If we ever hope to rid our country’s political discourse of the poison of identity politics, we must begin by rebuilding the psychological foundations of healthy identity formation in our children.
Over the past several decades, a series of social and political causes—perhaps most prominently, abortion and same-sex marriage—have polarized the American people. For many adherents of these causes, passionate political involvement now fills the place more traditionally occupied by religious belief. Virtually every cause, led by its militant true believers and enlisted activists, has exploited the tactics of identity politics, vilifying the opposition while proclaiming its aggrieved righteousness. Identity politics draws people in by appealing to fairness, inducing guilt, promoting fear, demonizing opponents, and attaching the cause to a political affiliation.
Not all people are equally vulnerable to these tactics. As a psychiatrist, I firmly believe that people’s susceptibility to identity politics, moral relativism, and situational ethics is determined, at least in part, by certain key developmental life experiences—both conscious and unconscious.
The field of psychiatry possesses a rich knowledge of human emotional and mental development. Unfortunately, this knowledge is largely ignored in the climate of biological reductionism that currently dominates the discipline. Still, the knowledge is there for those who care to make an honest inquiry, even if the realities of psychological development do not support their preferred political position. In particular, psychiatry clearly demonstrates the formative influence of the role models with whom children identify and underscores the importance of the traditional nuclear family. And understanding the crucial role of identification in personality development can shed light on why our country has fallen for the polarizing politics of special interest groups.
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