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On purified identities

Summary:
One of my favourite social thinkers of recent years is Richard Sennett. There’s one particular idea of his that deserves especial attention today – that of a purified identity. Such an identity arises, he says, when: The threat of being overwhelmed by difficult social interactions is dealt with by fixing a self-image in advance, by making oneself a fixed object rather than an open person liable to be touched by a social situation. (The Uses of Disorder, p6) People with such identities “create an aura of invulnerable, unemotional competence for themselves” by screening out or devaluing evidence that conflicts with that self-image. For such people, wrote Sennett, dissonances are “interpreted as less real than the consonances with what is known.” There are numerous psychological

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One of my favourite social thinkers of recent years is Richard Sennett. There’s one particular idea of his that deserves especial attention today – that of a purified identity.

Such an identity arises, he says, when:

The threat of being overwhelmed by difficult social interactions is dealt with by fixing a self-image in advance, by making oneself a fixed object rather than an open person liable to be touched by a social situation. (The Uses of Disorder, p6)

People with such identities “create an aura of invulnerable, unemotional competence for themselves” by screening out or devaluing evidence that conflicts with that self-image. For such people, wrote Sennett, dissonances are “interpreted as less real than the consonances with what is known.” There are numerous psychological mechanisms at work in this: the confirmation bias, strategic ignorance, Bayesian conservatism and so on.

This is what Janan Ganesh is getting at here:

It is, at bottom, an almost childlike craving for the world to have order and structure. It is an intolerance of ambiguity….Life must answer to a system of thought.

You might think that although Sennett wrote all this in 1970 it applies to “snowflakes” today who are “triggered” by microaggressions, and so want to “cancel” them.

Maybe. But the phenomenon is much wider than that. Sennett gave the examples of people who choose career paths early in life and stick to them, or who believe in “the one”, an idealized romantic partner who overshadows actual real imperfect lovers. We might add to this people whose musical tastes are fixed in their adolescence and never progress.

Such purified identities contrast with people who are more open to new experiences, more accepting of disorder and dissonance – who have, in Sennett’s words, “the courage to be self-doubting and confused.”

What’s more, said Sennett, we don’t just fix a self-identity for ourselves. We also create purified identities of societies:

The image of the community is purified of all that might convey a feeling of difference, let alone conflict, in who “we” are. In this way the myth of community solidarity is a purification ritual. (The Uses of Disorder, p36)

In this sense, “woke snowflakes” and opponents of migrants have more in common that either would like to admit. Both are trying to screen out dissonant elements in an attempt to preserve a static purified identity. All nations are imagined communities, but many on the right see Britain (or is it England?) as one in which migrants or Muslims or the poor are less than fully typical members. Which is why the left has a problem with patriotism. Exitrefugee

Saying this shows that the distinction between the fixed purified identity and the more open personality is orthogonal to the left-right divide. The city planning debates between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, for example, are better seen as between purified and open personality types than a left-right issue. And James Scott’s Seeing Like a State is an analysis of how rulers with purified identities try to impose their fixed rationalist plans onto complex societies whilst ignoring dissonant feedback from those societies which would complicate their visions. Yes, those plans are sometimes leftist (for example the Soviet collectivization of farms), but they are sometimes not – for example shock therapy or the Chicago Boys plans for the Chilean economy in the 70s.

Those political and economic pundits who go from one wrong prediction to another without any interval of self-doubt are other examples of the purified identity: we should contrast them to those who take dissonance, error and uncertainty more seriously, and ask about the sources and limits of predictability.

It's in this context that I get irritated when Marxists are accused of having a dogma. Yes, some do: Marxism is one of the many forms that a purified identity can take. But others of us are erratic Marxists, being self-doubting and more open to dissonant evidence. A good example of this were the analytical (pdf) Marxists of the 70s and 80s, who tried to reconcile Marxism with conventional social science. They had the exact opposite of a fixed, purified identity – and in fact in retrospect their mistake was to be too open, too sceptical of conventional Marxism.

By the same token, many centrists do have purified identities, being so closed to new evidence that they don’t realize it is no longer 1997.

There’s a sharp distinction between extremism and fanaticism. You can be a cool-headed sceptical extremist (I don’t use the word “rational” because nobody is wholly rational) or a fanatical centrist. The person with a purified identity can be found across the political spectrum, as can more open-minded types.

Now, this isn't to say there's a sharp distinction between purified identities and open personalities: they are two ends of a spectrum. And we can have purified identities in some respects but not others: I think I'm more fixed and dogmatic in my political views than in my day job, for example. 

Purified identities are a mixed blessing. Zealotry and fanaticism – passion if you like – spur people to work long hours and thus succeed in their careers to a greater extent than can more open-minded people with a range of interests. This gives us great musicians, but it also gives us single-minded fanatical politicians: one reason I could never have gone into politics is that it takes too many evenings.

And even if such identities are good for our careers they might not be so great for our mental health. If you don’t embrace the dissonance between your conception of yourself and the world and reality – and accept imperfection - it can destroy you. This was brilliantly described in a great song by Dar Williams*. “Once upon a time I had control and reined my soul in tight” she sings, but this leads to suicidal thoughts until she abandons control:

Cause when you live in a world
Well it gets in to who you thought you'd be
And now I laugh at how the world changed me.

* Songs are sociological, psychological and philosophical documents, every bit as valid (if not more so) as academic research.   

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