The Flexibility of Identity
By Bryan Caplan
I just returned from a Liberty Fund conference on nationalism. The point I kept returning to: Even non-human primates have group identities. Chimps clearly identify with their small bands, showing in-group amity and out-group enmity. What’s amazing about humans, however, is that we’ve managed to redefine our group to include hundreds of millions of total strangers.
McGill’s Jacob Levy expressed a thought-provoking reservation about my point. How, he asked, is the move from band identity to national identity any more amazing than the other ways that our primitive natures map into modernity? Look at all the weird stuff we now call “food,” or the ability of mere prose to excite our passions.
It’s a tough challenge, but I do see one main way that our group identity is especially plastic. Suppose you ran an Skinnerian experiment on a batch of babies. With total control of their environment, you could change them in many ways. But there are limits. You could powerfully sway their taste in food, but you wouldn’t convince them that dirt was a main course. You might nudge their sexual tastes, but I doubt you could make them find celibacy arousing. But when it came to group identity, I bet you could make your subjects identify with almost anyone human. Indeed, you might even convince them to identify with people pretending to be droids or Wookies. Tell them, “These are our people!” often enough, and they’ll buy it.
Or at least that’s my guess. Am I right? And is there any other sense in which group identity is especially plastic?