The Non-Conservation of Identity
By Bryan Caplan
When I argue that people take their identities too seriously, critics often object that I’m covertly trying to replace marginalized identities with the identity of the dominant group. The mere fact that your culture is richer or more populous does not transform your way of life into the Platonic Idea of Truly Human Existence. This panel from Mat Johnson‘s Incognegro compellingly captures the critics’ stance:
In effect, the critics embrace a Law of Conservation of Identity: The total quantity of identity is constant. Although identity changes its form, it cannot be created or destroyed.
The critics make some decent points. Every manner of speech, no matter how prevalent, is “an accent.” There’s no deep reason why businesspeople should wear suits rather than kimonos. And hamburgers are no less an “ethnic food” than Doner kabob.
But the gripping claim is not that identity sometimes merely changes its form, but that the total quantity of identity is fixed. And on reflection, that’s false. Picture an Orthodox Jew who stops observing Passover. He doesn’t switch to a substitute holiday; he just stops celebrating an old one. His commitment to his ethno-religious identity has clearly eroded – perhaps to the great alarm of his community. Or compare two Lutherans. One refuses to marry a non-Luthean; the other doesn’t much care. The former clearly has a stronger sense of Lutheran identity than the latter. Or to take an extreme case, an Irishman willing to die for an independent Ireland has a stronger sense of Irish identity than one who’d rather not get involved. In each of these cases, identity has a volume dial that ranges from rootless to militant.
Note the analogy to religion. Religious people have been known to claim that “Even atheism is a religion.” But they’re wrong, too. Religiosity is a continuous variable. And while some atheists – such as Marxists – replace religion with a new body of dogmas, many atheists just turn their religion dial down toward zero until it clicks “off.”
Further point: Switching from one cultural practice to another can dilute identity rather than merely redefine it. How is this possible? When you switch from a cultural practice your group takes for granted to one you’re convinced is better. This could be as banal as a Russian eating lots of Italian food because he prefers the flavor, or as deep as a born Muslim joining the New Atheists. In both cases, if you choose “I deem this better” over “This is our way,” the total quantity of identity in the world has diminished. The same is true, of course, if you follow your group’s folkways because you deem them better.
Final point: There are weighty arguments that richer and more populous cultures really do tend to be better than others. Richer cultures tend to be better because both accurate information and wise social attitudes cause wealth. More populous cultures tend to be better because, as Julian Simon emphasized, the human mind is the ultimate resource. The more minds your culture has, the greater its expected contribution to human knowledge.
Yes, neither argument is decisive; the ancient Greeks punched far above their weight class despite their small numbers and absolute poverty. But when you see members of a primitive, isolated village setting aside their traditions in favor of Western culture, you should at least consider the old-fashioned view that they are following the path of reason.