[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis. You can read Jared’s response here.]
Vogue ideas come in two types: the useful and wrong and the right but unproven. The idea of keeping one’s identity small is the former. Even a modest amount of questioning of the injunction to keep one’s identity small produces a much richer and more robust account of identity and how we should frame it to ourselves. You may start adulthood by pruning your identity, by all means, but to keep it small in perpetuity, I think, does violence to true flourishing.
‘Small id’ as I’ll call the concept begins from a good place. Two motivations led to Paul Graham’s ‘small id’ theory. The first, a desire to be able to think clearly about one’s own life without falling into cognitive traps, traps like motivated reasoning, taking only the inside view, or becoming immune to new information, and the second, a desire to stand outside the ceaseless cacophony of identity-based moralizing and prejudging, that is, to avoid the identity language which replaces explicit reasoning with a signal of group belonging. Both motivations aim towards making the world a kinder and more rational place.
The idea of the small identity attracts people who prefer propositions to group-based thinking – decouplers, Scott Alexander calls them, and for good reason. Identity words in language contain more connotation than denotation, and such a linguistic situation drives explicit reasoners mad. To identify as a rationalist, a philosopher, a Lord of the Rings fan, a Catholic, carries with it all sorts of unwanted associations, misapprehensions, and prejudgments from others. And to the explicit reasoner the only gain of identifying as something is belonging to a tribe at the cost of thinking clearly about any of those identities. But this is a false dichotomy and a confused formulation.
Around college, I stopped identifying as Catholic. When the topic of religion came up, I said instead, “I practice Catholicism,” which to me freed me from the notion of belief and the baggage of the -ism. At the time I rejected the existence of belief and identity! Furthermore, I did not want to be associated with a particular set of propositions, but instead with a particular set of actions. This was not a case of wishing to clear the space to think about the propositions more clearly. I simply didn’t want to use any identity-based terms in my vocabulary, but only to refer to actions themselves under the theory that action captured reality better than these nouns. But in truth, did anyone notice the language game I was playing? Nay, no. The absurdity here is obvious. If small identity were the right prescription, then why not reject all identity as I did? “I’m not your husband, honey, I just practice husbandry (and by the way I am great at it)!”
Rejecting all identity is impossible nonsense. But even aiming for smaller identities poorly applies to the goal of clearer thinking. A smaller identity does not free one from cognitive bias any more than a small kingdom is less worth defending to its inhabitants. A person might be more reasonable about a thousand things that have nothing to do with him, but still be infused with a blind and passionate zeal about the few remaining things. A balanced mind can illuminate all aspects of life without becoming far-sighted or near-sighted.
Julia Galef offers a different formulation to counteract the objection here, “Hold your identity lightly.” The phrasing here offers an elegant image of the soft touch. She has said that reducing one’s identity seems like it is asking too much, so she offers this seemingly more achievable advice. I think lightly held identity improves upon the small id concept, but still, we need clearer methods for achieving lightly held identity. To do so we need to define our key term.
Identity is used in many ways. Some people equate it with the thing one is tribal about, i.e. irrationally committed to. This relies upon reducing the entire concept of identity to one negative connotation “of caring too much.” In this view, having hills to die on at all is seen as suspicious. Julia Galef gives the example of programmers who overcommit themselves into some dogmatism about programming languages. I object that the problem of most nerdy people is not that their identities are too big, but rather that their identities are too small and thus they become a cartoon character, a two-dimensional caricature, focused upon trivialities because their identity has not expanded to contextualize their interests and loves. It is a little soul which doesn’t keep deeper thoughts and feelings in the background of their life.
Some people use identity to mean the whole person from the roles one occupies, to principled beliefs, to personal history. In this view identity simply means the explicit aspects of a person we can identify: Father, brother, husband, classicist, philosopher, teacher, rationalist, administrator, fan of LOTR, the Decemberists, Joel Coen movies, skier, rock climber, canoer, ex-traditionalist boarding school student, liberal, conservative, American, cosmopolitan, Catholic, nerd, and on and on forever. The problem with this maximalist view is that it totally ignores what motivates this conversation in the first place, which is that certain principles and loves, especially ones which are socially reinforced, are really dang difficult to examine well.
However, I think starting with the acknowledgment that identity is naturally large instead of the idea that identity is naturally irrational, gives us a better springboard for coming to hold ourselves lightly. As one reflects upon the multidimensionality of one’s own identity, I believe it becomes easier to scout out the geography of the self, to weigh the forces, to identify principal landmarks worth defending, and to choose better which hills to love dearly. Consider the self as a network. The more nodes and connections in the network, the less essential any single node is for the preservation of the network. In this model, self-examination is the process by which we knit together the nodes of self into a more coherent and better whole, while still maintaining a federated system.
Scrutiny of self causes less discomfort and criticism loses its sting when we can maneuver our mental forces among a variety of pathways. Sometimes a severe amendment of one node results in the loss of several others or whole branch gets pruned. I’d rather prune a great pine than a bonsai tree. I contend that a big identity adapts far better to the vicissitudes of life, is more open to critical inquiry, and can afford to change precisely because no single alteration to the ship of self undoes its entire identity, or in the case of the bonsai tree causes its death. Investigate your own nature to discover whether this frame works for you.
Thank you for entertaining my wandering thoughts on this little matter. In a very short time, I have grown a strong appreciation of your friendship and conversation.
Willing your good,
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