by Tom Chivers
Tuesday, 17
August 2021
Idea
11:30

Don’t let your beliefs become your identity

A clumsy statement by Yanis Varoufakis reveals the dangers of tribalism
by Tom Chivers
How does belief become an identity? Credit: Getty

There’s a piece in Julia Galef’s marvellous book The Scout Mindset about when beliefs become identities. Beliefs aren’t solely our best guesses about the underlying reality of the world: they are also markers of who we are. That’s obvious with things like politics and religion, but it can be true about almost anything: people identify strongly as free-market capitalists, or as breastfeeding advocates, and often it’s not just because they believe those are the best ways of achieving a certain goal, but because they identify with the groups that hold those beliefs. And if a belief becomes an identity, it’s much harder to abandon in the face of new evidence.

Galef suggests that there are ways of detecting when a belief has become an identity. Saying “I believe” is one. (“I believe that women are changing the world!” as opposed to “Women are changing the world.”) Getting annoyed when an ideology is criticised is another. And, she says, when you feel schadenfreude when an ideological group gets humiliated, that suggests you’re viewing the issue as “a fight between people, not ideas”. Relatedly, if you’re describing people as social justice warriors, the wokerati, neckbeards, anything like that, it’s a risk indicator that you’ve allowed the belief to congeal into an identity..

Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek economist and politician, tweeted a particularly controversial take recently:

People have rightly pointed out that this is a pretty grim tweet — “hang in there sisters!” as though they’re going through a messy divorce rather than facing life under a misogynistic theocracy. But it’s also pretty obvious that when he sent it, at least, he was more interested in the fight with his own outgroup than he was in the actual women whose lives are being overturned, hence the schadenfreude at the defeat of “liberal neocon imperialism”. His belief in Left-wing politics and economics has become part of his identity, as well as simply a belief in what’s best for the world, and in this case it led him to do a pretty stupid tweet.

The trouble is that identities are useful: they carry information. If someone doesn’t eat meat, it’s nice and straightforward for them to say “I’m a vegetarian” when people ask for their dietary requirements. The trick, for Galef, is to “wear your identity lightly” — to see it as a useful description, rather than a flag which tells the world who you are. So it might be a good way of giving people a rough description of your politics to say “I’m a feminist” or “I’m a libertarian”, but to remember that you don’t have to defend every other person who uses those labels, or to be happy when rival groups have setbacks.

“Someone who holds her political identity lightly is happy when her party wins an election,” writes Galef. “But she’s happy because she expects her party to do a better job leading the country, not because the other side suffered a humiliating defeat. She’s not tempted to taunt the losers.”

The thing is, it’s easy to see in other people. What’s interesting is whether you can detect it in yourself, and it’s much harder. I rarely use epithets, I think: “Corbynistas”, perhaps, maybe “antivaxxers”; I call non-nerds “wambs”; I suppose I identify as a sort of centrist science-y nerd. I’m sure I have other beliefs that are more about my own self-image than about trying to understand the world.

But if they ever drive me to start telling Afghan women to “hang in there sisters!”, do let me know that I’ve crossed a line.

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
19 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Walter Morgan
Walter Morgan
11 months ago

The ignominious end to 20 years trying to create what was probably impossible is only to be celebrated by Islamists and the silly. The problem many leftists have, besides economic confusion, is that they are so hostile to the United States or the EU or Israel and perhaps all of them that they end up supporting the worst if people or as in this case issue some trite remark. On yer bike, Yanis!

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
11 months ago

I am more optimistic on Afghanistan, it may yet turn out better than any doom predictors say.

The reason is 20 years have passed by, all the wile the people have cell phones, TV, and the Western influence of cash economy and so on.

The original Talib were rural boys sent to remote Western Frontier Madrasses and then onto rule. These must be 100 times more cosmopolitan – as the people are.

Pandora could not put the miseries back into the box, but hope also was loosened – Time changes all – maybe this is a new beginning. The real, the biggest, issue in Afghanistan is Demographics. I cannot see how anything could have changed that, and the people doomed to chronic poverty. This is another reason the Taliban may be more agreeable to joining the world, money flows. If Trump was in charge his real-politic would give the best chance.

PS The reason the Afghani people detested the Westerners was the Secular/Liberalism forced on them. The Gender Studies degrees forced on Kabul University – the gender pronoun kind of thing, the sexual mess the NGO’s, and indeed all the Western policies, foisted on those astoundingly conservative people – they thought it degenerate and evil.

Liberalism being forced down the throats of the Afghani by the WOKE A**- holes who ran the reconstruction put the women back 100 years by bringing back the Taliban – in a spectacular form of Irony. The interfering, cultural Imperial, Liberal Trans Feminist worshipers are the ones who handed the country back to the Taliban.

Mirax Path
Mirax Path
11 months ago

Poor Yanis is not bright enough to realise that what he is celebrating – the defeat of western imperialism is the end of life for Afghani women and eventually, as he cheerleads the barbarians on, his own freedom.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
11 months ago
Reply to  Mirax Path

I doubt the Taliban will be showing up in Greece any time soon.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
11 months ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

I’m not so sure. Now that the US has left Afghanistan, we can expect many refugees coming our way. Who’s to say there won’t be any Taliban among them?

Mirax Path
Mirax Path
11 months ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

You dont need the Taliban to show up. Your youth are blinkered enough to stan the Taliban’s ways of doing things under the guise of being “open and inclusive”.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
11 months ago
Reply to  Mirax Path

What does ‘stan’ mean?

Mirax Path
Mirax Path
11 months ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Youthspeak for extreme support or admiration.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
11 months ago
Reply to  Mirax Path

Thanks for taking the trouble.

Peter LR
Peter LR
11 months ago

The trouble with identities is that you are immediately stereotyped in people’s minds and any comments you make are likewise boxed in some standardised category. Hopefully without declaring an identification one’s ideas are judged on content rather than stereotyped context.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
11 months ago

Bvgger that. I’m proudly anti-woke, and will continue to be vehement in my excoriations of the neckbeard SJW wokerati.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
11 months ago

Isn’t that basically what we’re doing though? Because the penny’s dropped that there’s actually nothing else we can do?

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
11 months ago

Thanks Tom, timely reminder. I generally find that my views on climate change get me shot by the right, my views on immigration, shot by the left, my views on economics and the environment, shot by both sides.
It is a lonely place to be in when all tribes regard you as the enemy, but, as I tell myself, that is the price, increasingly, for thinking for yourself in an increasingly tribal world.
Yanis Varoufakis is, to my observation, very much caught in tribal signalling as a substitute for thought. I’m pleased you’ve called it out.

Mike M
Mike M
11 months ago

I just finished The Scout Mindset; I also think it’s really good! Her chat with Coleman Hughes on Conversations with Coleman from three months ago – mostly about scout mindset – is worth listening to too. But Julia Galef seems to have disappeared off the internet; her last Tweet was 11th June.

J Bryant
J Bryant
11 months ago

I find this short article a bit confusing.
I accept we should probably all be aware that it’s possible to allow beliefs to become your identity, at least in the eyes of other people, and that might not be your intention. But the article seems to go beyond that. It seems to suggest it’s generally a bad thing to allow your beliefs to become your identity. I’m not sure that’s true.
Some people are fine with being defined by their most dearly held beliefs, whether that’s Christian belief, feminist belief, progressive left beliefs or whatever. They happily identify with a political/social agenda and will allow that agenda to subsume them as individuals. That’s their choice to make and I don’t believe it’s inherently bad.
I’m also a bit confused by the reaction to Varoufakis’s tweet. All he’s done is confirm that the war in Afghanistan was a war of ideologies. In particular, it was an attempt to impose modern, left-leaning social mores on traditional Afghan culture. Women were always a tool, and to an extent an excuse, in that war. The people promoting that war never had any great interest in Afghan women as individual human beings. Perhaps that’s why there’s such strong reaction to the tweet. Varoufakis unwittingly pulled the curtain back and revealed the truth about this failed war.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
11 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

If you’re subsumed by a set of beliefs/creed etc you’ve lost the ability to question. Then it’s just faith. Comforting but dim.

Carmel Shortall
Carmel Shortall
11 months ago

A lengthy way to describe Collective Narcissism without mentioning the phrase – or even understanding it properly!

Mr Chivers points the finger at varoufakis and others, smirks that he knows better than to fall for all this identitarian and naming of outgroups nonsense himself – and then immediately does so…

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
11 months ago

I don’t know that wearing one’s identity lightly is a worthwhile goal. I think, past a certain age, not having firm beliefs (or having a strong sense of identity) is potentially pathological. Some personality disorders and mental illnesses are associated with lack of continuity and fluctuating beliefs and self-identity. Religious beliefs and adherence are known to be protective, not because what a person believes is necessarily ‘true’ but because ‘believing’ confers stability and certainty (in an uncertain world). We believe what we need or want to believe to avoid having to make a thousand judgments every day (which would paralyse us). I think a more worrying problem perhaps is the recent trend to question (or have questioned) everything we have believed over our lifetimes. People who don’t know ‘what they stand for’, or have no confidence that their ‘tribe’ or ‘culture’ hold beliefs in common, feel confused and alienated. They may then seek a tribe with strong beliefs to identify with (and we know where that can lead).

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
11 months ago
Reply to  Jane Watson

Second this. There’s a difficult balance. The West will question itself to pieces while theocracies, China and Russia will cynically suppress questions because doubt is bad. A lot of ‘history’ happening at the moment.