Beware Identity

More from Paul Graham’s fantastic essay on lying to kids:

Some parents feel a strong adherence to an ethnic or religious group and want their kids to feel it too. This usually requires two different kinds of lying: the first is to tell the child that he or she is an X, and the second is whatever specific lies Xes differentiate themselves by believing. …

Almost anything else you tell a kid, they can change their mind about later when they start to think for themselves. But if you tell a kid they’re a member of a certain group, that seems nearly impossible to shake. … When parents are of different religions, they’ll often agree between themselves that their children will be "raised as Xes." And it works. The kids obligingly grow up considering themselves as Xes …

If you want to set yourself apart from other people, you have to do things that are arbitrary, and believe things that are false. And after having spent their whole lives doing things that are arbitrary and believing things that are false, and being regarded as odd by "outsiders" on that account, the cognitive dissonance pushing children to regard themselves as Xes must be enormous. If they aren’t an X, why are they attached to all these arbitrary beliefs and customs? …

This form of lie is not without its uses. … You can tell the child that in addition to never wearing the color yellow, believing the world was created by a giant rabbit, and always snapping their fingers before eating fish, Xes are also particularly honest and industrious.  Then X children will grow up feeling it’s part of their identity to be honest and industrious.

I try to be wary of beliefs attributed to me via some part of my being a nerdy middle-age white male American economist homeowner parent.  I do not want any such feature to on net influence my beliefs (other than through influencing my truth-seeking).  Do read the whole Graham essay, by the way – it is gold. 

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  • http://www.churchofrationality.blogspot.com LemmusLemmus

    “And after having spent their whole lives doing things that are arbitrary and believing things that are false, and being regarded as odd by “outsiders” on that account, the cognitive dissonance pushing children to regard themselves as Xes must be enormous. If they aren’t an X, why are they attached to all these arbitrary beliefs and customs? …”

    That’sn not necessarily true. I was raised a Christian and realized while walking down the street at age 10 or 11 that there was no good reason to believe all that stuff. I didn’t feel any psychological discomfort whatsoever, indeed, I felt the great sensation that an “aha” moment is likely to bring.

    • Michael Howell

      Since most people don’t change their beliefs, you probably aren’t typical in this way.

  • http://users.ox.ac.uk/~ball2568/ Pablo Stafforini

    When I reflect on why I subscribed for such a long time to political views that I later came to realize were untenable, the answer seems to have little to do with the evidence I was exposed to during that time, and much to do with the fact that those views has become part of who I took myself to be. I thought of myself as a guy who–among other things–had radical leftists views. It was only after undergoing a change in my self-understanding that I was prepared to rationally assess the credibility of those views, and selectively reject those which turn out to be unwarranted. (I’m still way to the left politically, but the distribution of my specific political beliefs doesn’t resemble that of a typical leftist. I moved to the right, not by moderating all my radical beliefs, but by radicalizing a few of them in the opposite direction.) It seems to me that something truth-seekers can do is make a conscious effort to minimize the number of propositions whose truth-values their identities are built around. Don’t think of yourself as a theist, an atheist or an agnostic; don’t think of yourself as a liberal, a conservative, a moderate, a socialist, or a libertarian; don’t think of yourself as a deontologist, a consequentialist, or a virtue ethicist. Whatever views you have on these and other issues, they should only be views that represent how things are, rather than views that constitute who you are.

  • http://www.allancrossman.com Allan Crossman

    If you want to set yourself apart from other people, you have to do things that are arbitrary, and believe things that are false.

    Unless most other people believe things that are false. Then you can set yourself apart from them by believing the truth…

    (Of course, everyone claims that this is precisely what makes their X-ness unique…)

    @ Pablo: I think your advice to people seeking truth sounds excellent. I would paraphrase it as follows: Try to avoid giving yourself a label, because then you tend to be less critical of all opinions associated with that label. And yet, on the other hand, I can’t help but feel that labels are often such useful things… for example, you yourself say you’re still broadly on “the left”.

  • http://www.iphonefreak.com frelkins

    @Allen Crossman

    I am suspicious still of Pablo’s position, because he has simply moved the problem from views constituting yourself to views constituting “Things.” This may put you in a situation where you might begin to devalue human beings as moral agents and become fatalistic — or begin to ascribe Total projects to the external world a la communism.

    Instead of having the views “constitute” — an important word choice — I would rather let reality present me with stuff I then formulate as disprovable statements. Reality is: views do not “constitute” it, no matter how directed.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Lemmus, most social claims are about tendencies, not about each and every case.

    Allan, yes beware especially of thinking your group is set apart by being right more often, even if it doesn’t seem to try any harder to get stuff right.

    felkins, the whole point of Pablo and Paul is that we are less biased about things than about our identities.

  • Rob Spear

    The point is to avoid having an emotional attachment to the labels you apply to yourself, rather than to minimize the number of labels. Broadly defined political labels are vague things – you should only emotionally believe in more specific ideas.

  • http://www.churchofrationality.blogspot.com LemmusLemmus

    Robin,

    the text says:

    “…the cognitive dissonance pushing children to regard themselves as Xes must be enormous.”

    If he means “often” or “on average” or some such thing, he should say that.

  • spindizzy

    Several criticisms of Grahams essay:

    1. He completely fails to mention (in my opinion) the most important motivation for how parents treat their children, which is the desire for them to be better (more moral, more responsible, higher achieving) people than themselves.

    2. A small point but one which annoyed me: he seems to think that inner city ghettos are “the real world” and that suburbia is not “the real world”. Perhaps Eliezer can fill me in on some complicated quantum-mechanical reason for this lack of reality in suburbia.

    3. He seems to greatly overestimate the influence parents have on their children. Take a look at “The Nurture Assumption” by Judith Rich Harris for a thorough examination of this.

    4. In the footnotes, he repeats the “acting white” theory propounded by John Ogbu, a theory which has been repeatedly contradicted by later studies but which is still in common currency, presumably because it is comforting to believe in.

    Also, Robin, you missed the best quote:

    “The bizarre half is what makes the religion stick, and the useful half is the payload.”

    I guess time will tell how successful you can be without that useful half!

  • Ian C.

    I think Ma Gump taught her boy Forrest the correct concept of identity when she insisted “Stupid is, is stupid does.”

    Children should be taught that their identity is what they do, not some unchangeable essence inside them.

  • http://www.ciphergoth.org/ Paul Crowley

    This should be tagged “identity”, no?