In 2009 Paul Graham wrote a little essay called “Keep Your Identity Small”. In it, he talked about why conversations about politics and religion are so fraught with frustration. The reason why these conversations are so frustrating, as opposed to conversations about baking or climbing trees, are because politics and religion often involve someone's identity.
“More generally”, PG wrote, “you can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn't engage the identities of any of the participants”. When this happens, something gets triggered, and we immediately cease to engage in rational discourse, and instead retreat to fight or flight responses, as anyone who engages in political conversations can confirm.
The essay stayed on my mind, but it didn’t hit until I read Nonviolent Communication, a book that recommends, among other things, making observations instead of judgements.
Observations are specific, clear, measurable observations about what happened, as opposed to judgements which are interpretations & analyses about what happened.
This may seem banal, but observing without evaluating is actually quite difficult. As an Indian philosopher once said, “Observing without evaluation is the highest form of intelligence”
One thing we tend to do is label others — we give them negative identities. If we have a difference with someone, and we don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing, we focus on what’s wrong with them. We’ve developed a large vocabulary for describing what is wrong with others. “Mentally disturbed” “idiot” “narcissist” etc. We obsess over who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s normal/who’s abnormal. This leads to conflict.
Interpretations, analyses, judgements — these are our ways of projecting identities onto other people.
Observation without judgment is a pretty radical concept. We are addicted to judging other people and ourselves — projecting identities and concepts onto people.
Let me draw out using an example I once found on the internet but can no longer find:
Consider a couch. Every molecule in a couch was made inside a star, which exploded, shooting its guts across the universe. These molecules have lived on as different forms before this couch — forest, ground, etc., and will continue to do so after the couch is gone. This is much more than the label “couch” suggests, but we call it a couch so we know we should sit on it.
The identities we project onto others provide guide posts. This isn’t particularly harmful with couches, but it is with people.
Some [people in the in-group] insist that, for example, [people in the out-group] are ignorant, arrogant, and self-interested This frames us as being: knowledgeable, confident, and mission-driven.
Humans use identities to help navigate the world. A couch is for sitting, so we will not try to plug our cell phones and expect them to charge. We project ‘identities’ onto people so as to use them as well.
Here’s the particularly insidious thing about labeling, or projecting identities onto other people: it leads us to act toward them in a certain way that usually provokes the very thing that we're labeling. Especially the labels we give ourselves.
Of course, not only do we conceptualize the objects and people around us, we obsessively try and ‘define’ the objects within us -- ourselves. We expend a huge amount of energy threading certain events into a storyline of ‘who we are’ — an inaccurate label that we feel lost without.
Say we identify with a political tribe. Then we find ourselves defending positions that we hadn’t really thought through just because they’re a part of that tribe’s bundle, and then we get into all sorts of arguments, defending views we aren’t sure we hold, just to be consistent.
The less concerned we are with our identity, the more we can think from first principles. Also, perhaps paradoxically, the less we judge ourselves, the less we judge other people, because when we judge other people we’re always comparing them with us, or how we’d like to be.
Indeed: We judge/criticize in others that in which we most fear in ourselves.
Projecting labels onto something or someone is not a path to connection. It sets obstacles in that path because when you try to use a definition to understand something that is prior to definition your thinking does not carry you toward that something. It carries you away from it.
To project labels onto someone is to subordinate them to a tangle of intellectual relationships. And when you do that you destroy real understanding.
Robert Pirsig wrote about this in Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila.
Quality doesn’t have to be defined. You understand it without definition, ahead of definition.
And yet. Pirsig defines it anyway. To tell him not to, he admits, is like telling an alcoholic to stay out of bars. Futile.
To steal a phrase from a review once written about Maggie Nelson: Pirsig is half a philosopher with a downturned cup, attempting to trap something scuttling uncooperatively around, and half a writer-bug, trying to dodge the cup.
I’ve often felt that definitions are insufficient. Not only insufficient, but, at times, distracting to all that is real, all that is flow. It felt like definitions were trying to trap reality when reality was always outracing definitions. Like Pirsig, I was trying to trap something with a cup, but also run away from the cup.
The following quote captures the tension well, but I could only truly understand it once I understood Robert Pirsig’s definition of Static and Dynamic Quality:
Our language is an imperfect instrument created by ancient and ignorant men. It’s an animistic language that invites us to talk about stability and constants, about similarities and normal and kinds, about magical transformations, quick cures, simple problems, and final solutions. Yet the world we try to symbolize with this language is a world of process, change, differences, dimensions, functions, relationships, growths, interactions, developing, learning, coping, complexity. And the mismatch of our ever-changing world and our relatively static language forms is part of our problem.
I found this quote revelatory because I finally accepted that words can never perfectly describe reality. We can do the best I can, but we will never truly capture it. Words can only approximate Quality, but never fully encompass it. A static thing can never fully capture a dynamic thing.
Identities as we currently know them are static, and life is a dynamic process.
We create problems for ourselves by using static language (e.g. judgements) to capture a reality that is dynamic & ever changing — by mixing observations and evaluations.
We see these problems in our political discourse. We’re implicitly taught you have to have a point of view, you have to pick a side, and then defend it and be consistent. But the reality is complicated. And so if you’re smart and you’re operating on the edge of any field or trying to figure out anything new you probably need to be open to changing your mind all the time and not labeling things that are changing.
Nonviolent Communication shows a way to actualize this in our everyday behavior.
In Nonviolent Communication, you don’t use the verb “to be”. One doesn’t say “this person is crazy” or “this person is irresponsible”. There are no labels, no static judgements — no projections of identities. Instead of saying “this person is always late”, you say “this person was late three of the last four times.” The absence of labels isn’t used to excuse behavior, but rather to more precisely explain it, and more importantly to change it. Individual actions are often changeable; deep-seated personality flaws are not. As the founder of NVC once said: “when you label people you’re putting them in a box — and I’m talking about a coffin””
The caveat to keeping your identity small is when you want to identify as a positive trait – “I’m a kind person” – so that you’re forced to live up to it, especially when this is an unchanging desire.
In general, it’s best to not get too attached to labels or abstractions, if only because they give us false precision. A map can be useful, but we mustn't forget that the map is not the territory. We should not become enamored with our map’s complexity that we forget to see the territory right in front of us. I’m reminded by the quote in Maggie Nelson’s book, The Argonauts:
“You’re more interested in fantasy than reality.” The other responds, ‘I’m interested in the reality of my fantasy.’ Both of the Popsicles are melting off their sticks.”
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Excellent piece. I think it is more than just dynamic vs static though. It is the numinous vs the limited of language. A common instruction at the end of a mediation retreat is to not talk about the experience at least for a while because words cannot capture it and to even hear yourself trying can lessen the impact of the experience.
I spent the last five years getting off drugs and dealing with old capital-T-Trauma. By the end of it, I more or less *had* killed my identity--there wasn't much left of who I'd been before. I'm not sure, but I think that's a thing that happens to people who have done those things.
I haven't read ZatAoMM, but I seem to remember reading somewhere that Pirsig is a recovering alcoholic. Regardless, I know for a lead-pipe cinch that he's killed at least one identity himself, just from what little people have told me of his books. It's worth doing. The perspective afterwards is very different, and while you don't fit in the way you did before, you're comfortable in your own skin in a way I think most people aren't.
Great, great piece.