Problems with shrinking your identity

Note: This post originated as a long email to Scott Weathers about his post “The Limits of Ideology and Identity in Social Change”, which makes reference to the post about Keeping your Identity Small. At Scott’s suggestion, I’ve turned it into a blog post. It’s very long, which I apologize for, but it’s an important and complex topic, and I feel like shortening it any further would be a disservice.

The short take-aways, since the full post is way too long:

Even though it was originally posted in 2009, I only very recently learned about Paul Graham’s post about Keeping your identity small, which has been making the rounds in the larger Effective Altruism (EA) community for a while now. In short, Graham, a computer scientist, makes the argument that when an opinion or belief of ours becomes part of identity (e.g. our political identity, religious identity, etc.), we tend to stop questioning the validity of the opinion, and instead focus on shoving that opinion down other people’s throats. His conclusion is that, in order to keep our opinions as non-ideological as possible, we should shrink our identity as much as possible.

While I agree that we should be less ideological (life’s too complicated to be sure of anything), the way forward that Graham suggests is dangerous. There are hundreds of years of literature on the topic of the intersection between identity and privilege and oppression that this premise ignores completely, and the message is clear: identity can be a powerful tool for social change. People with marginalized identities (e.g. female, black, LBGT) cannot afford to ‘shrink their identity’, given that it is a source of power in fighting against oppression – historically, various versions of ‘shrinking of identity’ has been used to silence and oppress marginalized groups. When it comes to people with privileged identities (e.g. male, white, heteronormative), it’s a bit different, but my fear is that shrinking our perceptions of our own privileged identities only serves to blind us to the biases that the identities have placed in our thought-processes from a young age.

When members of a large group overwhelmingly shares privileged demographic characteristics (like Effective Altruism, which is overwhelmingly white, urban, male, and educated), my fear is that this micro-level problem can become a macro-level problem. Are there biases that the majority of Effective Altruists share that we’re collectively blinding ourselves to? It’s difficult to tell without having a more open conversation about privilege and identity within the movement, which is why pushing this conversation further (instead of retreating from it, which I fear is what ‘keeping identity small’ does) is absolutely necessary in order to ensure that the movement is as effective as possible in doing good in this world.

And now, for those of you with the stamina to read more, here’s my logic:

Identity has played a huge role in multiple social movements, uniting disparate people in a common cause, united by a recognition that a certain type of identity is being sidelined in the larger socio-economic-political context – black lives in the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ lives in the LGBTQ rights movement, women in multiple women’s rights movements globally, non-human animal lives in the animal rights movement (the entire phrase ‘non-human animals’ is an identity-based sticking point), national identities in various political conflicts (keeping in mind that not all nationalism is bad – in multiple postcolonial states where ethnic conflict exists, nationalism (or pan-African identify or ‘postcolonial’ identity, for that matter), even in its very limited amounts can help unite people in positive ways – the ongoing ‘this flag’ movement in Uganda is an interesting case).

Now, of course, in each of these movements there were also people of different intersecting identities that got the short end of the stick in these identity-driven movements – many women in the civil rights movement were silenced in the name of ‘black unity’ (Audre Lorde is a good source on this); even today bisexual people have trouble finding a place in the LGBTQ movement (example); genderqueer women, transsexual women, non-hetero women, and women of color consistently are sidelined in women’s rights movements (Lorde again, she’s amazing); and national identities can be used to silence dissenters of any type. In the best of cases, these cases consisted of silencing the concerns of multiple members of the movement, in the worst of cases the ensuing dehumanization (“you are a danger to the cause!”) led to violence.

In each of these cases, though, the issue was not identity itself – it is the erasure of identity. People, in trying to build a clean and well-defined identity of any type, tend to silence the voices of those who differ from them but share the ‘cause’ identity. This is a very well documented problem. Probably the clearest writing about it comes from ‘bisexual erasure’ in the LGBTQ movement, if you want to find a quick case study, but it’s a very common problem overall. Another topical example would be the erasure of non-male-white voices in the Bernie or Occupy movements.

