The perils of identity

I try to remind myself (despite using words like “I” and “myself”) that, in a meaningful sense, “I” don’t exist. There’s no essential eternal personality that drives my behavior; no soul sitting in a driver’s seat making executive decisions. Instead, my behaviors are just that: behaviors, resulting presumably from an interference pattern between many competing semi-autonomous processes in my nervous system. The sense I have of myself is a model I have created by observing my own behaviors and predicting my future behaviors (something we know from experiment is very unreliable), and I don’t have any special access to my real motivations that an outsider doesn’t — instead, I merely have a greater capacity for self-delusion. To myself and to others, I am a loose collection of habits and biases, and the mechanisms that produce those habits are of only academic interest.

I remind myself of this because I’ve seen the kinds of mistakes that tend to happen when I forget — and the kinds of mistakes that happen when others forget. It’s easy to apply selective memory based on failed predictions: “I would never have done that, so something else must have caused it; I’m a good person so there must have been extenuating circumstances.” People’s models of their own behavior are subject to cache poisoning, and comparing to vague normative models (“I am a good person”) produces perverse incentives toward systematic self-delusion. However, you are what you pretend to be — or, more accurately, your behavior determines which classification you and others would be best off applying in order to predict your future behavior — and so if you have a goal model (such as being a good person) you’re best off focusing on your failures rather than your successes. Successfully achieving such a goal is hard, miserable work — falsely believing yourself to be wonderful is easy and fun, since it’s all reward, while holding yourself to a high standard requires mostly punishment — but at the same time, the bar is often very low because your peers give into the lure of intellectual dishonesty.

When we get into groups the problem gets worse. Tribalism is processed on pre-linguistic parts of the brain, and tribal behaviors will happen automatically and without observation if you don’t make an effort to consciously observe your own behavior. We perform gatekeeping, signalling, and shunning the unbelievers automatically: what we emit seems like language, but it doesn’t contain meaningful statements, or the statements it contains are tangential to the intended signal and their truth values irrelevant.

I recently saw a bumper sticker that said “Frank Sinatra didn’t need a website”. It’s a trivially true statement: Sinatra died prior to the invention of the web, so he achieved his fame without websites. Genghis Khan didn’t need a Big Mac; Jesus didn’t need a hot rod; Joan of Arc didn’t need a ballpoint pen; Hitler didn’t need pokemon cards. Buying a bumper sticker and putting it on your car isn’t something that happens without quite a lot of activity, and manufacturing a bumper sticker requires even more, so putting an irrelevant and trivially true statement on your car is rare. Obviously someone saw that statement and decided it meant something about their personality — presumably, they identify with the first half of the twentieth century and see technologies from the second half as belonging to the outgroup. Yet, the actual content of the statement runs counter to the intended meaning here: Sinatra didn’t have a website, sure, so he relied upon the Mafia, the print media, the TV, radio, and record industries (all of which were new at the time), and Las Vegas (a completely new city built from scratch for the purpose of skirting regulations, with new entertainment industry structures and new social technology like lounge clubs with performer exclusivity contracts); had Sinatra been born later, he would have taken advantage of the web the same way that he took advantage of radio and television. In other words, this bumper sticker says nothing meaningful to anybody aside from indicating a vague and incoherent bias on the part of the owner of the car. Such a bias can be transmitted more effectively through symbols: rather than talking about Frank Sinatra, why not get a decal of Humphrey Bogart? By separating our sense of identity from our sense of group identity, we can reason about our own biases, and not only can we hedge against them but we can seek to communicate them in a more effective way.

Political memes are a major form of group signalling on Facebook. We all have a friend who uses them too often. Signalling your politics isn’t without value: political positions are, theoretically, proxies for your stance on meta-ethical issues. Does life have inherent positive value or does it gain value from its potential? Is it better to be forced to live well or to have the opportunity to live poorly? Does intent matter or do only consequences matter? Is the purpose of justice revenge or rehabilitation? Is it the responsibility of the community to support itself, or is the community simply a temporary structure for holding individuals without mutual responsibility? These questions are theoretically answered by somebody’s political position, and they impact many different kinds of interactions which wouldn’t seem to have a political dimension at first glance. However, without the ability to step back from identification with one’s political position, one is not able to reason about intent: Am I trying to convince other people to adopt my position? Am I trying to change or reinforce group norms? Am I trying to indicate my position to peers in order to allow them to predict my future behavior? Am I trying to indicate my position to strangers so that people who agree with me will talk to me? Without the ability to step back from identification, one cannot even reason about whether or not one’s stated political position is even an accurate reflection of one’s beliefs: I don’t believe that the purpose of justice is revenge & I think communities have a responsibility toward their members, so maybe I’m no longer a republican but actually a communist. I think people should have the ability to choose how to live their lives even if they make poor decisions, so maybe I’m an anarchist. I think a really crappy life is worse than no life at all so maybe I lean toward anti-natalism. This kind of introspection is part of what makes labels like these remain useful.

Imagining yourself to be a consistent and stable personality can be comforting, and it can save effort in the same way that stereotypes save effort: as long as deviations from the stereotype are unimportant & you don’t enforce the stereotype by punishing people who don’t fit it, you can quickly predict behaviors of large groups based on heuristics. Likewise, feeling like you belong in a group and that members of that group are on the same wavelength as you are is comforting. But you aren’t a stable personality, and groups change; if you aren’t sufficiently intellectually honest you will lack the flexibility to change the way you think of yourself in response to changes in your behaviors, and you will be unable to leave a group that gives less and less of value back to you.

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