Abstract Yourself

In a recent essay Paul Graham came up with a powerful idea about how certain topics never seem to lead to clear debates.
I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people's identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. By definition they're partisan.
In general identity gives you strength while making you stupid.
This is true of far more than just religion and politics. There are loads of different topics and situations where having vested a part of your identity leads to powerful mistakes. Here are just a few off the top of my head.
  • If you purchase a stick of deodorant because you're a Micthum Man then identity decided where to spend your money.
  • If you never hung out with people outside your own clique in High School then identity kept you from making more friends.
  • If you spent several hours arguing on the internet in some flamewar then identity just wasted your evening.

As Paul said in his essay, however, identity does give you strength.
  • The strength to sacrifice your life for your child because your family is that self-sacrificing.
  • The strength to stay late at sports practice because your team works hard.
  • The strength to stick with abstinence-only education because people of your faith don't have premarital sex.
That last item in the list should deliberately set off alarm bells. What makes it different from the first two is that the strength you gain from the added identity is vastly outweighed by the stupid. This is because the first two espouse virtues (work hard, self-sacrifice) while the third espouses merely a perceived instance of a virtue (purity). Very often prescribed actions that are meant to make people virtuous (e.g. "don't combine pork and dairy") turn out to be misguided. Stick with groups that hint you towards virtues, not specific actions.

The second aspect of identity that makes people stupid is the whole "us vs. them" mentality. It's not hard to find -- just do a google search for "sports fans arrested". People stop caring about virtue at all and start only caring about what side you're on. Tell your teammate you support them but if you catch them deliberately taking a fall again they will have hell to pay. Make your group have an identity that espouses virtues.

So whence the title of this post? Abstract your identity away from specific actions that any part of your identity prescribes. Build your identity out of virtues and general ideas. Gravitate towards groups that do the same. Something that makes you stupid makes you weak, not strong.


jmathes said...

I love this post. Love it love it love it. I think I had this argument at work a little while ago when I chastised Chad for rooting for Team America, which, it turns out, is a difficult position to oppose! I wish I could have put it as well as you did here.

Chad said...


Ben said...

Well, having a group that you identify with can give you strength in that you get backup.

oh, and Chad:


Chad said...

Heh, one thing that's certainly true: I am biased towards stationary people and against mobile people. For example, it's so weird to me that Hmong is a mobile culture. A bunch of them are in Iowa, for example. (They brought their clan wars, and were not afraid to act on them at our high school.)

Chad said...

I wasn't clear. It's not an intentional bias, but it's a bias nonetheless.