Identities

This has been a really challenging post to write, because it touches on a lot of heated topics, so that it was very easy to descend into exactly the kind of problems that I’m hoping to steer people away from. But here goes.

The need to form an identity seems to be a universal human trait. [1] People naturally want to have a concept of who they are and where they fit into the world. Gender (as understood by a given culture), ethnicity, and nationality have been among the most widely used sources of identity, but things like religion and political affiliation have certainly played a major role as well. Some groups, bereft of identity or saddled with identities that society at large denigrates, have built new identities for solidarity. This is especially evident in African-American and LGBT communities, which shows how it can be a positive force. In recent times we’ve also seen hobbies and fandoms similarly become sources of identity for some people. The need to form an identity is so basic, so human, that we can’t really fault people for it anymore than we can fault them for needing to breathe. Identity is not the problem then, but rather the things it can lead us to if we’re not careful. I wouldn’t ask anyone to abandon their identity, but I would ask everyone (especially myself) to be more cautious and introspective with it. I like to think that I have less issues with identity than the average person, but I still kept finding that kind of thing interfering with writing this post.

Being a white guy in America is weird. People will rail for and against the concept of “white privilege,” but the fact of the matter is that if you’re a (straight, cisgender) white guy, there are a bunch of things other people have to deal with that you don’t even have to think about. The problems we do experience are real, as are our accomplishments, but we also usually aren’t overtly reminded about being white guys by the police, the media, or people around us. In America we also have a diverse population and a culture that borrows heavily from other cultures, to the point where I’ve literally come across people who think that America has no culture of its own. We have no distinctive native dress, no kimonos or lederhosen, and even our national anthem’s melody is borrowed from another song . When people of other cultures come to America, they can easily adopt some American customs while keeping their own, as in the case of the Chinese-American family that celebrates both Chinese New Year and Christmas. Although American-ness can become blindingly obvious in contrast to other cultures, America is big enough that you could spend a lifetime within its borders and never explore it all. Some people nonetheless latch onto being American as a key part of their identity, but I think quite a few people find it doesn’t inform their own sense of identity very much. Likewise, although there are people who find some kind of identity in being “white” (which is often let’s say problematic), on the whole it doesn’t really offer much of anything to hold onto in terms of identity. It’s a category, and a rather arbitrary one at that. [2] That leaves us to carve out our identities in other ways, which I think is why I see a lot of people building their identity from other things. [3]

The big danger in basing your identity on something is that it’s easy to take it personally. If someone says you’re an asshole, rightly or wrongly, part of you gets a twinge and instinctively wants to do something about that threat to who you think you are and who others perceive you to be. If someone says that a group that you belong to are all assholes, you’re going to have a very similar reaction. Although there’s a lot to be said for keeping a cool head, not wanting your group to be called assholes is totally reasonable, doubly so if it’s a group you don’t have any choice about belonging to. Where it becomes a problem is when people perceive an identity threat (not a technical term, but I think you understand my meaning) in something that isn’t one. If you really like a game and someone says it sucks, your instincts are probably going to see their statement as a threat that you need to deal with, when in reality it’s just someone (tactlessly) having a different opinion from you.

That you need to be able to handle people having different opinions on things is something most people understand, even if we don’t always practice it as well as we should. The potentially more dangerous form of perceived identity threat comes from a dissonance between one’s self-perception and what others are doing within an identity source. When people who are or who seem different, or who engage in a fandom in a different way, a portion of the community often tries to “police” them. The elephant in the room there of course is the reactions to women starting to make themselves more apparent in various geeky spaces. A portion of the adverse reaction comes from a very basic aversion to people who are different from oneself coming into an identity source, but people also can develop a measure of orthodoxy in how they engage in a fandom. It’s dangerous to generalize, but women by and large engage in fandom a little differently from men, and those differences can become a point of attack. [4] This holds true even when the battle of the sexes isn’t an issue, as is evident in how Dungeons & Dragons is in effect a family of a dozen or so RPGs and countless play styles, so the (predominantly male) fanbase is at times deeply divided as to what the “right” way to play the game is. With D&D there’s also the issue that with the changing editions the publisher can essentially decide what the “default” version of the game is, and people on all sides have reacted very badly when it didn’t go the way they would’ve preferred. It’s easy to say that we should be more mature about that kind of thing, but I think we’re usually lacking in specifics. To me one of the keys to being human gracefully is to accept that your ape brain is going to sometimes do things it shouldn’t, and learn to work with it.

