Identity, Preferences, and Group Minds


Some thoughts on how (other) people appear to think.

In Christian circles, there is kind of a story I keep hearing. Somebody (sometimes lots of somebodies) has heard and dealt with ideas all his (or her) life, but they never really affected him. Then, one day, he they strike him in a new way, and he suddenly understands what everyone has been talking about the whole time, and it changes everything. Or for those of you who prefer more careful words, it changes that part of his life significantly, and other parts less or none, depending on how connected they are.

This isn't unique to Christianity, or religions in general. For example, I read the first part of a (very bad) book by an author who had one about economics (people selling things are trying to get rich, not to aid the heroes). I have heard the political saying: "If you don't vote for the [socialist] NDP when you're under 30, you don't have a heart. If you vote for them after 30, you don't have a head." It seems unfair to me (why can't younger people have heads or older people have hearts?), but the idea of a new interpretation of existing data is there. This biggest one, though, is probably romance. From Tangled:
"And at last I see the light And it's like the fog has lifted And at last I see the light And it's like the sky is new And it's warm and real and bright And the world has somehow shifted All at once everything looks different Now that I see you"

Now I have had a few of these (3 that I remember), but not lately. However, I did get what I think of as the "Richard version": I realized that (almost?) everyone else had a whole other way I thinking that I seem to be lacking. Or possibly many ways; so far the various "idea clusters" haven't unified into a coherent theory. Some of the better-defined clusters are:
  1. Identity

    I had know this term all along, of course. It meant "what you use to identify someone", which is to say, how do you indicate which of many people you are referring to. In computer science terminology, it would be something like a pointer or an array index, although the human mind was better suited to use a string (usually the name) instead of a number. And I am still convinced that this is a real and important use of the term.

    However, while I was trying to wrap my head around the transgender movement (still a work-in-progress), it became clear that there was another sort of identity. It is a sort of grab-bag collection of beliefs, preferences, ideals, allegiances, and -- in some cases -- social connections. From what I can tell, there are a limited number of standard ones, and people normally pick one. Some people will combine them, and a rare few will even start a new one, although that is rare. It's like society only really has a place for a few roles, and everyone is supposed to choose which one they will play. Sort of a clan-based system, except that you get to pick your clan.

    An interesting example of this actually shows up almost identically in two different books: Maskerade by Terry Pratchett and The Occasional Diamond Thief by J. A. McLachlan. In both cases, a major character (Nanny Ogg, Kia) steals something (champagne, a diamond), but then protests that she is not a thief. On one level, this makes no sense: that is the definition of a thief. But if we assume they are thinking about identities, it does. They have all sorts of other associations attached to the word, and they don't want those. So, despite stealing something, they are still a closer fit to some other category.

  2. Preference-Based Culture

    By nature, I am a duty-driven person. In nearly all circumstances, I ask the question "What should I be doing?". And, since I so rarely know, I usually try to get someone else to answer it. Which is probably kind of annoying. I'd say that I should stop except that, sometimes, there is something I don't know about and it's important that I do it.

    It turns out that the rest of the world (or at least a lot of the modern West) doesn't work this way. Instead, it asks the question "What do you want?", quickly followed by "How do you intend to get get it?". It's the first one that matters; "how" is just a matter of knowledge and wisdom and training and such. But the "what?" just sort of appears. Or in my case, usually doesn't appear, but I think for most people it does.

    I should note that a friend actually told me this back when we were in university together (she had just discovered that I was taking a class in differential equations for the sole reason that she had said I should take it with her). I don't think I really understood at the time, but what she said kept bothering me and, eventually, blossomed into this. So Natasha, if you're reading this, your wisdom is vindicated.

  3. Group Minds

    People sometimes decide things by themselves. And sometimes they ask others for advice. And then there's this. People in a group of between 2 and maybe 5 or 8 can work out something together in a way that looks suspiciously similar to distributed processing (i.e. multiple computers working together to solve a problem). Messages (words, phrases, rarely complete sentences) are passed around, but they are fragmentary. The goal is not to explain something but to draw others' attention to something that they are presumed to be able to think of on their own. In the end, everyone goes away knowing the plan. Even though the complete plan was never actually stated!

    My guess is that what happens is something like this.
    1. The problem is agreed on by everyone stating goals and preferences with some sort of subconscious weighting code. This allows everyone to figure out which are most important.
    2. Each person tries to solve the problem at the same time and in about the same way. There are often multiple ways to think about something and each person figures out what they are, picks the best one, and starts to work things out that way.
    3. Whenever someone comes up with something clearly good or bad, they say just enough for the others to see it too. If it's good, it gets tentatively added to the plan and the others (probably) start working form there. If it's bad, the others try to solve the new problem, and if they fail, the plan is backtracked to the last decision point.
    4. If the goal is reached, the tentative plan becomes the final plan and everyone knows it without being told.
    5. If every possible branch has been tried and they have all failed, the goal is abandoned. Or, if it is important enough, they may try again with some constraint relaxed. (It might also be that relaxing the constraints happens during the process, making this closer to best-first search than depth-first.)
    This also explains something I occasionally hear women talk about but never made sense before: assertiveness. To "assert" something is to state it as a premise instead of a conclusion, effectively saying that others must simply accept it. In this case, women are being told to present their goals/preferences with a higher weighting so that they have more chance of the group outcome being in their favor. But I don't think I have ever heard men talk about assertiveness. Possible explanations for this would include:
    1. Men are just clueless
    2. Men already say things with higher weightings, perhaps due to pragmatism, cultural conditioning (default feminist position), laziness (figuring out the correct weighting takes effort), or instinct
    3. Women are more likely to do things in groups, so the question comes up more
    4. Men are more likely to break a larger goal into sub-goals, each handled by one person (who just does it as he thinks best), while women are more likely to develop an integrated solution (which requires more agreement)

