We are told not to talk about religion and politics. Look at where that has gotten us. We are more ideologically divided than ever before.
Maybe we should reconsider? These are important topics worthy of conversation. When we discuss politics, we are debating what kind of society we want to live in. When we discuss religion, we are speaking of personal values and spiritual inclinations.
However, if we want to have civil discussions, we need to make a distinction between two competing elements that are found within each human being.
Human and Ideological Personas
The idea of the two personas—originally presented by Padraig O’Malley, who took part in the Northern Ireland peace process—perfectly explains the distinction we need to make if we want to have meaningful discussions. According to O’Malley, each human being is a mix of two personas. One is human the other ideological.
The Human Persona
The human persona consists of the things that make us co-human. We are born, we die, we laugh, we cry, we suffer, we feel, we think, we have bodily needs, and so on. To better understand co-human elements, it can be helpful to look at models such as the Maslow hierarchy of needs.
The Ideological Persona
The ideological persona includes all beliefs and values that cannot be independently verified as true or untrue. This includes political ideologies, moral values, religious affiliations, and even extends to nutritional ideas, spiritual preferences, and success principles, to name a few.
Seeing Only the Ideology
The danger when conversing with another human being, especially online where there is no human contact, is to stop seeing the co-human elements and see only the ideology.
Labels are applied with lightning speed in such a context. For example, people are quick to judge others with words such as liberal, conservative, religious fanatic, immoral atheist, health nut, etc. Such labeling dehumanizes a person. When –isms are aggressively applied, the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ expands quickly. We see no co-human qualities, only ideological differences.
Remembering the Human Persona
By making an effort to remember the co-human elements, tempers are less likely to flare. For a (worn out) example, you can debate politics with your uncle at Thanksgiving without excluding him from your life IF you remember that despite the fact that you disagree ideologically you and him are similar in many ways.
This is one of the reasons why direct human contact is so important. When people get to spend time with others who believe differently than they do, they are exposed to the co-human elements. Breaking bread together, dancing, and doing good deeds side-by-side can be effective bonding experiences because they create a human connection and remind people that at the human levels they are not as different as they thought.
Talking About Ideological Differences
Some of the ideological topics that divide are really difficult to talk about. Without a co-human acknowledgment, the conversations will quickly devolve into bomb-throwing from ideological camps.
Let me give you two personal examples of how I avoid bomb-throwing.
I come from a liberal Scandinavian country where I leaned center-right in politics. I now reside in Texas, where that same political ideology is labeled center-left. As a result, I have friends here that I disagree with ideologically. However, because I spend time with them doing co-human activities, such as dinners, sports events, and concerts, we are able to disagree about politics every now and then without completely dehumanizing each other.I also attend as many interfaith events as I possibly can, not because I completely agree with everything that is done in the name of the world’s religions, but rather to connect with people of all faiths on a human level.
Two Possible Extremes
There are two possible extremes that are worth mentioning in relation to the personas.
The first is dehumanization, which has already been mentioned. It happens when we cannot see any co-human similarities between ‘the other’ and ourselves, i.e. when we ascribe all the worst attributes of a certain ideology to them without having a nuanced conversation to find out for ourselves.
This is happening more and more in our society, especially online where people are mashed in with the worst of ideologues if they share the ‘wrong’ meme or write the ‘wrong’ phrase. It is important to note that such dehumanization through ideological reduction and language is the first step towards violence if the path is followed to its logical conclusion.
The other extreme is less obvious. It happens where everything about a person is completely humanized and no distinction is made between humanity and ideology. As a result, there can be no discussion about ideological differences because those are seen as an attack on a person’s humanity.
This second kind of extreme is flourishing on college campuses (Jonathan Haidt has pointed out that, “we can only have a discussion if we all agree”), politically correct culture, and is also becoming an element that the interfaith movement has to contend with.
The extreme of complete humanization can be destructive as well because it stifles all dialogue about ideological differences and that can lead to more divisiveness down the road.
Striking a Balance
If we want to have a constructive discussion about religion and politics, it is important to keep this idea of the two personas in mind.
Make no mistake. It is a difficult balance to strike.
What we are aiming for is to be mindful of the fact that each human being is a mix of two personas. When we talk about ideology, we must also affirm each other’s humanity, and, when we affirm humanity, we must also be mindful of differing ideologies.
By doing this, we will be better equipped to have respectful dialogues.
Interfaith Minister & Author
The idea of the two personas is central to my program, Working Together Towards Harmony.
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