My family was a Chevy family. I had friends who were from long lines of Ford drivers. In this day and age, I know people who are devoted to VW and Honda. When they go to buy a car, they start with the dealer of the vehicle they’re emotionally committed to.
The thing is, we all recognize this to be a little silly. We know we ought to shop and compare prices and features. We know that just because a company made a great truck 20 years ago doesn’t mean they have the best truck now, and it promises nothing about their family sedans. We have to weigh our needs against price and features in a range of vehicles. We can’t be slavishly devoted to a brand.
If I walk on to a Chevy dealer’s lot, they’ll tell me that they have a great car for the price. They’ll tell me that they’ll give me the best deal on the features I need. If I go to a Ford dealer, they’ll say the same thing. If I go to a different Chevy dealer, they’ll even tell me that their deal is better than the first dealer, even on the same model. If we have any sense, we won’t trust any of them; we’ll get all the facts before we go in, and we’ll go to more than one dealer to compare prices and features. Still the salesman will try to convince you that you don’t understand the features well enough to make the choice without his guidance. We expect this, and we don’t trust him.
The thing is, we don’t do this in other, more important aspects of life. People who are emotionally committed to the GOP will try to rationalize the views of candidates. The same goes for “straight ticket” Dems who vote for candidates they’ve never heard of in local races because they have a D by their name. Of course the candidates and their staff are going to tell you that they have the right answers, and if you disagree, it is because you don’t have all the facts you need to understand the features, I mean the positions, of the candidate.
When people have a stake in the success of an institution, we have to question their objectivity, and thus we have to be skeptical of their claims. Too many of us forget to do this, especially when we invest ourselves in the institution as well. Whether it is a political movement or a religious institution, we need to remain skeptical when we are being sold. Every stump-speech and every sermon are designed to bring us into the fold and to subvert our voice into that of the group. That’s great when you have rationally chosen to be a member, but less so as time goes on because all such groups are subject to outside influences. New leadership, new opposition, or even new alliances with other groups will change the message of your group, and you have to stay aware of those changes and whether your membership is still good for you.
The more it matters, the less we seem to think about it. The bigger the issue involved, the less we seem to be willing to reexamine our participation in the group. We make it part of our self-image, and we fight against the change in our sense of self that comes with leaving the group, and we naturally blame the group for abandoning us. More often, though, the changes are reactions to new information and new situations that the group has adjusted to in a way which is uncomfortable to us. The fact is that when this happens, integrity and ego fight for dominance within us, and we have to choose between changing our label to match our world view, and changing our world view to keep the label, and the label is often the easier choice.
There is no easy solution, and so there is no conclusion to this essay. I simply think that we need to be more aware of the tactics involved in forming such movements and in holding on to the members, often long after they cease to be served by their participation. We need to stay sharp when we hear a sales pitch, especially when it seeks to encourage us to buy into a new idea that piggy-backs onto an old label; to force an old way of thinking on to a new situation. When we are asked to hold on to our Religious label, or Nationality, or membership in a group as higher than our own principles and ideals, we need to be able to be skeptical, and history teaches us that it isn’t always easy.