Normally, I probably wouldn't write about this. After all, I am assuming that this is stuff everyone else already knows. Except the group minds, probably, since they seem a bit nutty. And don't even relate to my main point. But I did have an deeper insight: People are using identity to provide preferences!

It turns out that I am not the only one who has trouble think up that many desires and goals. It's just that most people have a fallback. For example, lets assume we need to choose which flavor of ice creme to buy. If there is one flavor you really like better, good. But lets assume that you like the taste of both. If you're me, you say something like "I don't know", which can cause problems when purchasing things. But a social justice advocate could choose vanilla because chocolate contains non-fair-trade cocoa. Admittedly, this is a bit tangential to actually improving the world, but at least the advocate can an answer the question. That's a real plus.

The downside of the identity is exactly the same as the upside: it comes with all sorts of extra ideas. And this is a downside because, if any of these are ideas are criticized, the so-identifying people feel attacked, and the wider you spread yourself, the more likely that some part of you will get stepped on. And people don't like that.

I conclude that, if identity is a coping mechanism for whittling down the sheer volume of options that the modern world gives people, it probably isn't going away. And identity politics probably isn't going away either, since it is people trying to protect themselves from the risks of having the identity they need to function. So even if Donald Trump manages to give e.g. the transgender movement the boot (unlikely), I doubt that it will do much to the general trend.

It's entirely possible that there is an upper limit to the amount of freedom people can handle. And if so, we'll have to decide where want it to be.


I got the following useful response:
I thought the example of the person who steals not being a thief was very apt. There is a pervasive belief in western culture (I say western culture in this case because I can not speak to another culture) that ones actions make up ones identity.

Now, I am going to back track into some philosophy I was once familiar with and am now a bit fuzzy on. Excuse my mind, it is as chaotic as yours is ordered.

I believe it was Althussar who talks about interpollation (I apologize if I butcher any of this, Arthur would perhaps be a better source or someone to check with) and the idea that we enter into agreements through language that make us concrete subjects. He argues that when someone shouts "hey you" and we respond, we have agreed to be the "you".

To apply the theory in a more concrete way we can look at "being gay". I do not put "being gay" in quotations because I do not think that the desire to have sex with the same gender does not exist, I put quotations up because ones sexual preference in regards to the gender of their current partner did not always give them any easy identity.

At one point people "committed sodomy" they did not take upon themselves the identity of "being gay".

In other words, who you had sex with did not form your identity. Having sex was an action not a subject.

So how we form identity and what we form it around is fluid and socially based. In the modern world, who you have sex with is a basis of your identity.

Going back to your example, the two characters who steal are demanding to be removed from that transaction. They refuse to be identified by their current action. When Althusser's caller yells out "stop thief" they do not need to turn around because they are not accepting that identity.

It is a pretty bold action on the part of those two characters.
Bold move was a pretty romanticized way of saying refusal to be forced into an identity.

Hmm, on further reading Althussar mostly related this acceptance of subject to the state. It is Judith Butler who extends the same theory of language to gender.
My response:
  1. I may be missing something here. Both "bold move" and "refusal to be forced into an identity" have a sense of taking a difficult and principled stand against power. Did you intend this meaning? If so, can you elaborate?

  2. I looked up Judith Butler. To me, she sounds like a complete nut, although she appears to be influential enough to suggest that I may just not be understanding it.

    She seems to be saying (with gender-related context removed) that the most important part of things is how people think about them. This emphatically trumps physical reality, which should be adapted to match (if possible) or worked around. Furthermore, what people think is determined by society, which is essentially freefloating, so it can be adapted at will. It is not clear how she is deciding what the ideal society looks like, but I am guessing that she is following some unstated ideals like equality and people not being hurt.

Most of what I have read of Judith Butler relates to language which unsurprisingly, is true of most of my studies. Her argument is that we make assumptions about the physical world based on the language we use to describe the world. For instance, people are generally assumed to be male or female despite how many humans are born intersexed.

Less obvious, and less provable would be that we do the same thing with gender. We create a dichotomy (girl/boy) then we start to associate characteristics with being either a girl or a boy. Leave these assumptions long enough and even colours becomes linked to one gender and not the other. What it is to be a "boy" or a "girl" is no longer just about biological sex (although that was a bit problematic in the first place as there was no room for girl+boy) it carries with it social expectations. (I'm sure you've heard the complaints around these ... boys are supposed to be strong, masculine, sporty, brave) girls are supposed to be domestic, agreeable etc.

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