Keep others’ identities small


I really like Paul Graham’s advice to “keep your identity small” - to avoid making groups or positions part of your identity if you want to remain unbiased. But I often want to add to it “and keep other people’s identity small too”.

I find it irritating when the first thing someone does when they hear something they disagree with is to attribute an identity to the person who expressed the view that roughly correlates with the view in question (feminist, liberal, conservative, religious, libertarian, etc.). When people do this they almost invariably fail to engage with the actual claims that the other person is making. Instead, they engage with claims they think someone from that group would typically make or they dismiss the person’s claims because they come from “a member of group x”.

I’ve seen this happen on all sides. Think implicit bias might hinder women’s careers? You must just be a dyed-in-the-wool feminist. Think IQ might be heritable? You must just be racist and/or sexist. Think abortion might be wrong? You must just be religious and anti-women.

This makes it almost impossible to sincerely engage with the claims in question. Maybe the person you’re talking with does subscribe to some underlying views you disagree with, but I think it’s better to assume, at least at first, that all they’re committed to are the claims they’ve explicitly made.

There are exceptions here, but if we want to expose ourselves to a variety of views and to change people’s minds on divisive topics, it seems better to engage with other people’s statements directly and attribute as small an identity to them as possible.

Leave a Comment