Fandom seems to have a disproportionate amount of these issues, and I think one of the key reasons why is that fandom doesn’t connect to the real world in quite the same way that other things do. Being part of a fandom often involves intensely connecting you to a small group of people while separating you a little from society at large. Certainly if I mention that one of my main hobbies is RPGs, it’s hard to even know where to begin explaining it to an average person, and even if someone played D&D back in the day there’s still a major gulf between that and the RPGs that I play. An identity like being a doctor or an IT guy necessarily puts you in contact with other people outside of the clique that that identity helps create, whereas being, say, a Homestuck fan fills you with ideas and lingo that most people won’t understand. You also see this certain political and religious groups, where they manage to provide enough reinforcement that they can draw people into a bubble. This narrowing of focus raises the stakes, since if it falls apart it has the potential to take a lot of your social life with it, and thus people tend to react more intensely. This isn’t just for groups that are small in numbers either; a group that’s homogeneous enough (such as, as I understand it, Harry Potter fandom) can have the same effect due to how any shift is more likely to leave someone without a fandom to call home. In that state, it’s that much easier to see identity threats.

The other big danger in adopting an identity is when someone else stands to profit from it. Political affiliations are the most glaringly obvious example, since they absolutely need people to care enough to voluntarily donate money to function effectively. That leads them to do just about anything to foster that kind of identification, with little regard for what’s good for society at large. Political ads in general and attack ads in particular become completely ridiculous, and something that people likely wouldn’t tolerate at all under any other circumstances. In the US it’s in the interests of both parties to force people to treat elections as a binary proposition too, to the point where people can become demonstrably ignorant of which party really supports what they want. Fandom has the problem that more often than not it’s based on something that someone is making money off of. Companies are already going to ridiculous lengths to influence your purchasing decisions, and they’re certainly not above taking advantage of tribalism if they can manage it. Apple does make some excellent products, but they also encourage their customers to define themselves as using the type of computers that are “better than PCs.” Having a preference for one or the other is totally reasonable, but I have seen people (including myself on occasion) get pretty emotional about it, even without Apple themselves irresponsibly stoking the fires. Tabletop RPGs, despite not exactly being a lucrative business, have had their share of this kind of thing, most often from games trying to distinguish themselves by putting down Dungeons & Dragons . (Even D&D itself isn’t wholly innocent of this, which shows how weird that hobby really is.)

On a personal level, I don’t form my identity so much from hobbies or fandoms or labels anymore. Some of it is that I put a lot of energy into creating things, and the things I create express who I really am far better than anything made by someone else that I choose to consume. The bigger issue is that I’m such an introvert, and I think identity is in large part a way to place oneself among others. A label is a collection of implied relationships, and for my particular emotional needs I already have more than enough connections with various people. I’m less an anime fan, and more Ewen (who parenthetically watches anime with Chris and Tim and Elton on Mondays). I don’t think this makes me better than other people by any means, but I do think it makes it somewhat easier for me to avoid some of the pitfalls of identity politics, even if that’s partly because I happen to be one of a class of people that society allows to do that.

Gender is probably the most pervasive source of identity, and from my perspective it seems to be almost entirely a lens that shapes how you see and are seen by other people. Gender identity can be incredibly judgmental, and people who are overly invested in it come across as measuring the value of human beings (including themselves) based primarily upon gender conformity. I once came across a blog post that declared that shaving is “feminizing” for a man. Personally I shave simply because it’s the aesthetic I prefer for my face, which is about the process involved in having short spiky hair and the style of glasses that I do, and whether or not it’s “masculine” just doesn’t enter the picture. Since I had nothing better to do, I posted a comment asking why being “masculine” is even something worth worrying about. The replies I got amounted to “Either you’re macho or you’re not,” and didn’t actually make any attempt to answer the question. Being “masculine” earns the acceptance of the kinds of people who care a lot about masculinity, and not much else. Since I’m not particularly interested in the kinds of relationships that are heavily gendered, for the most part I tend to be masculine insofar as biology dictates and society makes it the convenient default. I don’t think everyone needs to act how I act, but I do think that it’s one of the clearest examples of a source of identity that we need to handle more thoughtfully. Certainly a large portion of the terribleness that LGBT people experience seems to come from people utterly failing to be able to handle the mere existence of people who don’t conform to their notions of how gender should work, from mistaking other people trying to live their lives for an identity threat.

