Ego Politics: Identity, Religion, and Criticism

In the course of my interactions with the members of various religious and political ideologies over the years, I have noticed a fascinating phenomenon pertaining to identity, ideology, and criticism. I tend to call this phenomenon ‘Ego Politics’ (courtesy of James Fodor); in a nutshell, people who are emotionally invested in an ideology—people whose ideology forms an integral part of their self-perceived identity—have a tendency to defend their belief-system at all costs, and to perceive any criticism of their ideology as some kind of personal attack.

In order to elucidate the implications of this phenomenon, I will regale you with an anecdote. The most salient example of Ego Politics that I have personally witnessed occurred on Wednesday the 27th of February, 2013, when I was operating the O-Week stall for the Rationalist Association of Monash University (R.A.M) . That semester’s O-Week was a bountiful one, and after several days of practice I had perfected my propaganda spiel to attract new members to the club: “Are you interested in rationalism, skepticism, and critical thinking?” I would chirp, with a smile on my face and a twinkle in my eye – or something like that. There was an unprecedented number of sign-ups that year…

But that all changed when the Fire Nation attacked. At some point during the day, I was approached by a girl lacking any clearly identifiable religious apparel, who wandered over to the R.A.M stall with a friend in tow. Sometimes you can detect the confessional affiliation of the approaching person via some tell-tail sign (such as an innocuous cross around the neck, or a small kippah on the scalp, or flowing priestly robes – little things like that), but in this case, there was nothing to go on. I gave her my usual introductory pitch, and after some friendly conversation about the possibility of rational theism, she revealed herself to be a Muslimah. A discussion concerning the particulars of her religious beliefs ensued, leading eventually to a conversation regarding the efficacy and nature of the Qurʾan. And then, all hell broke loose. In retrospect, it does appear that she was becoming more and more agitated as the conversation progressed, but in the moment I was oblivious to her mounting tension: I was consciously making an effort to be courteous, polite and pleasant, so I fully expected the same kind of treatment in return. How wrong I was.

Our meandering conversation had led us to Surah 4:3 of the Qurʾan, which I was citing as an example of the thematic incoherence prevalent in the overall book: the verse begins with a discussion on the equitable treatment of orphans (continuing on from the previous verse), but abruptly changes topic mid-verse and suddenly begins talking about the acceptable quantity of wives that one may marry (carrying on into the next verse with a discussion on dowries and other marital jargon). This was, I argued, a clear example of the topical incoherence inherent to the Qurʾan. My Muslim interlocutor naturally disagreed with my contention, but became confused as to the content of the verse in question; she denied that the verse contained any references to orphans, and asked—in her mistaken bewilderment—whether I was referring to ‘those whom your right hands possess.’ This in turn puzzled me – the Qurʾānic phrase ‘those whom your hands possess’ (ma malakat aymanukum) is a euphemism for concubines, and has no obvious connection to orphans (yatama). Surah 4:3 certainly does mention concubines, but only at the end of the verse (in the discussion on marriage and wives) – thusly, it appeared to me that my Muslim customer had mistakenly conflated this later reference to concubines with the discussion on orphans earlier in the verse. In order to clarify this confusion, I enquired in turn: “Do you mean ma malakat aymanukum?” When she gave me a perplexed look, I continued: “You know – sex-slaves.”

Her response was nothing short of breathtaking. Upon the utterance of this keyword (“sex-slaves”), I became the lucky recipient of the most dazzling display of irrational and inarticulate rage that I have ever witnessed.

In essence, she ‘flipped her shit’, and began screaming incoherent gibberish at me. In the midst of her furious babbling, I vaguely discerned words like “bigot” and “prejudiced”, and the general gist that to her mind, I was grossly slandering her religion. She even mentioned her father, claiming that if she brought up Qurʾanic concubines to her dad, he wouldn’t know what she was talking about, and thus, I was wrong – a knock-down argument, clearly.

I tried to clarify that despite the clear endorsement of concubinage expressed within the Qurʾan, Islamic Tradition, and classical Islamic Law, I certainly wasn’t suggesting that she (nor indeed most Muslims) personally supported such an institution – naturally, she was free to interpret her scripture as she pleased, and to express her religiosity in a progressive fashion if she saw fit (as many Muslims tend to do these days). Unfortunately, however, there were no pauses in her indignant tirade, and I couldn’t get a word in edgeways. Eventually, the Muslim girl’s friend intervened, pulling her irate companion away from the R.A.M stall and thus sparing me from any further ranting.

It didn’t end there: a short while later, a fellow R.A.M committee-member happened to be passing through the Den (beneath the Matheson Library), where she espied the Muslim girl with her friend. The enraged young Muslimah was still carrying on (“huffing and puffing”) about our earlier encounter, and was loudly expressing her angry incredulity that anyone could lack belief in God.

I learned two things that day. Firstly, it doesn’t matter how friendly or polite you are – some people will still manage to take offense to anything you say, regardless of your manner. In the case of the Muslim girl cited above, my criticisms of her beliefs were eliciting clear agitation and discomfort long before her visceral reaction to the issue of Qurʾanic sex-slaves; even my mild observation regarding the demonstrable thematic incoherence of the Qurʾan was enough to cause her irritation (sadly, I failed to heed these warning signs).

Secondly, it is virtually impossible to criticise someone’s deeply-held convictions without causing them some trauma. This is where Ego Politics manifests: for the religionist, their spiritual convictions often form the foundations of their identity as a person. Consequently, any criticism of their religious beliefs—no matter how amiable or polite—will often be interpreted consciously or unconsciously as an attack on their personal identity. Ego Politics certainly aren’t limited to theists, either – the adherents of political ideologies also frequently manifest this kind of irrational response to criticism of their political views. (Generally, this is more characteristic of those at the extremes of the political spectrum.)

In essence, it doesn’t matter how accurate your criticisms may be, or how nicely you word them: many ideologues—by dint of their Ego Politics, and their deep emotional attachment to their religious or political convictions—will at best dismiss them prima facie, and at worst react with outrage to a critique of their foundational and integral beliefs. (We all act like this from time to time.)

Until an ideologue of this kind recognises their Ego Politics—i.e., their reactionary, irrational overprotectiveness of their foundational beliefs—critical discussion with such an individual is futile.

Image Credits: Flickr @ Tommaso Meli

Lot's Wife Editors

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