a theory of loyalty

November 13th, 2012

There’s a concept, a theory, I’ve been kicking around in recent days. I was thinking about the way beliefs are social; we believe things because we want to fit in with certain people, because we want their approval, because in our formative years someone taught us to think and feel in a certain way. In terms of Buddhist psychology, the self isn’t separate–these traits I take as “me” exist only in collaboration with others.

This theory applies perhaps most to the concept of “liking.” In our current conception, there’s not a lot of difference between making the statement “I like U2’s songs” and the statement “U2 is a great band” or “U2’s songs are great.” But as I said, we believe these things in collaboration with others. The strength of your conviction (that U2 is a great band) is not only based in how much you enjoy the songs, but in how much the people for whom you feel loyalty expect you to enjoy the songs with them.

I’ve noticed that certain media, or certain people, seems more likely to show this trend. There are certain movies or shows that it’s considered a kind of sacrilege not to like. Tell someone you don’t like this movie and you’ll get an offended result, the implication, “I thought we were friends.” So it’s tempting to like that just to solidify your loyalty to those who like it.

And in our media-entrenched world, we have a sense of loyalty to the makers and performers of entertainment as well. Listening to a favorite song can feel like hanging out with an old friend, and we keep liking the song out of loyalty.

This loyalty isn’t entirely rational, which is something that caused me distress as an overly rational teenager. I’d sometimes feel like there should be some tit-for-tat. “I listened to U2 because you wanted me to,” I’d think about a friend, “so why won’t you listen to Nitzer Ebb for me?” I didn’t ask in so many words, of course. And perhaps if I’d been self-aware enough to ask, and they were self-aware enough to answer, they would say, “I didn’t ask you to listen to U2 for me; I asked you to do it for Bono.”

Pop-culture debates become pretty contentious in my circles (and my favorite websites) perhaps because we try to assert the independence of self, try to dance around the issue without recognizing the role that society plays in quality. And when someone else doesn’t see it the same way, it seems like we need to put the pressure on.

For the record, I don’t like the movie Napoleon Dynamite. It just does nothing for me. But this is one of those places where, if I talk about it, the argument gets heated fast. If I say, “You only like Napoleon Dynamite because your friends like it,” that’s kind of mean, and vice versa if you say to me, “You only dislike Napoleon Dynamite because it’s too popular and you want to be different.” Those words wouldn’t hurt if there weren’t some truth to them, some fear that you’re actually looking into my psyche.

I think what I’m getting at is how much this sense of “self” that we take for granted is actually interwoven with other people. We have to try very hard to make this “self” separate… all that hard work for nothing.

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