Identities and stuff

I have recently thought and talked about the concept of identity (or identities), and, while what I’m going to write is probably neither new nor unexpected, I’d like to write it down to at least laugh about it in a year or so.

So, basically, by “identity” or “identifying” with a group people mean that somebody belongs to a certain group. But how do you decide this? As with nearly everything, it seems that there are two (mainstream) radical opinions on this matter and one is compelled to align somewhere in the (suggested) spectrum.

The first option that I shall conveniently call “scull measurement” considers identities as something that is externally measurable. Say, an athlete will probably go to a gym, a musician will play some music instrument, a gamer will play games, a writer will write poems or novels, and a researcher will have at least some ideas written down he wants to share with the world. Until now, this seems kinda legit. But there are some edge cases where this nice definition works badly. As a tame example (wild examples involve nations, genders and things like that) let’s take your favourite ideological sect that defines humanism in a so totally abstruse fashion that you just cannot match this definition at all. To be more precise, let’s consider some religious sect that forces its members to have a certain tattoo and proclaims everyone else to be (up to an equivalent transform) indistinguishable from Satanists. This is an objectively measurable value, but unless you are a fan of Aleister Crowley’s works, if you don’t really feel much like worshipping Satan today, you feel that your identity is being denied. (If, by any chance, you are actually a Satanist, just reverse the example.) And since you still don’t feel Satanic, you may come to the opinion that this identity thing is not simply (and objectively!) decided by measuring skulls and probably more complicated than it seems.

This leads us to the second extreme option, which I shall call “faith”. It boils down to the logically sound reasoning that since in lots of cases the concept of identity is not measurable or decidable just on observable facts (because slippery slopes are slippery) then we are best served with self-identifying. So, you may self-identify as Christian, and no one should question your identity even if your bookshelf contains hand-signed copies of Dianetics and the word Xenu makes you really uncomfortable. This is still logically sound and so far, there is no problem with this reasoning, because then, identity is a personal thing and cannot be declared for some other person. And this leads to yet another problem: in this case, identities become meaningless. If you follow the argument, there is no indication that identities should imply certain behaviours or certain observable properties. Which makes them completely and utterly useless.

So neither faith, nor careful skull measurement can really help us, and we can indulge ourselves in epic flame wars about which side of the dichotomy is more right without feeling completely wrong, independent of the side you pick. This is certainly fun, but also a waste of time. Furthermore, this comes dangerously close to the concept of “false dichotomies”, which are an efficient way to manipulate a person into acting in a desired fashion by giving a choice between two desired choices and shadowing everything else.

So let’s break out of the box. First, we can ask the question of purpose: what are identities good for? Identities are generally a tool to distinguish between “insider” or “outsider”, “friend” or “foe”, “trustworthy” or “not trustworthy”. Not the best tool, but certainly one that has been used since forever. Now, since this tool seems to work badly in several edge cases that are not completely unusual (if you are still not completely convinced, just consider the political spectrum: each of these people thinks she represents the national interest), we probably need another tool that is more accurate.

We have now clearly stated our goal: we want a tool that decides between “inside” and “outside” of a group. A way to decide this is going by interests, but as “interest” is vague and does not carry enough information, I’d propose deciding based on goals and methods. Goals, because sharing a common goal is more clear than self-identification and sufficiently precise to pin down what you actually want. Methods, because they give insights about the state of mind.

I do not want to say that I have the ultimate solution. But I have a proposal that made me somewhat happy.

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