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Have human beings evolved/devolved socially? 

 
Poldano
 
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Poldano
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13 February 2021 04:23
 
deodand - 12 February 2021 06:18 AM

Henrich is required reading in our program.  Most of our test subjects are WEIRD, a shortcoming we can’t do much about.

You might be right about the devolution from impersonal morality to group-identity based morality.  Surely identity politics is nothing if not a shift in that direction, and now that identity politics has become SOP for the liberal elite, it’s becoming SOP among the conservative masses (aka Trumpism) as well. This is probably a coincidence based on an underlying cause, not one of x preceding and causing y.  So what, one might ask, is that underlying cause?  Why this shift from impersonal, principles-based morality (as much as this is possible as an ideal) to identity in-group based morality (which has always been a reality, but until recently not the ideal)?

To be sure, identity-group moralists still insist they are being impersonal, in so far as being “personal” is affiliated with being “biased.”  But that’s just virtue signaling: no one wants to believe their morality is a cookie cut from the group with which they identify, applied mindlessly.  Here in the US,  however, it does seem that people who stand on principle are increasingly rare, increasingly marginalized, and increasingly impotent to bring about social change.  My only reservation with calling this “devolution” is it implies a teleology to evolution, as though later forms are ‘more advanced’ or ‘more adaptive’ than earlier forms.  But remove that possible connotation and I think it’s fair to say we are seeing a devolution from one form of moral judgment to another, both with respect to prevalence in the real world and as an ideal against which to shape that real world, to better suit our needs.

I’m glad to hear that about your program.

I personally don’t think any of us are completely free of identity politics, if that includes such things as being more tolerant of family members’ transgressions than those of strangers. Listen to Bruce Springsteen’s State Trooper (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nU5MyNuBdhg) for a take of what that might feel like. I should probably reference some actual research, but I don’t know of any offhand that isn’t already referenced by Henrich or his sources. On the other hand, popular media is chock full of stuff illustrating the tension between loyalties.

I get your dissatisfaction with the notion that identity politics is true. However, I don’t share your opinion that because it is not true, people will not do it or people should not do it. People do it, and sometimes they have conflicts because of the dueling loyalties of their various identifications. Popular as well as classical media are full of this stuff too. People are not logical when it comes to these emotionally-driven and socialized attributes, so the illogicality seems irrelevant to me. What is relevant is that people learn identities, sometimes despite themselves, and are also judged by others depending on what those others think those identities are or should be.

Fixed and mutable identities may be distinguishable in an academic sense, but not necessarily to the people who have them. Also, identities don’t necessarily prevent people from attempting and achieving things that are not part of their identities. The tensions between “incompatible” identities sometimes only hits a person after they have achieved something not part of their socially-approved identity. I recall a SCTV skit about a Black guy who wanted to be a Jewish cantor that was an inversion of The Jazz Singer that illustrated the point.

People seem to feel the need to construct an identity, in the sense of a self-image, for themselves that is acceptable to the community that has the most influence over them. This might be a kind of conformist drive, but I believe it is part of socialization, insofar as it is part of the process of learning and practicing the mores of one’s immediate social environment. I believe this is an essential process, for reasons which are too numerous and complex to enumerate here, and that if it does not proceed adequately one may become an outcast or fail to achieve more than minimal status in one’s community. That process and its results are the basis for identity politics; not everyone is or can be a freethinker, much less a fully free actor. So while it is not necessarily true that “all politics is identity politics”, identity in the sense of self-perceived social group affiliation and status is a powerful driver of political inclinations.

Moreover, political views established independently of any self-identity or self-image influences (i.e., as close to completely rational as humans can get) can still end up looking like or called identity politics. This is because when enough people hold similar viewpoints, they may mutate their viewpoints to minimize disagreement with each other. This is actually a socialization process, possibly using the same psychological and social mechanisms as infant and childhood socialization. In this process, a new affiliation attractor may be formed, at which point outsiders may come to perceive those attracted to the opinions held in common as a feature of a distinct political/social identity group, even attaching a name to it/them (e.g., tea baggers, the woke, both neologisms within the last decade and a half).

Of course, I’m mainly speculating, because it’s what I do, but it sounds plausible to me. Remember (or maybe not, because I’m not sure I said this to you directly) that I don’t think humans are usually correct about anything that they think or perceive, but that they usually get close enough to what is actually true to create useful rules of thumb.

Anyway, for a final word on Henrich, I believe he refereces and describes the use of powerful tools and concepts for getting a handle on some of these things. In terms of evolution/devolution, I’m not depending on the apparent teleology of evolution, but simply looking at everything in evolutionary history, social, cultural, biological, whatever, as tools in a society’s / culture’s / species’ / lineage’s toolbox that can be re-adopted if the situation makes it useful to do so. Speculating on the breakdown of the cultural system that is needed to support impersonal morality (whatever that really is), the fallback will probably be small-community affiliation groups in rural areas, and extended families or neighborhood gangs in urban areas. It falls out according to which people one needs to cooperate with, and which people one does not need to cooperate with, as a first pass affiliation breakdown.

