The Problem With Putting Ourselves in Boxes

By Nat Eliason in Psychology

A woman walked past me the other day sporting a flowing tank top with the message “We Should All be Feminists.”

On the surface, I agree, but the sentiment is problematic. My qualm, of course, isn’t equal rights. I’m certainly a legal egalitarian. The issue is the fuzziness of the term “feminist,” and any other -ist, -at, -an or other packaged ideology.

The original concept of feminism is something any educated person would get behind. Equal rights for women and men. The problem is that the term has been polluted over the years by people taking it to different extremes, where “being a feminist” can mean anything from being a legal egalitarian to believing that beauty pageants are evilall sex is rape, or that transgender and transsexual women can’t call themselves women.

Now, certainly, most people who call themselves feminists don’t agree with at least two of the last three notions, but you don’t know how someone else understands the term. When you put yourself in a box like “feminist,” you lose the nuance of your belief. You give someone else the power of interpretation.

In politics, what does it mean if someone’s a Democrat? Do they subscribe wholesale to every Democratic party belief? Or do they differ on some issues? You get more clarity by making specifications like “socially liberal but fiscally conservative,” but even that can lead to misinterpretations on specific policies.

Vegetarian can mean anything from “I don’t eat meat” to “I’m about to ruin your dinner with a lecture.” Millennial can mean “I was born between 1980 and 1995,” or “prepare to be knocked over by a wave of lazy entitlement.” Atheist can mean “I don’t believe in a god” or “I aggressively challenge the faiths of religious people.”

Broad labels and categories open the door to too much misinterpretation. When we use heuristics like “Republican” or “Feminist” or “7th Generation Blacksmith” we let other people project their understanding of those demographics onto us. We give up the nuance of our beliefs. And when someone has a negative view of a certain ideology, we can give them a negative impression of us despite them having a wildly different interpretation.

Getting lumped into beliefs you don’t agree with is one problem, but there’s a bigger one. Putting yourself in a box leads to lazy thinking.

When you define yourself by an ideology, you look to that ideology to form your opinions, instead of forming your opinions yourself. You don’t sit down and honestly think through the arguments on both sides of abortion, you say “I’m a Democrat and Democrats are pro-choice so I’m pro-choice!” You don’t do this consciously, but it’s what’s going on in the background.

We don’t live in tribes anymore, so we create tribes around shared ideas. We like knowing that there is a big group of Democrats, Red-Pillers, Fair Trade Organic Purchasers out there and that we are part of them. We like feeling like we’re part of a tribe, and we get that through putting ourselves in these shared ideological boxes.

But if we want to think for ourselves, we have to get out of our ideological tribes as much as possible. We have to not think of ourselves as Libertarians, Midwesterners, or Nomads, but rather as simply ourselves, and assess ideas on their individual merit, instead of on how they fit into our boxes with us.

That’s not easy, but here are some ideas for getting started.

Read books outside your comfort zone. Try to find good books that disagree with your core beliefs. Read ones that make you uncomfortable. Philosophy and religious books are the most effective for this, but they can be a little dense.

Turn off your Facebook news feed. Facebook makes money by putting you in a box and selling you box decorations. It knows what you like, and keeps sending you that, so stop looking at it if you want to get a less boxy view of the world. You won’t miss anything important.

Diversify your Twitter feed. Follow politicians you disagree with. Try to get a stream of a diversity of inputs. Get into arguments to force yourself to clarify your beliefs (without being a dick about it, ideally).

Find smart people who you can debate with. One of my favorite things about talking with people like AdilJustinNeil, and others is our ability to debate with each other. If your views aren’t regularly being challenged, then they’re unlikely to be well informed or well reasoned.

Catch yourself when you start saying “I’m a ______.” Try to weed out the notions of ideological tribalism that you have right now. Whatever you think you “are,” dig into those beliefs and see which ones you actually agree with. Do you agree with every single socially liberal and fiscally liberal platform? Have you done your own independent research on the healthiness (or not) of being vegan?

Get out of your bubble. Part of the reason I felt San Francisco wasn’t for me was the insane density of homogenous start-up guys. Many of the digital nomad hubs, like Chiang Mai, are the same way. If you’re spending your time in an ideological bubble, try to make friends outside of it. Second Degree Dinners are great for this.

Diversify your identity. If you describe yourself by a certain job, that too can create ideological boxes that you end up subscribing to so that you avoid cognitive dissonance. But if you mix up what you do, whether that’s through hobbies, art, or side gigs, that can help you feel like you’re not completely defined by a single role.

Spread out your gurus. Who do you follow online? Tim Ferriss? Marie Forleo? Sam Harris? If you’re getting your ideas and information from a single person, or a like-minded cluster of persons, you’ll end up in boxes as well. They won’t have clear names like “Democrat,” but if you listen to the same people as everyone else, you’ll think like everyone else.

It’s not easy, and the temptation will always be to find a cozy ideological niche to slip into, but if we can stay aware of it and catch ourselves when we’re conforming to one school of thought, we can get a little closer to thinking for ourselves.

Footnotes

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