Some Thoughts About Identities

There are our opinions, there are things that describe us as people, and then there are our identities. I think a large part of the modern social justice movement and reactions to it are about moving personal opinions and descriptions into the realm of identities. This has both positive and negative consequences.

Our identities are things that “identify” us and are important to us. In many cases, they are things that we feel strongly about ourselves, or have little power to change. For instance, race.  That’s a piece of our individual identity that we have no power to change. But even if it is something that we can change, identity is something that affects our actions more than just a belief. I’m reading “Life and Fate” now, and there is a character there who acts in a certain way when in a prison camp because he identifies as a staunch communist and wants to think of himself as a staunch communist. He knows that he needs to act in a given way to keep his identity intact. That’s more than just thinking that some action or another is a good idea.

I am also susceptible to this. While I was working in a research lab, I thought of myself as “a scientist”. That made me act in ways (double check data, avoid fudging numbers, be skeptical, research sources) that I think I would not have been as adamant about had I not considered those actions a part of my identity. That’s important.

But identities look different when it comes to arguments. First of all, arguing identities is itself a mistake. To argue with someone that their race is bad is mean and callous, for example, – but it’s also totally useless. You cannot, even in theory, convince someone in an identity argument, you can only insult them and make them angry. And thus making some belief, action or trait of yours a piece of your identity insulates that piece from attack to some extent. Since most people aren’t huge assholes [citation needed], they won’t attack your identity, whereas they may easily disagree with something you do, for example.

Therefore, making an identity can be useful for arguments, as well. I think, for example, the increase of people who identify as gay has helped gay people not only in organizing, but in “not having to constantly defend being gay.” However, if your identity is insulted, the damage is greater than if someone disagrees with something you do or think. It also makes you unable to see whether the person maybe has a point. This is why Paul Graham, for instance, advises to “keep your identity small“.

I don’t agree with this, for the above reason that identities are useful in the real world. But I think there is a negative to growing identities when it comes to arguments, and that is identity brinksmanship. Every disagreement is an attack when it is a disagreement that concerns your identity. And so expanding your identity keeps disagreements to a minimum. But makes every disagreement blow up. I don’t think that’s worthwhile.

So if I were to make a counter-proposal, I would say keep your identity large when acting, and small when arguing. To the extent that you can help it, of course.

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