In his famous essay Keep Your Identity Small, Paul Graham argues that the reason arguments about religion, politics, and programming languages get so heated is that they’re parts of a person’s identity. It isn’t just about the merits of this or that policy or this or that programming language, it’s about who you are as a person. Therefore, he suggests, to be less stupid, avoid identifying as anything: be “a person who uses Lisp sometimes” rather than “a Lisp programmer.”
The problem is that, as Sarah Constantin writes:
Dasein [identity] is what you do when you assert what it means to be human, what it means to be you, what it means to be a member of your community. Dasein is self-definition. And, in particular, self-definition with respect to a social context. Where do I fit in society? Who is my tribe? Who am I relative to other people? What’s my type?
These are really basic psychological needs for a lot of people. As Sarah writes later, identity is about self-expression, self-definition, self-assertion. Of course, not everyone shares these needs: not everyone needs to know who they are and where they fit into the social fabric. There are a lot of different kinds of minds. But having a self-model, a sense of yourself, is a legitimate need for many people.
Of course, if you have that need, and you try to eliminate your sense of identity, your brain isn’t just going to let you go about not having a basic psychological need filled. Probably you’re going to have an identity anyway, you’re just not going to be consciously aware that you have it. And that means you can’t take any steps to compensate for the ways your identity might be biasing you. You can’t take a step back and say “hey, I know I get emotional about programming languages because I identify as a Lisp programmer, so I should take a step back and deliberately notice the good parts of this other heathen programming language.” Instead, you just say “Lisp is the best language for all purposes! You should believe me because I don’t have an identity as a Lisp programmer so I’m objective!”
It is always dangerous to have a self-image as being objective, because all too often one acquires the self-image before one acquires the objectivity.
Of course, the criticisms Graham says still apply: if people’s identities are getting wrapped up in an argument, it’s really hard to have the argument in a remotely civil and enlightening way. So how do we minimize the harm of having an identity while still getting the benefits?
Identify as things that aren’t based on empirical claims. If you identify as a libertarian, then you’re signing on to a bunch of empirical claims, like “the minimum wage is bad for poor people” and “environmental regulations cause more harm than good” and “police officers abuse people’s civil liberties.” If it turns out that actually police officers are totally nice to black people everywhere, this might be a threat to your identity as a libertarian, and then you’re going to have flamewars about the subject.
Compare this to an identity as a baker. I am really having a hard time thinking of empirical claims related to being a baker. “Bread is yummy”? “It is a good use of one’s time to knead things”? “Being paleo is maybe a bad idea and maybe a reason for creativity in the use of gluten-free flours”? But “baker” serves all the same purposes of self-definition (you are a person who can make really delicious cakes) and understanding oneself within a social context (you are a person who feeds people such as Ozy delicious cake). A baker self-identity is free epistemically.
Identify as things you want to preserve. Many effective altruists are concerned about values drift. They start out valuing altruism, become an investment banker so they can donate more money, and wind up valuing $300 sushi dinners and designer ties. Fortunately, identity tends to keep things fixed. That’s awful for facts– you want to be convinced by new evidence– but great for values– you want to keep your own values and not other people’s. Therefore, it can be useful to identify as an altruist, or an artist, or a family man, or an ambitious person, or a hedonist, or some other value you wish to preserve.
There’s a failure mode here. It’s very easy to have an identity as a good person, and then when people threaten your identity as a good person you lash out at them in the same way that Lisp programmers lash out when people suggest Lisp isn’t the best programming language. This can lead to results even more disastrous than bad arguments about politics. So if you’re going to identify as a good person, it’s really really important that your definition of “good person” isn’t “a person who always does the right thing” but “a person who notices their mistakes and tries to fix them.” A similar concern applies to artists, family men, and so on: it’s important to make sure that your definition of artist is not “a person who makes great art” but “a person who values their art and puts a lot of effort into it.”
Keep your identity large. Don’t just identify as a Lisp programmer. Identify as a poet, a mother, a Communist, a Jew, a weightlifter, an altruist, and a Lisp programmer.
If the only identity you have is Lisp programmer, then it’s terrifying to think about not being a Lisp programmer. How will you know who you are? How can you relate to other people? On the other hand, if you have a lot of identities, you have something to fall back on. Even if you have to switch programming languages, your children still exist, you can still benchpress twice your body weight, you still light Shabbat candles, and you still spend an absurd amount of time explaining that your preferred economic system wouldn’t have any gulags at all not even a little bit and capitalism has killed more people than socialism anyway. Your sense of self in a social context remains secure. You can admit the flaws in Lisp or that prices are an elegant means of solving coordination problems, without threatening who you are as a person– because who you are as a person isn’t grounded in just one thing.