 
 
deodand
 
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deodand
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13 February 2021 06:56
 

I don’t mean to imply that people don’t engage in identity politics in Ezra Klein’s sense.  Many do.  Nor do I mean to imply that people don’t experience conflicts between their mutable and immutable ‘identities.’  Examples are too obvious to cite.  Nor do I mean, in any sense, that because the statement “all politics is identity politics” is either trivial or illogical that people should shed emotionally driven or socialized attributes, much less that identities as such are something we can, or would want, to shed.  Again, identities are inevitable.  All this is true, and “identity politics” practiced in the strict sense is common.  But the claim that all people in politics are practicing it is preposterous.

And, do we really want everyone practicing it?  I think not because identity politics not only regresses us to tribalism; it raises tribalism to the principle moral good.  This moves us, against its stated intent, backwards, not forwards.  Stressing the mutual irreconcilability of conflicting identities, asserting privilege to lived experience that cannot be bridged between people, and basing one’s identity on both, through an immutable trait, places us back, almost literally, into an infantile tribalism.  Modern politics made progress when it realized identities are constructed, not ordained, and going back to ordained identities means going back to the shortcoming we should strive to overcome.  Tribes reconciled through a common constructed identity are preferable to tribes separated by ordained and irreconcilable identities based on immutable traits.

And no, identity politics has no monopoly on respecting differences.  Nothing in an American civic identity presupposes everyone has to be the same.

A final point: fixed and mutable identities are distinguishable in more than an academic sense.  They are distinguishable, period, even in people who in their own minds think they are not.  Anyone can base their entire self-worth and self-esteem on “being black,” but this does not change the fact that they can, and do, still assume multiple mutable identities.  If this were not true they would not be able to identify as a parent, as a member of their profession, as a Christian, as a Democrat, etc. and still be black.  And try as much as they might to filter all their mutable identities through “blackness,” the very effort will reveal that their mutable identities are separable because they will have to choose a “black” version from among other possible ones.  There is no way around the fact the mutable and immutable identities are separable.  Even under the strictest regime of racial discrimination this remains true.

 
burt
 
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13 February 2021 10:38
 
deodand - 12 February 2021 09:59 PM

I think you place too much emphasis on “programmed indoctrination.” 

Developmentally we know even young children start to learn more from their peers than their parents at a relatively early age.  This gap grows proportionately as they pass through childhood and into adolescence, and by the time they are adults, the gap is almost complete (ideally, it is complete).  At each phase commitment to parental instruction becomes moderated through commitment to peers, so the persistence of parental religion is as much a function of peer experiences being similar to parental beliefs as parental belief “programming” children through “indoctrination.” Since parental culture and childhood peer-culture correlate highly, so do parental religious beliefs and adult children’s religious beliefs.

This is why many deeply religious people want their children to attend religious schools.

As to those correlations, specifically, they usually refer to broad categories like “Christian,” “Protestant” and “Hindu.”  They fall in between .7-.8.  Specify those categories into sub-categories like “Christian denomination,” “type of Protestant” or “type of Hindu,” and the correlation falls to about .6-.7.  Separate parental beliefs into two different religions, or one religious and one non-religious, and that correlation falls to about chance.  At least here in the US.  I don’t know of data elsewhere.

A better model than “programmed indoctrination” to explain these correlations is “choice within constraint.”  People’s choices are constrained by the possibilities they’re exposed to, and as a rule people don’t creatively expand those constraints, if their choices are satisfying.  But this doesn’t mean people aren’t making choices.  It just means that, as a rule, people choose the most satisfying path of least resistance.  If as an adult they find the religiosity they learned as a child satisfies, they will continue it.  If they don’t, they will choose otherwise.  Add to this that most people find their religion very satisfying and that people are prone to stick with what they find satisfying, and the correlation between parental and child religion is almost entirely explained.

As I see it, what you describe as “identity politics” is the standard idea of political identities: an identifiable population in which, statistically, individuals share beliefs.  These identities, political or otherwise, are mutable.  People switch between them, many people have more than one, and in any case they represent facets of a person that are relatively, at least, flexible.  One can be, for instance, both a Democrat and a Christian, as well as a member of the NAACP (though white), and a physician (I am describing the identifications of a friend).  Any person is free to change these identifications, though, of course, most are reluctant to do so.

What Ezra Klein et al mean by “identity politics” is different.  Here the individual’s identity is based on an immutable trait shared by a group, usually race or gender, and they participate in that group by virtue of sharing that trait.  These identities are not mutable, though they can overlap (a white male, a black woman).  Members of this group share a set of beliefs around their race and gender, first and foremost, and they see issues through that lens, as they affect them as a black, a white, a man, or as a woman.  These identities, to them are all political, and all politics is about them.  Hence the phrases: “All politics is identity politics,” and the corollary, “All identities are political.”

My take on the latter follows.  Since it’s you, I wrote it up. I’ll pick up “patriotism” if the conversation turns that way.

Different degrees of identity. The extreme version is ugly, especially when it gets down to “you are thus and so, therefore you MUST….” 

As far as children learning from parents and peers, their peers are learning from their parents, too. But today parents and peers are getting all sorts of behavioral exemplars from the media, we’re not in Kansas any more….

