trend, and I don't even think brevity is necessarily a new trend, but at the same time I think there's something to be said for Facebook/Twitter culture. We have these tools that enable us to put out feelers to connect with those who have (i.e. choose) similar identifiers without even having to be in the same room as those others. There are a lot of social networking sites out there, but the ones that seem to do the best are the ones that are good at condensing identifiers and encouraging people to express opinions in fewer words. I still have a hard time getting my head around the "political views" section on Facebook. For me, "pro-choice," is a "political view." "Liberal" is not a view, it's an identifier. For a while I had my Facebook identifier set to "Independent" and then I started annoying myself by just thinking about the fact that some people would probably see that and think of the kind of "independents" made fun of by The Daily Show during the last presidential election who couldn't make up their minds between Obama and McCain. In context, I found this funny, too, and did not have any problem making this decision (though I always consider third-party candidates and voted for Mike Gravel rather than Obama in the democratic primary). But at the same time I don't think there's anything so ridiculous about feeling that there isn't much of a difference between the political parties, and I was a little taken aback when a co-worker announced to me on Election Day that "we" had won. For people around my age, it's often very simple. It's a question of "do you want abortion to be legal or are you an asshole, asshole?" But I find myself very dismayed by how people can actually be proud and satisfied with their own answer to that question, as if they don't even deserve any more consideration. As a result I often find myself feeling more of a kinship with people who get fed up with voting and politics altogether than those who are diehard Democrats. I understand the necessity and urgency of voting a certain way sometimes, but what I don't understand is the enthusiasm. What strikes me as significant, though, is that it's been a very, very long time since anyone has asked me in person what my political affiliations are. People are quick to identify themselves and I think they're probably quick to peek with plenty of curiosity if you have things like that up online, but if they're already in the same room with you they aren't going to ask you. Which I don't blame them for; I don't want to ask you either. But I think this is all indicative of this kind of loneliness and isolation in modern society under which people don't trust each other, but the mistrust itself is self-perpetuating. We try to come up with any kind of solution that involves not talking to one another, or to those we consider "the problem." We believe that we can transform or at least subdue the people on the other side of the fence through sterile means (requiring no contact or further understanding on our part): education, lack of education, public infrastructure, lower taxes, higher taxes, etc. I'm not saying that it's not important to make decisions about these things. We have to, obviously. But I think it's also good to be aware of the extent to which political tug-of-war can be dehumanizing. Or I guess I should say the extent to which it is always dehumanizing. Sometimes dehumanization is a price we can be willing to pay. But to be aware of that, I think, is a good thing. And to think about the possibility of valuing our own humanity and the humanity of those around us enough to not always automatically trade it for a simple, hard line of thought. Or an identity projected into the world that doesn't benefit us concretely but only others theoretically.
I never thought I would say this but maybe we should all just watch more sports.
Again, thanks to The Iowa Review for making this all possible.