These issues dovetail into the issues around the Monkeysphere . If you don’t have the time or inclination to wade through a Cracked article with lots of stock photos of monkeys, the short explanation is that like other primates, human beings have a hard-wired upper limit on the number of people we can fully think of as fellow human beings that we empathize with. To some extent this is probably necessary to stay sane (I’m pretty sure if I cared about everyone as much as I care about my friends and family I’d pretty much be weeping 24/7), but it leads us to divide people into groups and rely on stereotypes to form judgments. The stereotypes are often wrong, especially when formed without direct experience (as they often are), and to the limited extent that we can say anything about a group of people with any accuracy, individuals will still be all over the place. However, the lesson of the Monkeysphere isn’t despair, but rather caution, with a little hope mixed in. As thinking creatures not totally bound by animal instinct, we have the power to stop and consider things rationally, and force ourselves to consider other people’s viewpoints.

When we reduce groups of people down to generalizations, it becomes entirely too natural for your identity to influence how you form those generalizations. Most people view themselves as good, which by extension means they view others like them as good and others in opposition as bad. This doesn’t wholly determine how we view things, but it can seriously skew the process of evaluation. People are quick to write off the indiscretions of a member of their preferred political party one way or another while concluding that the indiscretions of a member of the opposing party are typical of those assholes. Right now the media (whether traditional, social, or otherwise) makes it incredibly easy for loud assholes to stand out, to grab a megaphone and drown out the quieter, more thoughtful voices. We end up with the far ends of the spectrum dominating the conversation, and we wind up with people mainly seeing the worst of the other side without looking too much deeper. When a label takes on a life of its own, it becomes that much easier to evaluate it on an emotional rather than factual basis. The Democratic party for example ranges from far-left hippies to gun-toting centrists to racist holdovers from before the Southern Strategy. In my opinion the single biggest problem with That One Video Game Hashtag is not misogyny or anything like that, but simply the fact that it’s become a vague tribal label. Like a political party it covers such a wide range of issues and people that the label itself is at best a generalization, and even its most hardcore advocates have a hard time articulating a clear message. That doesn’t mean people should be abandoning it, at least not any more or less than other labels like “liberal” or “conservative,” but it does mean that everyone concerned could stand to take a step back.

Everyone has a basic need to formulate an idea of who they are and what their place in the world is, and the world offers many tools to help with that. I’ve seen vanishingly few people who are so self-possessed that they don’t seem to need any labels and can just be who they are. My grandmother was one, and veteran comedians like Bill Cosby and Steve Martin seem to be like that too. I can’t fault people for needing something to help them find a place in the world, but I do want to remind everyone–most especially myself–to do so with care.


[1] That said, a lot of the things we think we know about human beings are actually things we know about American college students who have time to participate in psychology studies, and Westerners and especially Americans are turning out to be weird outliers in some ways compared to the world at large .

[2] Recall that it took a while for society to admit the Irish into being “white,” and some suspect that it’s a matter of time before American Hispanic people similarly become de facto white.

[3] I also suspect that the reason why a portion of Japanese young people have such elaborate subcultures is that they feel particularly disaffected and disconnected from mainstream Japanese culture, especially in the wake of the economic bubble bursting, resulting in radical changes to how people relate to the job market. That’s a topic that deserves a whole book (at least), but I’m not qualified to write it.

[4] One Tumblr post I saw recently posited that men have more works aimed squarely at them, hence women’s fandom leans away from amassing and curating knowledge and artifacts, and towards speculation that creates an unofficial secondary world around a published title, in order to create the kind of representation they want. Marvel sees potential in the female audience, but they’re probably not going to explore Captain America and Bucky’s relationship in the ways many female fans would like (if what I’ve seen on my Tumblr dashboard is any indication), much less give us gender-swapped versions of the characters. Once again other people are probably more qualified to write about this kind of thing than me.

Leave a Reply