February 20, 2005

Summers, Harvard and Identity (from VC)

The Lawrence Summers stir (where the Harvard big shot and former Clinton Cabinet member caused a controversy by suggesting there were wider social and biological causes behind female under-representation in science) isn't dead yet in the blogosphere. A particularly clever commentator over on Janegalt.net pointed out the apparent hypocrisy in those who reflexively reject the idea of anti-conservative discrimination and reflexively accept the idea of anti-female discrimination.

Of course, the reason behind this apparent contradiction is obvious once you think about it. It goes straight to identity, not to logic, reason or even fairness. Many professors see themselves a certain way: progressive, intelligent, positive, energetic, fighting for the little guy, and maybe even heroically holding back raging hordes of conservative anti-intellectuals. The degree to which this self-identification is utter nonsense doesn't matter.

If you see yourself as intelligent, progressive and populist then you latch onto the symbols of being those things. To reinforce your identity and to prove that you are an upstanding member of the relevant identity (whether religious, social or political) you take on certain opinions and behaviors. This often means lip service paid to a number of broad concepts. For progressives, it tends to mean talking about discrimination against women, racial minorities, gay people, etc. It also means supporting the various favored policies of progressive leaders, such as affirmative action, abortion rights, etc.

The people silencing Summers believe what they believe because of how they have defined themselves. "I am a progressive Democrat. I care about the plight women. Therefore, I must make sure everyone else acknowledges the plight of women, to prove how much I care." I wish I were joking here. Now, this is obviously a simplification, but it's essentially how the thought process works. Just to be clear, this is how many people seem to work in my experience, not just professors or Democrats.

When it comes to near-total lack of conservatives in academia: "I am a progressive Democrat, not a conservative. I should not make statements that would work to increase conservatives in academia, because that would be a conservative thing to do."

Now, to be clear, this is not just a matter of trying to look appropriate to others. That sort of peer pressure does exist, but I am not referencing it now. What I am truly speaking of is convincing yourself, not others, that you are a worthy member of your identity group. It's not done out of fear, but out of self-shaping.

This is why the idea of "I'm a Christian but I'll work for the rights of atheists" or "I'm in group X but I'll works for the rights of group Y" is such a remarkable and important one. It's often misapplied and people claim this principled position even when they don't really hold it, but the importance of it is unblemished.

The effects of self-identification spread beyond the narrow area of the discrimination debate. To continue with the progressives, just because they're fun to pick on, it's a major reason why people support abortion rights. Aside from the moderate and fringe people, pro-choicers almost invariably seem disinterested in a lengthy, two-sided debate on the issue. They'll argue semantics, philosophy, entertainment, economics, race and religion for hours but more than a few superficial platitudes about abortion and they'll start declaring the topic unsolvable or too controversial. If it's too much to handle in a debate, why hold an opinion on it? Well, obvious answer: self-identification.

"I am a progressive Democrat, who cares about the plight of women. Therefore, I must pay lip service to abortion rights." You don't have to prove it rationally; you need only believe it.

I've argued, observed and interviewed enough pro-choice people to figure out roughly why many of them believe what they believe. It seems to me like it's 98% dependent on self-identification. They see themselves as progressive, feminist, Democratic, intelligent, educated, forward-thinking, liberal, libertarian and scientific. They see being pro-life as the things they are not: reactionary, misogynist, Republican, ignorant, uneducated, redneck, conservative, authoritarian and irrational. The fact that these stereotypes and identifications are often totally untrue is irrelevant.

Some people determine their statements and positions not by their pre-formed opinions or by objective reasoning, but as a vehicle to prove or validate their identity. "I am a Democrat; therefore I am pro-choice; therefore I should argue on behalf of women; therefore I shouldn't argue on behalf of conservatives." Again, this is a simplified explanation, but I believe it is a well-reasoned theory.

Guilt-absolving qualifying remarks: I am not speaking in universalities or even generalities; I am only suggesting that a not-insignificant portion of people (regardless of race, gender or political and sexual orientations) follow this process to guide their political rhetoric and behavior.

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