When describing things, we can either describe them positively(saying what they are), or we can describe them negatively(saying what they aren’t). Both are very useful, but unfortunately, when we establish the core of who we are, it’s tempting to represent who we are by overemphasizing who we aren’t.
So often, we want to describe ourselves by saying we aren’t like these other people. After all, defining and describing what someone is unfamiliar with, in this case us, in terms of what they already know is a very fair idea. That’s all fair enough, but it can only be so helpful. I can tell you I’m not tall like a NBA player, but that is hardly able to represent much about my size. I could be any height less than 6’3″, which only tells you I’m not exceptionally tall. I might be very short, a little short, or even reasonably tall. To represent myself accurately, I should not rely too much on telling you that I’m not as tall as an NBA player, nor as short as a leprechaun, but instead bring clarity to it by telling you that I’m 6′ tall.
When describing something as simple as height, there are a lot of ways to get the point across, but in key aspects of who we are, it becomes much more important to represent ourselves clearly and simply. When I represent myself as a Catholic, for example, it’s less helpful for me to contrast what that means with the beliefs and practices of Hindu, Muslim, or Jewish people. Not only does that not give any clear indications of what I actually stand for, but it also defines me purely in terms of opposition. I don’t want to represent myself purely as being against things! It’s much better to say who I am in the positive.
I will certainly not claim to represent anyone else, but for the sake of clarity and constructive conversation, I believe we will all find it better to avoid unintended conflict by using positive definitions of our identity to represent ourselves rather than using contrast with others as the definition for who we are.
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