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December 17th, 2019
In an essay entitled “Keep Your Identity Small”, Paul Graham strings his bow and fires an arrow of insight straight through the countless hollow faces of identity.
The favorite line often pulled from this essay seems to be the last one: The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.
And in order for it to make proper sense it’s vital to understand the context Graham builds about the difference between knowledge and conviction. Identity is rooted in belief, conviction, and feeling – not knowledge.
Identity is associated with strong feelings, so any discussion involving the topic of this identity is bound to trigger a person.
One of the most useful observations that Graham makes in his essay is that people are partisan by default when it comes to any discussion that involves their identity. This is a subtle point that is easy to miss, but once seen it acts like a highlighter. Opinions that we hear ourselves share begin emerging with an underscore etched by our own bias.
For the contemplative individual this can turn into an exploration about why these emotions and biases pop up, what sort of experience has produced them, and ultimately how useful such an emotional perspective is.
Graham’s advice is to eschew the stamps of identity, and for the individual who can understand this and integrate it with their emotional web, this can work. But where does this leave us when we confront others who can’t pull off this intellectual hacking of our emotion-fueled identities?
Deeyah Kahn is a filmmaker who has explored this difficult quandary in some of the most extreme ways possible. Born to Muslim parents, she incurred criticism at an early age from her own religious community and has gone on to make documentaries where she explores the intricacy of extreme views, interviewing white nationalists and exploring Muslim extremism. In so doing, she uncovered similarities that exist in both extremist groups. As one might piece together with the discussion of Graham’s essay, these extreme identities are adopted because of circumstances that provoke extreme emotions.
The most impressive aspect of Kahn’s work is not the insights she has uncovered, but the method she uses to engage her subject. Kahn’s style of interview is more akin to that of a curious acquaintance, and to place this stance, we can ask:
Does curiosity carry with it any serious commitment of identity?
No, not at all. And the effect of Kahn’s outlook is that she ends up creating the seeds of friendship between herself and the people she speaks with. Such conversations taken from a stance of genuine curiosity register with compassion, and through such interactions, the extremist positions of the people she speaks with begin to relax as emotions counter to their identity begin to influence their thinking.
Just about anyone who might read or listen to this can probably recall an experience when someone in their life was so emotional that the person was simply unreachable. The words ‘calm down’ in such situations, while practically-intended, only function like fuel on a fire. The point being is that Graham’s essay, while brilliant, most likely requires a mind with a fairly high degree of emotional regulation and introspection in order to have a behavioral impact on the people who read it, but this is a guess. It would certainly be a very interesting experiment to see what Jihadists and White Nationalists would think about Graham’s essay.
Kahn’s work, on the other hand reveals that in order for people to soften their attachment to strongly held identities, an experience is most effective, one that evokes new emotions that turn out to be in conflict with this identity.
The rationalizations follow the emotion, and only in those who already have a high degree of emotional regulation can it be the other way around.
For an individual who seeks to escape the chance of being to tightly identified, a piece of advice emerges that seems totally opposite to Graham’s prescription at the end:
If you don’t want to be partisan, than it’s best to try on the mask of the enemy. Or we can import the old aphorism: walk a mile in the shoes of the one you disagree with and then see how things look.
Instead of taking no labels, try them all with a supple grasp, one that always maintains a willingness to switch. This is the mostly failed goal of the classic ‘liberal’ education, and while it’s beyond the scope of this episode, it seems that such liberal goals have succeeded only in collecting identities as opposed to expanding experience. The point of Kahn’s work is that many of the extremists she engages don’t simply pick up an additional label or identity because of their interaction, it’s that they end up giving up their old destructive one.
In order to alter identity to a significant degree, a meaningful experience is required. This is something that the medical industry is slowly discovering. The generally poor and problematic results of anti-depressants, for example, is beginning to create a vacuum of necessity for the exploration of alternative answers, and one potential answer that is beginning to emerge is the use of psychedelics.
Among the many things that are possible with psychedelics and relevant here, one notable, but under mentioned benefit, is that a bad trip can generate a huge and lasting amount of compassion for the mentally ill.
While discussion of the ‘bad trip’ generally doesn’t bode well for the emerging field since it can be superficially pinned down as a reason not to investigate these substances, there is perhaps no greater example of bridging an understanding between two radically different perspectives.
The reason why a bad trip can generate compassion for the mentally ill is because a bad trip –in retrospect- looks and feels a lot like mental illness, and for a healthy person to visit this place is to perhaps quite literally walk in the shoes of those less fortunate.
So when we deal with others, it bodes well to keep in mind that the best way to bridge minds and build perspective is through a shared emotional experience. For some, an intellectually stimulating essay can do just that, but for others another medium may be required, one that can reach deep into the emotional well. We can tinker with our approach with a question:
What are we more likely to open up to?
An intellectual analysis complete with a potentially generous prescription?
Kindness, and curiosity?
While the first is probably what comes to mind in discussion, we would do well to pause and wonder whether the door for such a thing is open on the other side of the discussion. If not, we can certainly see from Deeyah Kahn that kindness and curiosity is a great way to gently knock on that door.
This episode not only draws from Paul Graham’s essay and the documentaries of Deeyah Kahn, it also relies heavily on a couple earlier episodes of Tinkered Thinking, episode 17: The Identity Danger, and Episode 157: Conquer of Concur?
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