Identity Norms

Over the weekend I did a series of Twitter polls on identity. Seeing a survey showing that 74% of blacks but only 15% of whites find race to be central to their identity, I asked if this attitude is good for either group, and found that 83% saw it as bad for both groups. Asking a similar question on sex, answers were more split, with 50% saying it is bad for both and 43% saying it is good for both. In both the race and sex cases, less than 8% said it was good for one group but bad for the other.

I then picked 16 features and asked which one is best for most people to treat as most central to their identity. I got these relative weights: personality 28%, family 14%, smarts 8%, fav hobby 8%, ideology 7%, job 7%, age 6%, religion 5%. gender 4%, class 3%, race 2.2%, urban area 1.6%, fav fiction 0.7%, looks 0.7%.

Finally, I asked if seeing someone else treating a feature as a central to their identity tempts you more (or less) to treat it as central to your identity, and how that depends on if they have same or different value of that feature from you. I found that for features we approve of for identity, like personality, family, or favorite hobby, people think they’ll make a feature more central when they see others treat it as central, and that happens more when those others share their feature value. But for features we disapprove of for identity, like race, gender, or class, it was the opposite; seeing others treat it as central makes them less likely to treat it as central, an effect that is stronger when those others have a different feature value.

To make sense of these results, let me invoke two theories of identity, and two relevant social norms.

One theory is that identity is a way to simplify ourselves to be more easily understood and predicted:

We are built to find a simple story we can project about who we are that will let others predict us well. This story includes what we like, what we are good at, how we decide who we are loyal to, and so on. Such stories are naturally more than a few stats but less than all our details. … Early in our lives we search for a story that fits well with our abilities and opportunities. In our unstable youth we adjust this story as we learn more, but we reduce those changes as we start to make big life choices, and want to appear stable to our new associates.

Another theory is that identity is a way to coordinate on our social/political coalitions; we ally with folks like us. Sarah Constantin:

Dasein is … 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? “Identifying as” always includes an element of misdirection. Merely describing yourself factually (“I was born in 1988”) is not Dasein. Placing an emphasis, exaggerating, cartoonifying, declaring yourself for a team, is Dasein. But when you identify as, you say “I am such-and-such”, as though you were merely describing. …

One of the qualities of Dasein is that it’s very very stealthy, and it wants everything to be about Dasein, so it winds up muddying the waters, even when you don’t intend it to. … Dasein can mess up the attempt to solve social problems. … Sexual harassment gets perceived as a flag for pink-flavored people to wave, and if you’re not pink-flavored, you’re not the target market, so you don’t take it seriously.

One common human norm is that sub-group coalitions are mildly illicit. We aren’t supposed to break into factions that fight other factions; we are supposed to all work together toward common goals, and treat each other as individuals. As with other norms against fighting, it is more okay for a group to defend itself against attacks from others, but you aren’t supposed to start a fight.

This norm against factions explains a lot of the above poll data. Regarding what features to have as central to your identity, we approve of features which are actually useful to predict individual behavior, features where people with different feature values tend to complement each other, and features which are hard to use for coalitions because they are too granular (e.g., families). In contrast, we disapprove of features that could more easily be used, and that have recently been used, as the basis of factional fights.

People who treat less approved features as more central to their identity compensate by claiming that there is already a pre-existing faction fight along that feature in which they are they underdogs; the other side started the fight, and isn’t fighting fair (e.g, via dominance and not prestige). They invoke our common human norm that requires independent observers to support the side of a fight that is favored by justice and fairness.

Combining these theories and norms we can say that we have a licit and an illicit reason to choose identities: simplifying ourselves and joining coalitions. We often pretend to do the former while we actually do the latter. And when it gets too obvious that we are doing the latter, we try the excuses that they started it or that they aren’t fighting fair.

From all this I conclude that we have a limited tolerance for identity politics. The more different features that become a basis for explicit coalitional fights, the less happy we will all become, and the less tolerance we will have for each fight. We can together only handle a few big factional fights at any one time, and so we’ll have to set a high bar for how clear is the evidence in each case that they started it and are not fighting fair. And when we do see justice and fairness as clearly favoring one side of a fight, we’ll want to aid that side, make justice happen, and then end the fight.

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