May 11, 2017

The transactional nature of “identity”

Filed under: Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Eric S. Raymond on the rising chatter about “identity”:

These criticisms imply a theory of “identity” that is actually coherent and useful. Here it is:

Your “identity” is a set of predictive claims you assert about yourself, mostly (though not entirely) about what kinds of transactions other people can expect to engage in with you.

As an example of an exception to “mostly”, the claim “I am white” implies that I sunburn easily. But usually, an “identity” claim implies the ability and willingness to meet behavioral expectations held by other people. For example, if I describe my “identity” as “male, American, computer programmer, libertarian” I am in effect making an offer that others can expect me to need to shave daily, salute the Stars and Stripes, sling code, and argue for the Non-Aggression Principle as an ethical fundamental.

Thus, identity claims can be false (not cashed out in observed behavior) or fraudulent (intended to deceive). You don’t get to choose your identity; you get to make an offer and it’s up to others whether or not to accept.


I can anticipate several objections to this transactional account of identity. One is that is cruel and illiberal to reject an offer of “I claim identity X” if the person claiming feels that identity strongly enough. This is essentially the position of those journalists from The Hill.

To which I can only reply: you can feel an identity as a programmer as strongly as you want, but if you can’t either already sling code or are visibly working hard on repairing that deficiency, you simply don’t make the nut. Cruelty doesn’t enter into this; if I assent to your claim I assist your self-deceit, and if I repeat it I assist you in misleading or defrauding others.

It is pretty easy to see how this same analysis applies to “misgendering” people with the “wrong” pronouns. People who use the term “misgender” generally follow up with claims about the subject’s autonomy and feelings. Which is well enough, but such considerations do not justify being complicit in the deceit of others any more than they do with respect to “I am a programmer”.

A related objection is that I have stolen the concept of “identity” by transactionalizing it. That is, true “identity” is necessarily grounded not in public performance but private feelings – you are what you feel, and it’s somehow the responsibility of the rest of the world to keep up.

But…if I’m a delusional psychotic who feels I’m Napoleon, is it the world’s responsibility to keep up? If I, an overweight clumsy shortish white guy, feel that I’m a tall agile black guy under the skin, are you obligated to choose me to play basketball? Or, instead, are you justified in predicting that I can’t jump?

You can’t base “identity” on a person’s private self-beliefs and expect sane behavior to emerge any more than you can invite everyone to speak private languages and expect communication to happen.

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