You’re Better Than Your Beliefs

If you identify too strongly with your opinions, you’ll never grow

Powerful ideas can grab hold of your mind like nothing else. People will fight and die for ideas — look at the wars of ideology of the 20th century. The wars of religion in the past were (partially) fighting over ideas, as well. “Should we trust the Church or read the Bible for ourselves? Let’s spend centuries fighting each other to decide!”

An idea’s hold on you is even stronger if the idea is your own, your baby. It’s not just something that you agree with, it’s something you’ve created, and possibly something you’re known for and gained a reputation from. It’s become part of your identity. It doesn’t matter if it’s something as radical as a new ideology, or as small as a new talking point about a specific issue. When it’s your idea it feels sacred.

This kind of love towards your ideas (ideophilia?) is dangerous for your growth as a person. An idea is just one way of thinking about things. If it holds a lot of appeal to you, that’s great, that means it’s very well suited to your current perspective and level of knowledge. As your perspective changes, and you see things from more perspectives, you’ll want new ideas. As you learn more, you’ll want new ideas. If you’re afraid to let go of your old hobbyhorses then you’ll never mature. A teenager embracing communism, anarchism or some other rebellious ideology is fine. A grown adult still clinging to those kinds of ideas is a little sad.

Ideas are cheap

Ideas are generated constantly and freely by our brains. Any idea you’ve had came from your brain as it is now, or as it was earlier. Your brain is just going to keep getting better. That means you’re going to be perpetually supplied with ideas that are better than any you have today. As precious as your ideas feel, they effectively have less value than your phone or car. Imagine if you were given the newest model iPhone as soon as it was released, for free, without even asking for it. You wouldn’t care much about your current iPhone, right?

People and principles are valuable

We’re willing to sacrifice a great deal for any idea that we’re in love with. Sometimes we kill and die over them. More often, thankfully, we take smaller steps. We shouldn’t even take those steps.

It’s very tempting to deceive people to convince them to support one of your beliefs. Around 2005, when gay marriage was a hot topic, I read a fantastic article by a gay man about how gay marriage supporters were sometimes being nearly as reductive and un-scientific as their opponents. He wrote about the fluidity of sexual orientation, how we aren’t “born that way”, and about his own personal experience with his fluid sexual orientation. He mixed personal touches with psychological research in a really fascinating way. It was not well received by some gay marriage supporters.

I tried to argue with one of them. I was able to convince them that the author’s data were right, and their rebuttal attempts were incorrect (and, I silently suspected, disingenuous). That didn’t change their attitude one bit. They insisted that the author should stop writing true things and sharing meaningful personal experiences, and even take their article down, because it’s inconvenient to The Cause. This critic cared more about their cause than about integrity or authentic human expression.

That’s a minor example of a huge problem. If you want to see it taken to the extremes, look at Mao’s agricultural reforms, for example. During the Great Leap Forward Mao implemented his plan to collective and modernize agriculture. Tens of millions of Chinese people starved to death. Mao was so obsessed with his idea he had no interest in reports of human suffering and death.

We’re very unlikely to be in the situation Mao was in. We are very likely to be in the situation of the gay marriage advocate. We hurt others and sacrifice our principles on a very small scale. It’s such a small scale that it seems harmless. We feel like our ideas are so superior to the alternatives, it’s worth fudging things a little to gain an advantage.

Don’t do it! Your ideas are only going to get better with time. You don’t want to spend the rest of your life carrying guilt for the things you did in support of an idea that, in retrospect, wasn’t even that good. Or, worse, you justify your harmful choices by spending the rest of your life clutching that idea, treating it as irreplaceable. You avoid guilt by avoiding growth.

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