What’s Your Type: Identity and its Discontents


My type is Lisa Frank Sea Lion.

When I was a teenager, I had the intuition that third-wave feminism was a genre of feminine content.  A lot of the feminist books and magazines I came across had pink covers. A lot of them were about sex and relationships and clothes and pop culture — the same sorts of things I looked for in Seventeen magazine. I liked those topics; they gave me a deliciously wicked frisson; and I liked the kind of pop-feminist writing that was about Expressing Yourself; but I was obviously not a predominantly pink-flavored person. I was a serious person.

I am embarrassed to say that I never really appreciated the achievements of Rosalind Franklin until I was much older. I had grown up hearing about her as a “women in STEM” sermon.   I was a woman and I was a scientist, but I had decided that “women in STEM” was not my genre, or at least not so much that I would be in danger of being typecast.  The story of Watson and Crick was about DNA, but the story of Rosalind Franklin was about politics and unfairness and the HR-office side of a scientific career.  Obviously, DNA was more exciting to me at the time. It was only later that it clicked — if she independently discovered the double-helix structure, then she’s as much of a genius and pioneer as they were, arguably more so.  Her discovery belongs in the story of scientific progress, not on the shelf of books with pink covers.

In a liberal paradigm, things like feminism or anti-racism or LGBT rights or religious freedom are about liberating people.  You want to get rid of irrational prejudice and oppression so that people of any origin or creed can be free to do human stuff as they choose. The operative word is people. Sexual harassment, for instance, is wrong because it is an unjust harm to people.  None of this has anything to do with being pink-flavored or rainbow-flavored; you can be a middle-aged man with a dark suit and sober habits and speak out against injustice because it harms people, and you care about people, full stop.

The idea that feminism could be a flavor or a subculture or a genre is bizarre, if you look at it from the liberal paradigm.

But there’s also a market segmentation paradigm in which to think about this.

Market segmentation is a technique that marketers use to target products to certain demographics — and “products” include “content”, that is, books and articles and TV shows and so on.  And, with the rise of the internet and the abundance of consumer data, marketers have become very good at it.

Market segmentation involves identifying you with a type of person. A subculture, a demographic, a style, a flavor, a personality type. Cambridge Analytica, the internet marketing firm behind Trump’s success and the Brexit vote, categorizes people by their personality type in order to target political advertising at them. Marketers write profiles of a “typical” buyer of a product — a simplified bio of what kind of person they’re targeting.

“Red state” vs. “Blue state” is market segmentation. Personality types are market segmentation.  Exaggerated gender dimorphism — all women’s products are pink, all men’s products are black — is market segmentation. Subcultures (“nerd”, “goth”, “hipster”) are market segmentation.  Generations (Boomer, Gen X, Millennial) are market segmentation.

Statistical differences between groups of people obviously exist in the real world, but “identifying as” a category, exaggerating how much you match the category’s flavor and style, choosing a “type” to belong to, is a form of actively playing along with market segmentation, over and above whatever statistical differences exist.  One doesn’t “identify as” being born in 1988, but one does “identify as” a Millennial.

What flavor are you? What’s your type? What product is right for you?

There’s something irresistible about a personality quiz.  Tell me what type I belong to!  Tell me about myself!  It gratifies my vanity, and it helps me feel like I know my place in the world.

(I’m an INTP and a Gryffindor, natch.)

It took me a long time, and Dreyfus’ excellent commentary, to realize this, but Heidegger’s concept of Dasein, which literally translates to Being, is really better understood as the behavior of “identifying as.”

Dasein is what you do when you assert what it means to be human, what it means to be you, what it means to be a member of your community.  Dasein is self-definition.  And, in particular, self-definition with respect to a social context. Where do I fit in society? Who is my tribe? Who am I relative to other people? What’s my type?

“Identifying as” always includes an element of misdirection. Merely describing yourself factually (“I was born in 1988”) is not Dasein. Placing an emphasis, exaggerating, cartoonifying, declaring yourself for a team, is Dasein.  But when you identify as, you say “I am such-and-such”, as though you were merely describing. You’re aligning yourself with your flavor of choice, while at the same time declaring vehemently that you’re only describing the way things are.

Your identity, no matter what it is, is always sort of bullshit or arbitrary or performative.  It’s role-playing. It’s kind of like wearing a mask.

And, for people who like it, there’s a delight in “identifying-as”, of putting yourself in a category, of knowing your type.  It makes you feel simple, well-defined, and important.

