Don’t Make it About Identity

The day I started calling myself an atheist, I was reading The God Delusion during Rosh Hashanah services (sorry Rabbi Goldberg!) when I was about 14 years old. At the time I was calling myself a pantheist, but when Dawkins dismissed the notion as “sexed-up atheism”, I felt I could no longer bother with it either. But there was a final hurdle. I shuffled through the seats over to my father, sitting in a different row, and tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. When he looked up, I whispered fearfully, “Babbo, am I allowed to be Jewish if I’m an atheist?” With a smile he said something like, “Well, my reconstructionist synagogue never cared.” (Point of reference: He’d never told me he was an atheist before this).

What a relief! I could breathe easy again, knowing that a crucial identity was salvageable even as another crumbled. It was this which allowed me to immediately start identifying as an atheist. It would have been much harder, and perhaps harder even just to allow myself not to believe in God, had I been told otherwise.

Identity is very hard and uncomfortable to change, so we avoid that change whenever possible, even if it means maintaining a position that another part of us might know is wrong. This is where we get phenomena like cognitive dissonance and denial and confirmation bias; we’ll do seemingly anything to not have to totally reconfigure ourselves. Arguments about identity, then, become very unproductive very quickly. So if we want someone to change their mind,  we shouldn’t make the argument about identity at all, if we don’t have to. If you’re arguing about tax rates, don’t make it about Democrat vs. Republican. If you’re arguing about the Affordable Care Act’s exemptions for churches, don’t frame it as religious vs. nonreligious. All you’re asking for is their brain’s Identity Protection Racket to kick into high gear and end the conversation.

This goes double when you’re “on the same side”, both vying for the title of True Type, like True Christian or True Rationalist. When that happens, the conversation has stopped being about the issue at hand and started to be about the ability of the people involved to protect their emotional investment and their sense of self. That’s terribly unproductive and also overly harsh, for everyone. Stick to the argument at hand, and don’t let it become  the Battle of the Identities.

(And by the way, this all goes triple when the title you’re fighting for is Good Person. That’s the kind of identity we’ll protect at all costs. Threatening that (by trying to get someone to admit that they’re racist or sexist, for instance) usually gets you a lot of trouble. Whenever possible, stick to the facts and the specific argument.)

In fact, what this very cool study suggests is that, far from challenging an identity, we should affirm the relevant identity of the person we’re arguing with. In a sense, try to see them as they see themselves. Make sure they know you see them as what they identify with, and make sure that they know that the debate is not about whether they have a right to that identity. How?

  • You could emphasize the importance of their identity to the debate: “As a Christian, don’t you think you should support helping to universalize healthcare?”
  • You could separate the issue in question from their identity: “Just because you’re a liberal doesn’t mean you can’t like the fiscal cliff deal.”
  • You could even bring in salient figures that match their identity that agreed with you on a position: “Freidrich Hayek, a libertarian (classical liberal) thinker, supported a minimum wage for everyone, possibly paid for by the government.”

He also supported cool mustaches and hair gel, apparently.

These approaches make the argument not about whether or not their identity is correct, but only about whether their position is correct. That’s not only important to the productiveness of the argument, but also to how we’re treating our opponent. After all, our identities are very important to us. Challenging them makes a discussion personal and tense in a way they often don’t need to be. Asking people to think of themselves differently is a tall and difficult order, and it should be treated as such. It isn’t the kind of thing to do thoughtlessly, in the context of a debate that’s about something else.

When we remove the debate from the identity question, we get a much easier and less emotionally fraught issue, which is much more likely to result in a changed mind. That’s what my father accidentally did for me by assuring me that I could remain a Jew. He made me feel like my core was remaining strong and the god issue was just tinkering, which made it easier to change my mind on that question. And even if no minds are changed, the discussion is much more likely to be a productive one, since no one is forced to feel like they have to defend their own identities.

Previous Posts About Better Arguing 

Previous Posts About Identity

2 thoughts on “Don’t Make it About Identity

  1. Romney says:

    Reblogged this on Sarvodaya and commented:
    Very well said. This is something I try my best to do when engaging in debates, though it certainly takes time. Empathy is as key to discourse as logic and reason.

  2. […] Don’t Make it About Identity by Chana Messinger […]

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