A recent essay by Paul Graham called Keep Your Identity Small has been read and shared by a number of people in my circle. I mentioned though a Google Reader note that I disagreed with the essay’s conclusions, and a friend asked me to expand. This post is the result.
Graham argues that the reason some conversations degenerate into useless arguments—most notably political and religious conversations—is because those topics “become part of people’s identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity.” This means that the problem with discussing politics or religion isn’t with the topic itself, but rather with the “partisan” people who participate in a discussion. Graham explains that “you could in principle have a useful conversation about [politics and religion] with some people,” just not people who have a political or religious identity.
In his final paragraph and in a comment on his own essay, Graham even goes so far as to say that “the more labels” a person has, the “dumber” that person is, and that identity makes one “stupid.”
The foundational claims of the essay are demonstrably false in their extremism. While it’s obvious that some people who identify with a religious or political label are impossible to talk to, it’s equally obvious that that doesn’t apply to everyone with a religious or political identity. To claim that you can “never have a fruitful argument” about politics with someone who holds political beliefs is absurd. I have had many such conversations with conservatives, liberals, libertarians, devout atheists, fundamentalist Christians, etc. These conversations have borne fruit in the form of a greater understanding of (and sometimes a change to) my own identity and beliefs.
Even the strength of one’s identity is not necessarily a determining factor in whether or not that person is able to have a fruitful discussion. There are people with very strong political or religious beliefs (Desmond Tutu, Joe Clark, Bill Blaikie, Barack Obama) who are still constructive and flexible for the sake of good debate where others are rigid. (That does not mean they don’t hold strongly to their beliefs, simply that they are confident enough in their beliefs to have them tested and questioned from different perspectives.) Conversely, I have known people to be rigid and stubbornly argumentative simply for the sake of arguing, even though they’ll later admit, when pressed, that they didn’t actually believe in anything they were saying.
Graham is therefore not describing anyone and everyone with an identity, but rather people who are stubborn, rigid, extreme or fundamentalist in their identity. People in this category can have many labels or even none.
I regard the conclusion that it’s advisable to “keep your identity small” to be at best unproductive and at worst dangerous. I would rather surround myself with people who disagree with me and belong to different schools of thought yet are willing to respect diversity of opinion and belief than with people who have gone out of their way to try and not answer the questions “who am I, what do I believe in, what do I think is worth advocating and standing up for?” Those are the questions that define identity, and that drive individual and societal improvement and progress.
I therefore think it is more advisable to allow your identity to grow and flourish, but to keep it humble. Hold beliefs, but don’t stop questioning them. Find truths, but never stop seeking new ones. Create an identity for yourself, but never stop growing and evolving as you learn from the identities that others have created for themselves. Take pride in the communities you choose to belong to, and respect and admire those to which you do not belong.
And finally, in arguments, try to follow Graham’s advice on how to disagree, which I think is much more productive than his advice to keep your identity small.