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People are lost. We seek to know who we really, truly are – which is why we take DNA and endless personality tests. We search far and wide, deeply trying to understand what we really crave, trying to find our very own long, lost pronoun. Like fatherless kids on inner-city streets, we join gangs: not because the gangs are right or good, but simply because the gang provides us with knowledge of who we are.
I think this is at the heart of the political sickness in America right now: people are politically tribal not because one side or the other is better at marshaling the facts or more persuasive. Those sorts of things have become irrelevant. In an age where there are too many choices and too many options, people simply shut down: they pick a tribe for no other reason than that we are lost, and political tribes are a way to identify with something.
Imagine a child in front of two ice cream choices: it not hard to choose between vanilla and chocolate. Take that same child, and offer him 50 flavors… and the decision becomes so challenging that they can decide they do not want ice cream after all. I have seen it, repeatedly, with my own children! And it turns out that it is not just my children: everyone finds decisions – choices – more mentally taxing.
Now ask an impressionable teenager what they REALLY are. Explain that unless they have a special pronoun, they do not belong in the “I have a special pronoun club.” And voila! A Zhtare is Born.
“To thine own self be true.” But what is my true self? I quite like the idea of hacking people to death with axes – should I be true to that calling? And if not, why not? After all, announcing to the world my “identity” seems to be the highest form of bravery, regardless of who gets hurt. Anything less than full and enthusiastic disclosure is somehow living a lie. Indeed, after disclosure, I then need to act out my identity, otherwise, I am still not comfortable with myself. So first I need to join the “searching for an identity” crowd. And then I need to ally myself with one victim group or another so that I, too, can be a special victim. We ax murderers need to stick together.
Perhaps I can discover my true self by getting a DNA test, discovering that I am really an African pygmy and I should research and wear pygmy clothes – but only 7.5% of the time, because the Russian part of my DNA dictates that I should drink vodka with salty fish while expressing my Argentinian DNA by dancing the tango while wearing a hot red dress. And I wish I was joking; last week’s WSJ featured a woman who discovered late in life that her father was partially black, so she started dressing the part in African style. People are so lost that they feel the need to hunt, create and search for anything that is “true” that they can use to redefine themselves.
America is more permissive and tolerant right now than any civilization in the history of the world. What are the consequences? None of this makes people happy. We have a soaring suicide rate. More unhappiness – and less actual human connections and relationships – than ever before. Our wide-open tolerance is making people absolutely miserable.
It is easy to make fun of institutional civilization: Catholic rituals and Observant Judaism and even Rotary Clubs certainly have their flaws, but they share something that we have thrown away with the bathwater: an identity that comes paired with productive meaning and purpose as opposed to merely a pronoun and a membership card and assigned number within the Victim Hierarchy.
People need to belong. They just do. They must find a group, and if they cannot find one, they will create one based on nothing more than strong political leaders or a shared sexual confusion.
As far as I am concerned, the need to have an identity need not be a flaw: it can – and should – be used for good. There are ways to belong that do not make us into reflexive animals, recoiling against everyone from a different tribe.
But how do we get there from here? How do we save civilization?