Have you seen a 1996 paper by Naomi Quinn, Universals of Child Rearing? Very interesting, in particular what she calls “predisposition priming,” the sensitizing of a child, from infancy, to a particular feeling or emotion as a means of strengthening other methods of guiding a child toward a culturally responsible adulthood. (E.g., in China children are taught to feel shame as a means of leading them to self-reflection and self-improvement. A laudable enough goal, but reading over the methods involved I’m reminded of brainwashing techniques; in some cultures children are intentionally taught to be fearful, and so on. A thought I’ve had on that is that universally, infants are in a sense in a Stockholm syndrome situation, their parents and caregivers are trying to do well by them but the child is still totally dependent on them).

 
burt
 
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burt
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13 February 2021 10:53
 
Poldano - 13 February 2021 04:23 AM
deodand - 12 February 2021 06:18 AM

Henrich is required reading in our program.  Most of our test subjects are WEIRD, a shortcoming we can’t do much about.

You might be right about the devolution from impersonal morality to group-identity based morality.  Surely identity politics is nothing if not a shift in that direction, and now that identity politics has become SOP for the liberal elite, it’s becoming SOP among the conservative masses (aka Trumpism) as well. This is probably a coincidence based on an underlying cause, not one of x preceding and causing y.  So what, one might ask, is that underlying cause?  Why this shift from impersonal, principles-based morality (as much as this is possible as an ideal) to identity in-group based morality (which has always been a reality, but until recently not the ideal)?

To be sure, identity-group moralists still insist they are being impersonal, in so far as being “personal” is affiliated with being “biased.”  But that’s just virtue signaling: no one wants to believe their morality is a cookie cut from the group with which they identify, applied mindlessly.  Here in the US,  however, it does seem that people who stand on principle are increasingly rare, increasingly marginalized, and increasingly impotent to bring about social change.  My only reservation with calling this “devolution” is it implies a teleology to evolution, as though later forms are ‘more advanced’ or ‘more adaptive’ than earlier forms.  But remove that possible connotation and I think it’s fair to say we are seeing a devolution from one form of moral judgment to another, both with respect to prevalence in the real world and as an ideal against which to shape that real world, to better suit our needs.

I’m glad to hear that about your program.

I personally don’t think any of us are completely free of identity politics, if that includes such things as being more tolerant of family members’ transgressions than those of strangers. Listen to Bruce Springsteen’s State Trooper (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nU5MyNuBdhg) for a take of what that might feel like. I should probably reference some actual research, but I don’t know of any offhand that isn’t already referenced by Henrich or his sources. On the other hand, popular media is chock full of stuff illustrating the tension between loyalties.

I get your dissatisfaction with the notion that identity politics is true. However, I don’t share your opinion that because it is not true, people will not do it or people should not do it. People do it, and sometimes they have conflicts because of the dueling loyalties of their various identifications. Popular as well as classical media are full of this stuff too. People are not logical when it comes to these emotionally-driven and socialized attributes, so the illogicality seems irrelevant to me. What is relevant is that people learn identities, sometimes despite themselves, and are also judged by others depending on what those others think those identities are or should be.

Fixed and mutable identities may be distinguishable in an academic sense, but not necessarily to the people who have them. Also, identities don’t necessarily prevent people from attempting and achieving things that are not part of their identities. The tensions between “incompatible” identities sometimes only hits a person after they have achieved something not part of their socially-approved identity. I recall a SCTV skit about a Black guy who wanted to be a Jewish cantor that was an inversion of The Jazz Singer that illustrated the point.

People seem to feel the need to construct an identity, in the sense of a self-image, for themselves that is acceptable to the community that has the most influence over them. This might be a kind of conformist drive, but I believe it is part of socialization, insofar as it is part of the process of learning and practicing the mores of one’s immediate social environment. I believe this is an essential process, for reasons which are too numerous and complex to enumerate here, and that if it does not proceed adequately one may become an outcast or fail to achieve more than minimal status in one’s community. That process and its results are the basis for identity politics; not everyone is or can be a freethinker, much less a fully free actor. So while it is not necessarily true that “all politics is identity politics”, identity in the sense of self-perceived social group affiliation and status is a powerful driver of political inclinations.

Moreover, political views established independently of any self-identity or self-image influences (i.e., as close to completely rational as humans can get) can still end up looking like or called identity politics. This is because when enough people hold similar viewpoints, they may mutate their viewpoints to minimize disagreement with each other. This is actually a socialization process, possibly using the same psychological and social mechanisms as infant and childhood socialization. In this process, a new affiliation attractor may be formed, at which point outsiders may come to perceive those attracted to the opinions held in common as a feature of a distinct political/social identity group, even attaching a name to it/them (e.g., tea baggers, the woke, both neologisms within the last decade and a half).

Of course, I’m mainly speculating, because it’s what I do, but it sounds plausible to me. Remember (or maybe not, because I’m not sure I said this to you directly) that I don’t think humans are usually correct about anything that they think or perceive, but that they usually get close enough to what is actually true to create useful rules of thumb.