I knew a psychologist once who worked with businesses, and loved giving his clients the Myers-Briggs personality test. He told me that the main reason he used it was not the particular personality breakdown, but the simple fact that it divided people into 16 types. People would get into workplace disputes that were basically dominance hierarchies, arguments over who’s right or who’s best or who’s in charge. And he would resolve those disputes by helping people understand that Alice is one Myers-Briggs type and Bob is another; not better, not worse, just different.  “There are 16 kinds of people in the world” allows everyone to feel special (“A type! Just for me!”) and defuses hierarchical tussles, because no one type is on top.

But, of course, there are problems with “identifying-as.”

Paul Graham’s essay “Keep Your Identity Small” observes that the very feature that my psychologist acquaintance liked about personality types — that no type is better than any other — as a problem that makes it impossible to assess merit when identities are in play.

For example, the question of the relative merits of programming languages often degenerates into a religious war, because so many programmers identify as X programmers or Y programmers. This sometimes leads people to conclude the question must be unanswerable—that all languages are equally good. Obviously that’s false: anything else people make can be well or badly designed; why should this be uniquely impossible for programming languages? And indeed, you can have a fruitful discussion about the relative merits of programming languages, so long as you exclude people who respond from identity.

Sometimes there are objective things that can be said about topics that people have chosen to build identities out of. Sometimes a programming language has strengths or weaknesses. Sometimes a government policy has benefits or harms. You might, in some circumstances, care about those objective, on-the-merits evaluations; maybe you want to achieve some goal and want to choose the best programming language for the job. You’re not going to be able to do that if the discussion gets taken over by identity; what people are doing when they’re identifying-as is self-expression or self-definition or self-assertion, which is lovely when you want it, but doesn’t answer any of your practical questions.  Unfortunately, people often do self-expression in the guise of answering your practical questions, and you may not know, or your interlocutor may not even know himself, that he’s really saying “I am a Lisp programmer!!” and not describing anything about the properties of Lisp.  One of the qualities of Dasein is that it’s very very stealthy, and it wants everything to be about Dasein, so it winds up muddying the waters, even when you don’t intend it to.

Coming back to the issue of politics, Dasein can mess up the attempt to solve social problems. If, when you say “sexual harassment”, people hear “feminist shibboleth”, then if they don’t identify as feminists, they may not actually notice the possibility that sexual harassment is a big problem that hurts a lot of human beings and that they might want to take seriously.  Sexual harassment gets perceived as a flag for pink-flavored people to wave, and if you’re not pink-flavored, you’re not the target market, so you don’t take it seriously.

If something matters generally, or is true objectively, regardless of subcultures, personality types, and tribes, then the identity mindset will be inadequate to deal with it.

Identity is obviously a really big part of the human experience. Heidegger thinks it’s essential and cannot be excised, and people who think they’ve achieved objectivity are fooling themselves. Without making that strong an absolute claim, I think it’s fair to say that identity is pervasive, and if you think it’s not an issue for you and have never considered it before, you should probably take a closer look and see how much it affects your life.

It’s also worth noting that Heidegger was a member of the Nazi Party, and that Nazism (as described in Mein Kampf) is all about how objectivity is terrible and how strong feelings of identity, specifically national and racial identity, are the best thing ever.  So there are some reasons to be suspicious of putting identity first at the expense of all other considerations.

Identity is always vivid, personal, flavorful.  It’s not “mere” fact, it’s alive with emphasis and exaggeration.  It’s never bland or dry.  I think that’s part of its appeal.  It makes you special, it makes you valid, it makes you distinctive.  It adds vim and verve to your self-image. It’s like all-caps and italics for your soul.

It may be dull in terms of information content (what it says is, always and forever, “I AM!!!”) but it’s never lacking in personal flair.

Most people I know who think about “identity” are rather like Paul Graham; they don’t have that strong a craving for it, and they’re frequently getting annoyed that other people are caught up in it. Or, they seek very specialized and cordoned-off ways to provide it for themselves: think of secular atheists who create rituals or highly independent introverts who contemplate the human need for community. I come at this from the opposite direction: I am a person who likes things hot-pink and in all caps, who always craves a higher emotional temperature, and who has been learning about how to navigate the fact that this is sometimes damaging and worth avoiding.

So, coming from that perspective, I’m genuinely unsure: do we want to channel identifying-as into safe, satisfying forms of pretend-play, or do we want to just have less of it?  To what extent is it even possible to channel or reduce it?


23 thoughts on “What’s Your Type: Identity and its Discontents

  1. I don’t think Paul Graham has a small identity. On the contrary, I think the essay is about mistakes he has made. He certainly identifies as a hacker and a painter. He identified as a lisp hacker, which was the subject of a lot of mockery on hacker news.

  2. Heidegger’s understanding of Dasein, at least in Sein und Zeit, is significantly weirder than I think you’re making it out to be. As far as I can tell, he actually does not believe that individual people exist. Like, our identity is actually constituted by our interconnectedness with the World (and not just things we would normally consider salient – this concept covers interactions with ordinary physical objects). Our understanding of ourselves as beings that have some separate existence from other beings is fundamentally incorrect. Late Heidegger is a slightly different deal in ways i’m not qualified to explain.

