Identity and Identifying

The post title could be a book title (and probably is). Stuart Buck at Overcoming Bias posted a little chunk of Paul Graham’s essay titled ‘Keep Your Identity Small.’

In it, Graham asserts that “people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity. By definition they’re partisan.” That generally includes discussions of current-day (though perhaps not historical) politics and religion , but can also include discussions of programming languages, computer operating systems,  or eating habits for people who closely identify with their stance on the issue.

I haven’t thought about it enough to say if the word ‘never’ is necessary but I do think it’s at least very difficult to have a thoughtful argument (I’m using that word rather than ‘rational’ because I think a thoughtful argument can include clear thinking without sacrificing emotion or intuition) when one or both participants is strongly invested in proving themselves right, when that proof is tantamount to re-establishing and re-validating one’s own being.

Beyond the propensity for arguments, Graham says, “If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.”

My identity includes ‘Girardian,’ though I hope I can hold it lightly while exploring it with an avid curiosity and a critical mind. (In fact, there are issues on which I seem to disagree with most Girardians, or, to say it more realistically,  they would disagree with me. Lately I think I take Girard’s ideas more to an extreme than many, but I may just misunderstand them).

Graham’s comments seem to align with Girardian thought and mimetic theory on identity, or at least with my perception of it, and also with Buddhist ideas (Buddhism is not part of my identity (yet), but I see it as plausible and helpful):

(1) We define our identity in terms of the social other, because we learn to desire from the social other. As James Alison says in his recent essay on Prayer (Matthew 6), “we humans are not only slightly affected by, but are actually run by, a culture of war, and of violence. We are found as the species which acts in groups to grab at identity ‘over against’ some conveniently designated other; and which relies on a violent contrast in order to survive, and to define value and forge culture.” In Buddhist terms, we manufacture a solid-seeming self from our beliefs, viewpoints, convictions, etc., and then we spend a lifetime suffering as we try to defend it.

(2) We group together with people who agree with us or who seem to see things the way we do, and we set outside our circle those who don’t (sometimes, though, tricky and resourceful humans, we derive just as strong an identity from seeing ourselves as people who strive to be part of heterodox and heterogeneous groups); we create rivals of others, including those whom we perceive as most like us and those whom we perceive as completely different; we seek to ‘belong’ — that is, we seek others to reflect us, to give us standing (again, sometimes we achieve this by banding with others who seem to seek not to belong). Alison says that in belonging we are “given a ‘self’ that is the function of the group’s desire. Belonging and approval go together. This means, incidentally, that someone is thereafter exceedingly unlikely to be self-critical in relationship to their group belonging. They will agree to cover up whatever in themselves and in other group members needs covering up in order for the group to maintain its unanimity, and for themselves to keep their reputation, which means their ‘self’.” The grop’s reputation is important because my self is attached to my self-identified group’s self.

(3) And because it’s so important to us that we recognise ourselves as viable, as having a positive being  (and ‘positive’ can be defined in numerous ways), we tend to demonise or otherwise ‘violently contrast’ ourselves with others in order to ‘prove’ to ourselves (primarily) that we are right, good, worthy, viable, solid, and so on — in other words, to continually reaffirm that we have being.

This is obvious for most people: think of leaders or adherents of a political party that’s not the one you identify with; and if you identify as apolitical, then think of political people. Or if you strongly believe that climate change is causing a lot of environmental problems, think about people who don’t believe this, or who don’t act as though they do, and vice versa.  Generally, you’ll rate most of that other group as in some way less than you, dismissing most of what they say and do as at best naively careless or ignorant and at worst  pure unmitigated evil.

As Charles Bellinger observes, in this essay “The Crowd is Untruth: A Comparison of Kierkegaard and Girard”, Kierkegaard debunks, like Girard, “the idea that the desires of the ‘modern’ person are spontaneous and unmediated by society. ‘Being,’ in the sense of a centered and coherent self-consciousness, is precisely what the individual lacks; therefore he looks around at the others so that he may pattern himself after them.”

Once we have found those on which to pattern our desires, those who seem to pattern their desires in another way are seen as threats to our very being. That sounds like an overstatement, but I don’t think it is.

I myself have lots of experience establishing a ‘violent contrast’ to protect or prove my identity, my being. Recently, a woman in a committee meeting really triggered some shenpa in me, and she was actually arguing for a position to which I am largely sympathetic. I realised I was triggered and attempted to find a common ground when I could by introducing a conversation about something we had in common. But comments she made and her tone in that conversation retriggered me so that by the time we parted, I was even more solid in my resistance to her. I knew all this at the time, I knew I was full of shenpa and I tried not to act from it but to just let the unpleasantness be without acting habitually to try to resolve it and without escalating. I did OK in the moment but now I have a little story about it, about how she is so different from me, and also how the people who tried to appease her in the meeting are also so different from me —  and that is the very definition of being run by the social other, active in the culture of violence, rather than being indwelt by Another Other, which Alison also talks about in the prayer essay. My sense is that being indwelt by Another Other is the furthest thing from religion we can (and can’t) imagine, and something to which there can be no clinging, only receiving.


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