In these contexts, playing up the idea of ‘shrinking your identity’ only worsens this problem – it enables erasure. When members of each of these movements attempted to ‘shrink’ the identities of other members of the moment, they erased or silenced portions of other members’ identities, often with disastrous results. Many others, who I agree with, instead believe that celebrating diversity and intersectionality within identities is the way forward – instead of simplifying an entire identity into one experience (e.g., the ‘black’ experience, the ‘female’ experience, the ‘gay’ experience, etc.), we need to celebrate the commonalities and differences within and across identities (e.g., the ‘black’ experiences are diverse but share commonalities, the ‘female’ experiences are diverse but share commonalities, etc.). Unfortunately, nuance and diversity are never easy sells, but activists are making inroads in these regards (slowly, unfortunately).

Now, of course, you’ll note that all of the above examples are about marginalized identities – what about privileged identities? I, as well as Graham, are white, male, educated, cis-gender, heterosexual, overall society-conforming American individuals. The identities we were born into, that shaped us from a very young age, are identities with bloody and horrific histories. We benefit from these bloody and horrific histories – the system is rigged in our favor. The question is, how do we deal with having identities that are antithetical, in one way or another, to our values? (one value, for example, being believing that oppression is bad – duh)

A lot of people in our situation attempt to distance themselves from their identities. There’s two general ways that I’ve seen people do this – the first is leaning into a non-privileged identity they have – e.g., if you are black but have male privilege, ignoring gender while focusing on race; if you are female but have white privilege, ignoring race while focusing on gender. The cognitive dissonance involved (being privileged in one way, while knowing the pain that lack of privilege creates), often leads to the aforementioned examples of erasure – ‘what do you mean my white privilege is clouding my judgment, I’m not privileged because I’m identity [female, poor, LGBTQ, etc.], that’s what we’re working toward!’ My least favorite person I’ve met with this line of thought was a white rich guy who was bisexual, who would constantly say racist shit and then get defensive when people tried to call him out on it because ‘we’re all in the fight against privilege together’, but there are many less egregious examples as well.

The second way of running from privileged identity is the one that is most relevant to Graham’s discussion of ‘shrinking your identity’, which I like to call the ‘citizen of the world’ or ‘human identity’ method. Basically, the idea is that we should remove, as much as possible, the influence that our problematic identities have on us, and try to build solidarity with all individuals of the world (or only marginalized individuals, there’s multiple flavors of this method). Building solidarity and minimizing the negative impacts of our problematic identities is great, but I don’t think that downplaying the role that these identities have on our lives is the best way forward. You can minimize the impacts without denying the role that these identities have on you, and, as a converse, you can down-play your problematic identities without minimizing the negative impact they have on your thought processes. In fact, downplaying your negative identities may make it harder to identity these negative impacts – in its worst iterations, it becomes ‘colorblindness’ or ‘gender blindness’ (I don’t see race, I just see people!), which, as we should all know by now, doesn’t really work out that well.

For the sake of transparency and for the sake of making it easier to root out problematic thoughts, those of us with privileged identities need to constantly remind ourselves that everything we do, everything we think, everything we are, is painted in some way or another by our problematic identities, bloody history and all. We cannot forget this – it does a disservice to ourselves, and a disservice to those around us. We should instead strive to work with these bloody, horrible, privileged identities to help ourselves and those with those same identities see the privilege and the history, and work towards fixing the problems of the identity (see this post on being an ally for some more details). I do not believe that this can be done by pretending the blood isn’t there or pretending that somehow we can walk away from the identity – we have to get our hands dirty.

This is not something I am saying from just a philosophical angle, it is something that I have struggled with in my own life. After years of running from my privileged identities, I finally gave in to my fears to try and make peace with them – only by actively leaning in to my male, white, etc. identities was I able to identify, and root out, the ways that these identities poisoned my thinking. Coming to terms with these identities, and the effect that they have on me, greatly improved my ability to root out the problems associated with them, improving my effectiveness broadly, as well as my improving my personal mental/emotional health, and as well as my personal relationships.

In short, I think leaning in to the importance of identity, as a way of clearly thinking through how our thought-processes (and the thought-processes of those around us) are shaped by past experiences and larger socio-political-economic contexts, is necessary in order to help us root out bias from our perceptions and become more effective in the world. It’s difficult, painful, and messy, but it’s worth it.

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