Anyway, for a final word on Henrich, I believe he refereces and describes the use of powerful tools and concepts for getting a handle on some of these things. In terms of evolution/devolution, I’m not depending on the apparent teleology of evolution, but simply looking at everything in evolutionary history, social, cultural, biological, whatever, as tools in a society’s / culture’s / species’ / lineage’s toolbox that can be re-adopted if the situation makes it useful to do so. Speculating on the breakdown of the cultural system that is needed to support impersonal morality (whatever that really is), the fallback will probably be small-community affiliation groups in rural areas, and extended families or neighborhood gangs in urban areas. It falls out according to which people one needs to cooperate with, and which people one does not need to cooperate with, as a first pass affiliation breakdown.

Good points. One issue that concerns me is the difference between social identity (group membership, roles) and what might be called intrinsic identity, perhaps a loaded term and something denied by people of a social constructivist bent. There is work on what’s called “identity fusion” which refers to taking on a social identity as an essential aspect of identity, and vice versa, taking a role identity as an aspect of personal identity. That was one of the things I worried about (apparently with good reason) back in 2016 with Trump’s election. That is, most people who have been elected president understand the office as a duty that they are there to fulfill and that becomes an aspect of their self-identity; with Trump what happened is that rather than accommodating his person to the office, he assimilated the office to his own ego-identity so that everything became an extension of himself. As in Louis XV, “L’etat, c’est moi.”

 
deodand
 
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deodand
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13 February 2021 15:43
 

Screen time is the new media concern with kids.

No, I haven’t seen that paper, but emotional regulation is learned in interacting with parents and siblings more than peers, as this comes at such an early age.  It’s one way parents can really mess a kid up, with persistent effects into adulthood that subtend the “choice within constraints” model I proposed.  Some adults never get past childhood emotional regulation, if it fails then.  Trump comes to mind as an obvious example.  He seems to have not made it past two.

 
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13 February 2021 15:52
 

Two books of general interest come to mind from this conversation, one by a liberal and one by a conservative: Amartya Sen (2006) Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny and Francis Fukuyama (2018) Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. 

Sen, in effect, writes about the dangers of identity politics before its current incarnation, and Fukuyama addresses identity in a context similar to points we’ve all made here, separable from “identity politics,” while acknowledging that politics is about identity.

I thoroughly enjoyed both.

 
burt
 
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13 February 2021 17:08
 
deodand - 13 February 2021 03:43 PM

Screen time is the new media concern with kids.

No, I haven’t seen that paper, but emotional regulation is learned in interacting with parents and siblings more than peers, as this comes at such an early age.  It’s one way parents can really mess a kid up, with persistent effects into adulthood that subtend the “choice within constraints” model I proposed.  Some adults never get past childhood emotional regulation, if it fails then.  Trump comes to mind as an obvious example.  He seems to have not made it past two.

It’s more than emotional regulation that Quinn had in mind. Rather it was the deliberate (although perhaps not fully conscious) instilling of sensitivity to a particular emotion that makes the application of the other three universals (consistent messaging, emotional tagging, verbal and non-verbal signaling of approval or disapproval) easier. And, in different cultures, it generally works well in terms of leading to adults that are able to fit in to their society.

I’d like to know more about your “choice with constraints” model.

 
deodand
 
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13 February 2021 17:38
 

I may look at the paper, but I suspect much of what she describes is enculturation interacting with peers as much as parents cultivating a sensibility.  But, given the early ages at which this would occur, that may be less the case than I am thinking.  The parents could be seen as “first among peers,” in a sense, and her three universals sound much like how parents try to instruct children to adjust to their peers and siblings.

I’ve of mixed minds about the literature on the impact parents have on the ultimate outcomes of their adult children.

One extreme goes so far as to say parents have little enduring impact, though they set the initial conditions of the developmental trajectory.  But those initial conditions are so reworked during development that, some say, there is little parental contribution left by the time adulthood is reached.  This, I think, usually refers to an ideal; they acknowledged arrested development at stages.  But even then it’s postulated that the impact on personality and preferences is not very deep, only that the means of coping are affected.  Through those means, however well adjusted, emerges a unique individual that owes more to peers and culture than to parents.

One apparent exception, as we’ve noted, is religion.  The correlations between parents and children are quite high; so, on the face of it, one might think the influence goes deep.  But per what I noted above, I think this is explained by a “choice within constraints” model. 

Amplifying what I wrote there, children are exposed to possibilities through their parents, especially religious preference, from religious parents.  So long as this possibility is satisfying, it will persist, and religious convictions being what they are, not because of parental indoctrination but because of their intrinsic nature, they usually are satisfying, so the path to religiosity initiated by the parents typically endures.  Far more than career choice, for instance, religious preference is, as it were, “irrational”; therefore it will not be subject to the same evaluation that guides development as a child learns to find his or her “own way.”  So, as I see it, the persistence is more a coincidence than anything else, which explains why this correlation is constant within each religion, across them all.  Whatever constraint one is first exposed to persists if satisfaction can be found within it. 

This implies, I admit, that one religion is as good as another in the economy of personal satisfaction.  But given the variety of satisfied people within the variety of religions, this does not seem like a stretch.

 
burt
 
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14 February 2021 00:18
 
deodand - 13 February 2021 05:38 PM

I may look at the paper, but I suspect much of what she describes is enculturation interacting with peers as much as parents cultivating a sensibility.  But, given the early ages at which this would occur, that may be less the case than I am thinking.  The parents could be seen as “first among peers,” in a sense, and her three universals sound much like how parents try to instruct children to adjust to their peers and siblings.

I’ve of mixed minds about the literature on the impact parents have on the ultimate outcomes of their adult children.

One extreme goes so far as to say parents have little enduring impact, though they set the initial conditions of the developmental trajectory.  But those initial conditions are so reworked during development that, some say, there is little parental contribution left by the time adulthood is reached.  This, I think, usually refers to an ideal; they acknowledged arrested development at stages.  But even then it’s postulated that the impact on personality and preferences is not very deep, only that the means of coping are affected.  Through those means, however well adjusted, emerges a unique individual that owes more to peers and culture than to parents.

One apparent exception, as we’ve noted, is religion.  The correlations between parents and children are quite high; so, on the face of it, one might think the influence goes deep.  But per what I noted above, I think this is explained by a “choice within constraints” model. 

Amplifying what I wrote there, children are exposed to possibilities through their parents, especially religious preference, from religious parents.  So long as this possibility is satisfying, it will persist, and religious convictions being what they are, not because of parental indoctrination but because of their intrinsic nature, they usually are satisfying, so the path to religiosity initiated by the parents typically endures.  Far more than career choice, for instance, religious preference is, as it were, “irrational”; therefore it will not be subject to the same evaluation that guides development as a child learns to find his or her “own way.”  So, as I see it, the persistence is more a coincidence than anything else, which explains why this correlation is constant within each religion, across them all.  Whatever constraint one is first exposed to persists if satisfaction can be found within it. 

This implies, I admit, that one religion is as good as another in the economy of personal satisfaction.  But given the variety of satisfied people within the variety of religions, this does not seem like a stretch.

It’s the getting them early that matters. She also notes the input from other caregivers and peers, but argues that input will be in line with the general cultural model of child rearing in the culture (in one of the cultures she discusses it’s quite ordinary for anybody in a village to seriously beat a child perceived to be acting up as a means of instilling fear). Certainly children will find their own way, but in less varied cultures than ours the possible ways available may be quite limited. I’ve been reading a book on Omar Khayyam that includes several metaphysical essays he wrote. In one he argues that there are three types of determinism: universal, socio-economic, and ontological. Ontologically, as a human being, certain possibilities are determined, including the possibility, unique to humans, of entering into the world of mind and spirit and achieving personal realization through actualization of their innate human potential. As a social being, however, social and economic life determines the means available to do this. Universally, however, human beings possess free will. Whatever the conditions of a person’s life, personal, moral, and ethical choices determine the actual result.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve come more and more to appreciate the basic foundation I got from parents and caregivers even though the actual drunkards walk through life has produced all sorts of superficial differences from what they might have anticipated or even hoped for. Something that I’m trying to develop now is the idea that many cultural traits, even quite trivial ones, are distributed over multiple cultural domains. For example, the frequency of right vs left handed individuals in a group is a group trait but that brings with it other traits—weapons and tools will be biased for right handedness, there may be negative attitudes toward left handedness, and so on (in medieval Europe this even relates to the direction of spiral staircases in castles). The same way, infant and early childhood input can provide seeds that develop and also an overall attitude. In lots of ways I like Sperber’s idea of cultural attractors although I don’t think it’s been well developed so far.

 
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14 February 2021 01:21
 
deodand - 13 February 2021 06:56 AM

I don’t mean to imply that people don’t engage in identity politics in Ezra Klein’s sense.  Many do.  Nor do I mean to imply that people don’t experience conflicts between their mutable and immutable ‘identities.’  Examples are too obvious to cite.  Nor do I mean, in any sense, that because the statement “all politics is identity politics” is either trivial or illogical that people should shed emotionally driven or socialized attributes, much less that identities as such are something we can, or would want, to shed.  Again, identities are inevitable.  All this is true, and “identity politics” practiced in the strict sense is common.  But the claim that all people in politics are practicing it is preposterous.

And, do we really want everyone practicing it?  I think not because identity politics not only regresses us to tribalism; it raises tribalism to the principle moral good.  This moves us, against its stated intent, backwards, not forwards.  Stressing the mutual irreconcilability of conflicting identities, asserting privilege to lived experience that cannot be bridged between people, and basing one’s identity on both, through an immutable trait, places us back, almost literally, into an infantile tribalism.  Modern politics made progress when it realized identities are constructed, not ordained, and going back to ordained identities means going back to the shortcoming we should strive to overcome.  Tribes reconciled through a common constructed identity are preferable to tribes separated by ordained and irreconcilable identities based on immutable traits.

And no, identity politics has no monopoly on respecting differences.  Nothing in an American civic identity presupposes everyone has to be the same.

A final point: fixed and mutable identities are distinguishable in more than an academic sense.  They are distinguishable, period, even in people who in their own minds think they are not.  Anyone can base their entire self-worth and self-esteem on “being black,” but this does not change the fact that they can, and do, still assume multiple mutable identities.  If this were not true they would not be able to identify as a parent, as a member of their profession, as a Christian, as a Democrat, etc. and still be black.  And try as much as they might to filter all their mutable identities through “blackness,” the very effort will reveal that their mutable identities are separable because they will have to choose a “black” version from among other possible ones.  There is no way around the fact the mutable and immutable identities are separable.  Even under the strictest regime of racial discrimination this remains true.

I’m not sure that fixed and mutable are significant distinctions in identity components when it comes down to actual practice, especially in personal interaction, social affiliation, and politics. I see the various identity affiliation attractors as mostly independent of each other, although because of social and cultural context that independence may be compromised, for example in the case of a devout Roman Catholic obstetrician who may find it quite difficult to decide to terminate an ectopic pregnancy, wherein professional affiliation conflicts with religious affiliation. Also, I think some of the identity attributes you call fixed may not actually be so in all cases; consider the attribute of gender and the specific case of Bruce/Caitlin Jenner. Moreover, even if people can learn to distinguish between fixed and mutable components of their identity, their willingness or ability to do so depends upon their willingness or ability to accept the theory that their identity has such distinguishable and separable components. People remain social and political actors regardless of whether their senses of self are optimized by cognitive behavioral therapy or its equivalent, and I think the job of a social scientist is to do science on the basis of populations of actual people rather than optimized people.

Similarly, I am skeptical that affiliation with the same attractor or attribute necessarily brings with it the same experiences for everyone who is so attracted. There will be individual differences, and I believe there will also be socially-mediated differences. This notion is what was behind my claim in another thread that there may a difference in considering oneself “Black” in West Africa and the United States. Each social context may bring with it both different in-group socialization experiences and different out-group social experiences that contribute to or interact with self-concept, and may hence either modify some sense of identity or inspire an emotional reaction to the social context or other individuals. For a non-current example, Black people in the U.S. had to deal with the possibility of lynching and the actuality of Jim Crow laws for many years, while Black people in Africa mostly did not except when dealing directly with colonizers; their respective experiences were therefore somewhat different, and the effects of those different experiences may have led to differences in culturally-transmitted expectations. A little further along in history, Black people in Africa became mostly independent of overt white domination in the form of colonialism, while Black people in the U.S. still had to deal with White people, some of whom still believe that they should be the superiors in status and power, and few of whom want to share any of their perceived zero-sum status or power with a group of people they perceive to be culturally, and possibly biologically, different. I’m not certain what the net differences between African and U.S. Black populations currently are, but until I receive substantial validated and verified evidence to the contrary, I am going to continue to assume that treatment effects between the two populations continue to be different. Whether this is because of in-group socialization differences or out-group social interaction differences does not matter for the basic assertion (i.e., my assumption) to be true or false, but only for the best way to remedy the matter if the assertion happens to be true.

 

 
 
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14 February 2021 02:06
 
burt - 13 February 2021 10:53 AM

...

Good points. One issue that concerns me is the difference between social identity (group membership, roles) and what might be called intrinsic identity, perhaps a loaded term and something denied by people of a social constructivist bent. There is work on what’s called “identity fusion” which refers to taking on a social identity as an essential aspect of identity, and vice versa, taking a role identity as an aspect of personal identity. That was one of the things I worried about (apparently with good reason) back in 2016 with Trump’s election. That is, most people who have been elected president understand the office as a duty that they are there to fulfill and that becomes an aspect of their self-identity; with Trump what happened is that rather than accommodating his person to the office, he assimilated the office to his own ego-identity so that everything became an extension of himself. As in Louis XV, “L’etat, c’est moi.”

The distinction between social identity and intrinsic identity reminds me of the problem that relational database engineers encountered when they attempted to rigorously and conscientously apply relational theory to their work in database design and usage. What happened was that relational purity proved to be impractical both in terms of storage required and in terms of access time and computation. The resulting fudge involved the use of arbitrary linking identifiers (“handles” in one sense) and rather wide schisms among permanent storage, access and update, and computational usage. I don’t think the situation is formally analogous, but I can imagine the confusion that inevitably results.

I tend to take a social constructivist stance for the large-scale theories, although I’m well aware of the notion of intrinsic identity, despite knowing nothing of the current discussion about it. I think the notion of intrinsic identity may get in the way of the utility of the notion of identity in social sciences in general. In most cases, at least those concerned with aggregate outcome, what matters are the identity components that affect overt and self-acknowledged beliefs. Where the intrinsic and the social components may need to be distinguished are in the effects that interactions have on the individual experiencing them, and how that experience affects future identity components and their effects on subsequent social actions. I don’t think our modeling capabilities are quite up to the task of taking these into account yet, although I might be wrong. Until aggregate models achieve the sophistication and the computational resources to take any differences between intrinsic and social identity components into account, I don’t believe the aggregate modelers need to worry much about the distinction.

I haven’t followed at all what the intrinsic identity fans are putting into the intrinsic category. As with the fixed and mutable identity components Deodand brought up, I’m going to have to do some more reading to find out what they are all supposed to refer to.

Your 2016 take on Trump was very similar to mine. I think the common terminology for the question was whether Trump would “step up” to the role of President, or whether he would simply use the role to gratify his own desires.

 
 
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14 February 2021 05:59
 

Poldano

I don’t know whose experience you are talking about when you say in practice being male or female is not fixed and being a Republican or Democrat is not mutable.  Yes, of course, not absolutely fixed; I can get a sex change.  But short of that everyone I meet is going to identify me as a male and Asian, without knowing a thing about me, this will carry all kinds of expectations, and this is fixed about me, whereas anyone who identifies me as a psychologist first has to know me, then they are going to identify me by something that is mutable, in that I could have been an engineer, and maybe one day I’ll give up psychology for marketing.  And so forth.  This is not cognitive behavior or optimization; this is common sense.  There are significant components to identity that are fixed, and there are some that are mutable.  That those fixed traits are not absolute against interventions of medical science is neither here nor there, and neither is people’s willingness or unwillingness to change the mutable ones.  Whether they acknowledge the fact or not, they can.

As for distinguishable and separable components of identity, I don’t need to a theory to experience the differences in the sense of identity I get from being a male boyfriend to my female girlfriend, from being a graduate student, or a son, a brother, or a Catholic, etc.  I am quite aware, intuitively, that these components of my identity are distinguishable, and in some case separable because I can change them.  Distinguishing and separating out aspects of ourselves is something we all do, absent a theory.

Yes, people’s experiences around an immutable trait are going to be different, given both individual and socially mediated differences, but this means, mainly, that they will identify as “black” or “male” in different ways, something I would never deny.  In fact, I maintain, against identity politics, that being “black” or being “male” or being any other “immutable trait” is, to the individual, almost as flexible as identifying with a profession or any other socially mediated role.  “Almost” because traits attributed by others to people as black, white, male and female tend to run deeper on the emotional scale and be more fixed in terms of expectations, and this rigidity of reaction among others must be dealt with.  But I think it can be dealt with far more readily than identity politics holds. 

Identity politics stands for the proposition that you cannot avoid, for yourself, identifying as “black” in US society, and be authentic, because US society identifies you, primarily, as “black,” therefore the first move toward authenticity is to construct the meaning of “blackness” for yourself, as a group, with others who identify as black, in opposition, it seems, to “whiteness.”  In limited respects, this seems necessary, but the extent to which identity politics takes it goes to the regressed tribalism I mentioned earlier.  If you are suggesting this move is not necessary as identity politics makes it, then I agree.

To be honest I get the impression you are throwing out the points I’m making against identity politics as a backdoor defense of identity politics, but if this is true, I’ll point out that what you just wrote undermines the basic ideas of identity politics as, or more, effectively as anything I’ve written.  If this is not your intent, I apologize for the imputation.

 
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14 February 2021 06:14
 

burt

Yes, child rearing in other cultures produces more rigid outcomes; our practices are intentionally flexible, for the most part.  I’ll note, though, that these practices are more than just parental; as your parenthetical note establishes, parental behavior takes place within norms among peers.  In the US that beating will have a far different impact, not least of which will be the parents losing custody of the child.  I hate, just hate, ha ha, to go Hillary Clinton on you, but in a way it does take a village.

Family is important, I think; in the US it serves as a proving ground for socialization and enculturation, but more flexibly and with more freedom than non-WIERD cultures.  Stable, two parent families mitigate much social pathology.  But unlike many of my conservative brethren, I don’t think it is the foundation of civilization (not attributing this view to you).  Rather I think it sets the initial conditions for enculturation and socialization, providing children with the basic mechanisms of coping and adapting more than the context and content to which they adapt and with which they cope.  It’s the latter that is, I think, ultimately formative, but like you say, these early childhood experiences “provide seeds that develop and also an overall attitude.” 

This is an area I’m particularly interested in.

My reflections as I age are similar.  From interacting with my parents and siblings I developed certain emotional and cognitive habits, some of which I’ve worked to expunge, others of which I’ve embellished.  On balance it is more embellishing than expunging, but there is significant, and rather deep, expunging to be done.  As an adult I’m taking on this responsibility (I suspect I am younger than you), psychoanalysts call it “subjectifying the cause” (they are a hobby, not a vocation), but overall I’m finding that while I owe much about the ‘color,’ as it were, of my personality to how I was raised I’m finding that what I believe and what I identify with is more different than not from my parents, and to a lesser degree, my siblings.  I think here in the US the ideal is for parents to provide for their children the ‘foundational tools’ for finding their own identity, something my own parents had to adjust to when they came here.

What interests me as much as this ideal is the actual practices, and the variety of outcomes, some arrested, some not, from them.

 
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14 February 2021 10:50
 
deodand - 14 February 2021 06:14 AM

burt

Yes, child rearing in other cultures produces more rigid outcomes; our practices are intentionally flexible, for the most part.  I’ll note, though, that these practices are more than just parental; as your parenthetical note establishes, parental behavior takes place within norms among peers.  In the US that beating will have a far different impact, not least of which will be the parents losing custody of the child.  I hate, just hate, ha ha, to go Hillary Clinton on you, but in a way it does take a village.

Family is important, I think; in the US it serves as a proving ground for socialization and enculturation, but more flexibly and with more freedom than non-WIERD cultures.  Stable, two parent families mitigate much social pathology.  But unlike many of my conservative brethren, I don’t think it is the foundation of civilization (not attributing this view to you).  Rather I think it sets the initial conditions for enculturation and socialization, providing children with the basic mechanisms of coping and adapting more than the context and content to which they adapt and with which they cope.  It’s the latter that is, I think, ultimately formative, but like you say, these early childhood experiences “provide seeds that develop and also an overall attitude.” 

This is an area I’m particularly interested in.

My reflections as I age are similar.  From interacting with my parents and siblings I developed certain emotional and cognitive habits, some of which I’ve worked to expunge, others of which I’ve embellished.  On balance it is more embellishing than expunging, but there is significant, and rather deep, expunging to be done.  As an adult I’m taking on this responsibility (I suspect I am younger than you), psychoanalysts call it “subjectifying the cause” (they are a hobby, not a vocation), but overall I’m finding that while I owe much about the ‘color,’ as it were, of my personality to how I was raised I’m finding that what I believe and what I identify with is more different than not from my parents, and to a lesser degree, my siblings.  I think here in the US the ideal is for parents to provide for their children the ‘foundational tools’ for finding their own identity, something my own parents had to adjust to when they came here.

What interests me as much as this ideal is the actual practices, and the variety of outcomes, some arrested, some not, from them.

If you’re a graduate student then you almost certainly are much younger than I am (retired professor). wink

Regarding the way children are raised in the US, I recall about 45 years ago asking a friend who had a one year old daughter whether she was planning on raising the child in the same way that her mother had raised her, and whether she would expect her daughter to raise a granddaughter in the same way. She was clear that no, she wanted to have her child be able to adapt to whatever circumstances she would face later in life. One thing about cultures such as in the US, there are many subcultures so a variety of differing ideas.

 
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14 February 2021 16:22
 
deodand - 12 February 2021 09:59 PM

I think you place too much emphasis on “programmed indoctrination.” 

Developmentally we know even young children start to learn more from their peers than their parents at a relatively early age.  This gap grows proportionately as they pass through childhood and into adolescence, and by the time they are adults, the gap is almost complete (ideally, it is complete).  At each phase commitment to parental instruction becomes moderated through commitment to peers, so the persistence of parental religion is as much a function of peer experiences being similar to parental beliefs as parental belief “programming” children through “indoctrination.” Since parental culture and childhood peer-culture correlate highly, so do parental religious beliefs and adult children’s religious beliefs.

This is why many deeply religious people want their children to attend religious schools.

As to those correlations, specifically, they usually refer to broad categories like “Christian,” “Protestant” and “Hindu.”  They fall in between .7-.8.  Specify those categories into sub-categories like “Christian denomination,” “type of Protestant” or “type of Hindu,” and the correlation falls to about .6-.7.  Separate parental beliefs into two different religions, or one religious and one non-religious, and that correlation falls to about chance.  At least here in the US.  I don’t know of data elsewhere.

A better model than “programmed indoctrination” to explain these correlations is “choice within constraint.”  People’s choices are constrained by the possibilities they’re exposed to, and as a rule people don’t creatively expand those constraints, if their choices are satisfying.  But this doesn’t mean people aren’t making choices.  It just means that, as a rule, people choose the most satisfying path of least resistance.  If as an adult they find the religiosity they learned as a child satisfies, they will continue it.  If they don’t, they will choose otherwise.  Add to this that most people find their religion very satisfying and that people are prone to stick with what they find satisfying, and the correlation between parental and child religion is almost entirely explained.

As I see it, what you describe as “identity politics” is the standard idea of political identities: an identifiable population in which, statistically, individuals share beliefs.  These identities, political or otherwise, are mutable.  People switch between them, many people have more than one, and in any case they represent facets of a person that are relatively, at least, flexible.  One can be, for instance, both a Democrat and a Christian, as well as a member of the NAACP (though white), and a physician (I am describing the identifications of a friend).  Any person is free to change these identifications, though, of course, most are reluctant to do so.

What Ezra Klein et al mean by “identity politics” is different.  Here the individual’s identity is based on an immutable trait shared by a group, usually race or gender, and they participate in that group by virtue of sharing that trait.  These identities are not mutable, though they can overlap (a white male, a black woman).  Members of this group share a set of beliefs around their race and gender, first and foremost, and they see issues through that lens, as they affect them as a black, a white, a man, or as a woman.  These identities, to them are all political, and all politics is about them.  Hence the phrases: “All politics is identity politics,” and the corollary, “All identities are political.”

My take on the latter follows.  Since it’s you, I wrote it up. I’ll pick up “patriotism” if the conversation turns that way.

The problem with describing something like race as “immutable” is that it fails to recognize that the concept of race itself is mutable.  Excluding things like tanning, injury, diseases, and tattoos, a person’s skin color doesn’t change, this is true.  But how a society interprets skin color can and does frequently change.  I think it is unlikely that someone will build an identity based solely on their skin color.  By that I mean only the color with no social input or context.  No one is going to say “I’m #503335.”  They’re going to say “black” or “brown”.  Since both of those words include a vast array of specific hues, the term is not a specific color, but rather to a very large grouping of colors that is socially acknowledged as being grouped.

We also know that different cultures group skin tones differently.  For example, many African-Americans report going to places in Africa… and being treated like a white person, and they don’t feel “black” at all.

So, while an individual’s skin color is indeed immutable, the social context with which they will build their identity is not.  If the social context is mutable, then it is likely that somewhere along the way, people made choices that influenced that context.

 
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