Forward Thinking: Challenging others’ identity

(This is a response to this Forward Thinking blog challenge post, on Dan Fincke’s excellent Camels with Hammers blog) 

The question posed this time is tailor-made for a Buddhist approach, the way that a question, say, about why we feel gratitude when good things happen is tailor-made for a monotheistic approach. Identity is an aspect of our sense of self, and Buddhism, after all, is deeply engaged with understanding how we perceive and misperceive selfhood.

The self, as Buddhists observe it, is a complex, constructed artifact that is constantly changing — so much so that any “I” we can identify with is simply a snapshot, soon to be superceded by a new “I”. Dan’s musings about when we become “a different person” has a self-evident answer for a careful observer: we are constantly becoming a (slightly) different person. It’s just that we don’t usually take careful note of small changes. Mostly this is a matter of failing to observe, but it does also seem as if the mind makes an effort to hide small changes and project the illusion of a stable self. We tend, for instance, to have a strong  feeling that we are the same person we were as a child, even though we know perfectly well that our “beliefs, attitudes, memories, values, dispositions, habitual behaviors, formative experiences” are completely different at age fifty from what they were at age eight. This feeling (the Buddha asserted) is an illusion… though I’d say it has its uses.

What we call “my identity” is a projection of an “I” into social space. Identity is, to some degree, performed rather than merely experienced. This is not meant to be a denigration of identity, or a suggestion that identity is somehow illegitimate or inauthentic. For one thing, it seems almost certain, from what I can learn about child development, that there is at no stage of our life a purely internal sense of self uninfluenced by how others see us. We construct self, from our earliest infancy, partly from our own experience and partly from the views of us communicated by our caregivers. When we are sitting in our high chairs eating baby food, we are not only laying down what may be a lifetime love or hatred of the taste of bananas; we are also learning that we are adorable or irritating, beloved or burdensome, interesting or ignored. Over time, we add layers of complexity to the social aspect of self as we begin to wonder what others think of us, and try to influence what they think of us, and even try to influence how they think of themselves.

In other words, our sense of self is fractal, with elements of our “own” experience transformed by and transforming elements of collective experience. We may emphasize the private elements (for instance, when we concern ourselves with integrity), or we may emphasize the collective elements. “Identity” is on the public side of that spectrum.

I think of identity a bit like antlers on a stag. They make the stag bigger, socially speaking. They clear a bigger space for him in the herd. And they are a signal about his health and strength.

And oh yeah — when he’s challenged, they are armor and weapons in one.

See, that’s the thing about “challenging someone’s identity”. As soon as I hear the term, I think of two stags crashing into each other (or, if they are polite, Canadian stags, maybe just shaking their heads in threat display.) Granted, it is more exciting to watch a couple of stags butt heads than to watch a herd of deer uneventfully cropping grass. But which is more useful?

My own approach to discussion does not usually involve challenging my partner’s identity. Usually, I do my best to slip past identity altogether, to a more central level. For instance, there is the level of stories.

Consider a fairly common story: “My life was a truly godawful mess. Then I discovered Fact X (and often, the community that accepts Fact X). Now my life is much better — still a work in progress, but I know I’m moving in the right direction.”

You can see this story all the time, if you look. It’s practically the foundation of groups like AA. The interesting thing about that story, to me at least, is how many sorts of Fact X there are: religious conversion, of course, but also “I’m gay and that’s ok”, “God doesn’t exist”, “9/11 was an inside job”, and so on. This is not the only story people construct about their lives, and it’s not universal. But it’s common enough that you quite often see two people challenging each other’s identity who, in fact, share that same story. Let’s say, someone who identifies first and foremost as gay and someone who is equally identified with Evangelical Christianity. 

What I have tried to do, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, is to notice when I share a story with someone, and try to get him or her to notice this interesting thing, that the area where we differ is in some functional sense actually the same. When it works, it builds a bond of understanding, though just a fragile one.

In some cases, a person has stories as polished and performative as his or her identity. In that case, I try to slip in a little further, perhaps by turning the conversation to other people, people each of us cares about. (This has the additional advantage of breaking the obsessive focus on self, which can make us defensive and inflexible.) When I was a kid, I always used to be confused by the fact that grown women — mothers and grandmothers and aunts — would constantly turn the conversation to how family members were doing. It seemed so boring! But now I see that it served the purpose of making real connection.

I think at this point I need to talk about intentions. It would be wrong, I think, to try to get close to people in order to manipulate them or change their mind. It would either be futile — because people are good at detecting attempts to manipulate them — or it would be, if successful, a violation of their autonomy. 

The view that one person can change another person’s mind is, for the most part, an illusion in any case. The conversion comes about naturally, by the ordinary process of change that is always going on. It might be that a would-be persuader happens to speak just at the moment when the conversion is imminent — or when initial recognition of an existing conversion is imminent. That creates the illusion of persuasivity (and often, inflates and falsifies the sense of self of the persuader.) 

But my intention is not to persuade, even in the cases where I’m sure I’m right and I would very much like to see everyone agree with me. (This excludes the case where there’s nothing to lose, as, for instance, someone pleading with a murderer to spare her life. Obviously, if there is no recourse, even something that shouldn’t work is worth a try!)

My intention is simply to find and connect with the best, most ethical and effective, common ground between myself and another person. Because here is the thing (and I’m going to go all Buddhist theory on you again.) Whatever part of ourselves and others we touch with loving attention is strengthened. This is called “watering good seeds” in Buddhist theory. So if the person before me is a raging homophobe, but also a loving father of a three-year-old daughter with Downs syndrome, then which part of him do I want to strengthen? Perhaps, if the right moment arises, I can drop in the fact that my daughter, whom I love so very much, is gay. But the point isn’t to change him. He has to change himself. 

He just stands a better chance of changing for the good if he encounters people who touch his strengths.

So that’s my view. If you’re going to challenge people, then their identity is probably the best thing to challenge, of the various aspects of their self. It might be a good spectacle, and I might enjoy watching it.

But I’m not sure it makes anyone involved a better person.