    • Dreyfus’ version of Heidegger is totally consistent with the normal physical world; the sense in which “our identity is constituted by our interconnectedness with the World” is, like, in the sense of “you are a different person when sitting in front of a laptop than you are when walking down the street.” Reading actual Being and Time gave me the impression that it was more mystical than that, that Dasein is something more like a universal spirit speaking through all of us, but Dreyfus says Nope, there’s no woo here, at least no more woo than a UI designer or architect uses to shape people’s behavior through objects. (And, of course, I don’t know much German and read it in translation & without expert guidance, so I’m missing additional layers.)

  3. This all assumes you’re able to choose for yourself how you self-identify. There’s some of that, but sometimes it’s given to you by other people (reputation and stereotyping).

  4. It’s been like 30 years since I’ve read either Heidegger or Dreyfus, but…

    My recollection is that Heidegger eventually winds up defining “Dasein” as something like “the sort of being that considers that existence is a bizarre hassle and there really ought to be a better way.” (Not an exact quote!)

    Heidegger was significantly influenced by Buddhism (although he didn’t want to admit that, and mostly didn’t). This definition is pretty much also what Buddhism means by “sentient being.”

    Identification is definitely an aspect of Dasein, but I don’t think it’s exactly the central one. “Embeddedness” might come closer. “Da sein” is “There-being”, literally: always being thrown into some specific situation you didn’t chose, which is part of a larger world you didn’t choose. Identification is part of the standard way one deals with that.

    “The standard way of dealing with life” might be another way of summarizing “Dasein.” But it’s an untranslatable concept, really. You have to grok the whole B&T worldview for it to come into focus.

    • It took me a long time, and Dreyfus’ excellent commentary, to realize this, but Heidegger’s concept of Dasein, which literally translates to Being, is really better understood as the behavior of “identifying as.”

      I can՚t claim to be much of a scholar of Heidegger, but based on what little I know this strikes me as kind of off. Dasein is not a behavior and it is not cognitive, so a mental action like “identifying as” doesn՚t seem to capture it. Dasein to be more like an embodied set of precognitive practices. One does not “identify as” a German or Igbo, one just is part of that kind of being by virtue of growing up in the right kind of environment.

      The problem for modern people is that we don՚t grow up in that kind of monocultural ethno-culture. “Identifying” is something people have to do when they exist in a multicultural cosmopolitan world, where there are many modes of being and one has to choose and assert ones own. Dreyfus says this is something Dasein does, but it is not presented not very positively – it is “fleeing” its “unsettledness”. In this respect Heidegger՚s Dasein seems to involve a sort of nostalgic longing for a monocultural tribal identity, which helps explain why he was drawn to the reactionary antimodernism of Nazism.

  5. “So, coming from that perspective, I’m genuinely unsure: do we want to channel identifying-as into safe, satisfying forms of pretend-play, or do we want to just have less of it? To what extent is it even possible to channel or reduce it?”

    I think we do. This is what sports and other such ritualized fighting is so good for – it allows us to channel our craving for identity into harmless things (like David Chapman’s funny “Court of Virtuous Values”). Maybe more ritualized fighting between identity groups could, counterintuitively, make things better by letting people blow off steam? Does catharsis theory have any merit at all?

    When identity gets tied up in substantive matters things predictably turn terrible. Or, I think so, I don’t know to what extent others think so – as you say, the people who write about identity tend to be the ones with a low need for it, and that certainly describes me. I think your version of Dasein is an essential part in understanding disagreement, both as a source of conflict itself and a way for high-identity people and low-identity people to misunderstand the nature of their disagreements.

    Shit, I just realized I identify as a low-identity person.

  6. It’s a map-territory muddle to talk about things being objective or not. Objectivity is in good framing of a question, clarity of its meaning, absence of pervasive motte-and-bailey. Identity-related questions can be formulated as objectively as any other, so the issue is not identity per se, but confused reasoning modes encouraged by the experience, perhaps by analogy with the bullshit typical of the performance. Is it really compelling to follow the stereotype, without systematically discarding the confusion? The clumsiness of an average person doesn’t usually bind those who could do better.

    • Ah, I think either I don’t get your point or you don’t get mine. One can *talk about* identity in an objective fashion; but when one identifies-as, one has to speak “in character”, and deny the possibility of speaking *out* of character, which I think inherently involves a confusion.

      • wrong. you can be a [tribe name here] and speak out of character about it; that’s basically what taking an Ideological Turing Test is.

