LANGUAGE IS AN IMPERFECT INSTRUMENT
The caveat to keeping your identity small is when you want to identify as a positive trait – “I’m a kind person” – so that you’re forced to live up to it, especially when this is an unchanging desire.
Capital Thinking • Issue #1171 • View online
In 2009 Paul Graham wrote a little essay called “Keep Your Identity Small”. In it, he talked about why conversations about politics and religion are so fraught with frustration.
The reason why these conversations are so frustrating, as opposed to conversations about baking or climbing trees, are because politics and religion often involve someone's identity.
Kill Your Identity
The limitations of labels
“More generally”, PG wrote, “you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn't engage the identities of any of the participants”.
When this happens, something gets triggered, and we immediately cease to engage in rational discourse, and instead retreat to fight or flight responses, as anyone who engages in political conversations can confirm.
The essay stayed on my mind, but it didn’t hit until I read Nonviolent Communication, a book that recommends, among other things, making observations instead of judgements.
Observations are specific, clear, measurable observations about what happened, as opposed to judgements which are interpretations & analyses about what happened.
This may seem banal, but observing without evaluating is actually quite difficult. As an Indian philosopher once said, “Observing without evaluation is the highest form of intelligence”
One thing we tend to do is label others — we give them negative identities. If we have a difference with someone, and we don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing, we focus on what’s wrong with them.
We’ve developed a large vocabulary for describing what is wrong with others. “Mentally disturbed” “idiot” “narcissist” etc. We obsess over who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s normal/who’s abnormal. This leads to conflict.
Interpretations, analyses, judgements — these are our ways of projecting identities onto other people.
Observation without judgment is a pretty radical concept. We are addicted to judging other people and ourselves — projecting identities and concepts onto people.
Let me draw out using an example I once found on the internet but can no longer find:
Consider a couch. Every molecule in a couch was made inside a star, which exploded, shooting its guts across the universe. These molecules have lived on as different forms before this couch — forest, ground, etc., and will continue to do so after the couch is gone. This is much more than the label “couch” suggests, but we call it a couch so we know we should sit on it.
The identities we project onto others provide guide posts. This isn’t particularly harmful with couches, but it is with people.
Some [people in the in-group] insist that, for example, [people in the out-group] are ignorant, arrogant, and self-interested This frames us as being: knowledgeable, confident, and mission-driven.
Humans use identities to help navigate the world. A couch is for sitting, so we will not try to plug our cell phones and expect them to charge. We project ‘identities’ onto people so as to use them as well.
Here’s the particularly insidious thing about labeling, or projecting identities onto other people: it leads us to act toward them in a certain way that usually provokes the very thing that we're labeling. Especially the labels we give ourselves.
Of course, not only do we conceptualize the objects and people around us, we obsessively try and ‘define’ the objects within us -- ourselves. We expend a huge amount of energy threading certain events into a storyline of ‘who we are’ — an inaccurate label that we feel lost without.
Say we identify with a political tribe. Then we find ourselves defending positions that we hadn’t really thought through just because they’re a part of that tribe’s bundle, and then we get into all sorts of arguments, defending views we aren’t sure we hold, just to be consistent.
The less concerned we are with our identity, the more we can think from first principles. Also, perhaps paradoxically, the less we judge ourselves, the less we judge other people, because when we judge other people we’re always comparing them with us, or how we’d like to be.
Indeed: We judge/criticize in others that in which we most fear in ourselves.
Projecting labels onto something or someone is not a path to connection.
It sets obstacles in that path because when you try to use a definition to understand something that is prior to definition your thinking does not carry you toward that something.
It carries you away from it.
*Featured post photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash