One hears this phrase a great deal currently, “We must separate ideas from people.” This is especially true when the topic turns to religion and politics. It’s a debate which has risen to prominence, as far as I can tell, due to the recent influx of Islamic terrorist attacks, where those who use the line attempt to delineate one’s beliefs from the individual (separating the tenets of Islam from individual practitioners of the faith). You will generally hear this most prominently from those individuals who define themselves as “Classical Liberals,” people such as Dave Rubin, Maajid Nawaz, Larry King and the whole plethora of Youtube “rationalists,” etc. But what does it really mean to separate one’s ideas from “the individual”?
I do not find this to be a particularly complicated topic so I will attempt to put a nail in its coffin as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Let me flatly say that this notion is perfectly fine insofar as those ideas are not held as beliefs by [X] individual. Insofar as one truly believes something, however, one can not help but be defined by such a belief (which is why Atheism is such a superfluous label, as it defines one not by what one believes but rather by what one does not). For instance, if I truly believed that it was perfectly fine to murder men who were weaker than me and subsequently throw their women into a harem for my sexual pleasure, this would doubtless effect the way I behave; and if it effects the way I behave, in what way can one possibly say that it doesn’t effect me “as an individual”?
How, exactly, would you separate such ideas from me as a person? You couldn’t. Those things would be core to the fictional me’s identity in the same way that the Five Pillars are core to the identity of Islamists.
Much of the push-back against ideas contributing to one’s identity can be found in the modernistic notion of “The real you,” I recall many overheard conversations in college where my over-stressed peers would commonly say variations of things such as, “I really don’t know what I’m doing, I need to take some time off to find myself.” Kind of reminds one of Dickie Spencer’s, “Become who you are.” There is some wisdom here; organizing one’s thoughts and clarifying one’s goals and values is of paramount importance. However, the presupposition to both of these previously mentioned stances is that there is some inherent you, a immutable identity which is fixed and needs to be uncovered. I am aware of no arguments by which such a presupposition could possibly be substantiated, and as such grant them very little weight.
It’s not “Become who you are,” but rather, “Become what you can.”
The individual can only be defined as such by the those attributes that differentiate said person from other individuals. Now, naturally, there are upward limitations on the degree to which any individual can actually believe certain ideas that have powerful behavioral consequences. But insofar as these aforementioned ideas are incorporated into the totality of the individual’s identity, a criticism on such beliefs would be, in no uncertain terms, a criticism of the individual.