      • The denial of the object level is definitely an indicator of late stage social cancer. While civilization persists, that wouldn’t be a functional strategy. Likewise, the Chapman claim that Dasin is the standard way to deal, is a symptom of late decadence.

  7. VoteLeave (Brexit) used AggregateIQ, not CambridgeAnalytica. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/mar/04/nigel-oakes-cambridge-analytica-what-role-brexit-trump

    Director Dominic Cummings: https://twitter.com/odysseanproject/status/832992607836000256 “FYI I was Vote Leave campaign director. Cambridge Analytica had ~0 to do with Brexit. We didn’t use them despite reports,” and “Anything you read about Cambridge Analytica, ‘psychographics’, & social media in politics is ~99% likely to be bullshit.”
    http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2016/11/vote-leave-campaign-wasn-t-clever-it-thinks-it-was says their targeting was really simple; Cummings thinks their targeting was fairly complicated, but based on models devised by various physicists the campaign hired.
    vs https://dominiccummings.wordpress.com/2016/10/29/on-the-referendum-20-the-campaign-physics-and-data-science-vote-leaves-voter-intention-collection-system-vics-now-available-for-all/

  8. Cross-posting what I wrote on tumblr:

    It’s funny, I personally have a lot of trouble identifying-as-things in the active, “all caps and italics” sense she describes (see e.g. here), and have basically given up on identifying-as anything except in A Me, in that sense.

    But I’m nonetheless aware that I fall more or less into various externally defined identity categories whether I like it or not, and am aware (for example) that some writing gives me an aversive feeling that I might describe as “I’m aware this isn’t written for people like me..” And likewise there is writing that feels like it is written for “people like me” in various senses of that phrase, but those categories don’t have much emotional significance to me beyond their practical implications.

    It’s like, if there were some brand of shampoo that’s really good/cheap but only works on people with brown hair, I’d think “ah, good, this shampoo is usable by me,” but the existence of the shampoo wouldn’t make me care about having brown hair any more than I currently do (which is nil).

    Distinguishing active, “all caps and italics” identity from passive “you have a hair color, even if you don’t care” identity seems important. Sarah’s post makes this distinction, although I think she may be underplaying how important and complex the passive type is. She writes:

    Statistical differences between groups of people obviously exist in the real world, but “identifying as” a category, exaggerating how much you match the category’s flavor and style, choosing a “type” to belong to, is a form of actively playing along with market segmentation, over and above whatever statistical differences exist. One doesn’t “identify as” being born in 1988, but one does “identify as” a Millennial.

    But even if I don’t “identify as” a Millennial, others will often see me as one, not just as someone born in 1988. In Sarah’s terms, market segmentation will go on happening, even if you don’t actively play along.

    This distinction seems helpful for thinking about arguments around concepts like “Keep Your Identity Small.” One obvious critique of that essay, which I have seen a number of times, is that it’s an expression of privilege – only someone who’s the social default can avoid identifying as what they are, because non-default people with get identified as non-default over and over again by the outside world until they can’t help but do it themselves. The white person does not get constantly reminded they’re white, in the way that the black person gets constantly reminded they’re black, and so on.

    But passive identification doesn’t have to lead to active identification, and frequently doesn’t. Take two people in the exact same material circumstances but with different levels of inclination to identify-as, and you’ll get two very different results. One person identifies deeply as a Texan while their neighbor “just lives in Texas”; a few blocks away, one student identifies as an “Aggie” while their roommate just goes to Texas A&M; the former student goes to class thinking about how they are growing into “an historian,” while the latter, just as attentive and studious, is just majoring in History. And so on.

    • Ah, yes!
      I absolutely agree that whether or not you play along, you can be slotted into a role by other people.

      • You can resist identifying pretty effectively if ypu choose to. If you do, there are still generic slanders, ‘crazy’, ‘loser’, ‘shady’ but those don’t actually need to be identified with. the main problem is that institutions /bureaucracies slightly cheat against you,’commit structural violence’ when you resist. People vary in thier robustness to structural violence depriving them of belief in a procedurally just world, which has serious physiological consequences.

  9. Also, I think the non-deceptive version of ‘identifying as’ is, let’s call it, ‘identifying with.’ One can legitimately choose to associate oneself with a certain project, a certain tradition (in the sense of a developing social/cultural corpus), a certain genre, a certain set of questions, or a certain history as the thing one wishes to expend upon, develop, negotiate, innovate, reinvent, update, preserve, save, or whatever. It’s not necessarily deceptive for a band to actively consider itself a Black Metal band and ask itself what kind of music a Black Metal band in 2017 should make, rather than ask itself ‘what is the best of all possible musics.’ This is even clearer if we imagine the same four people having a Black Metal band and an Indie Rock band. Each of their two band involves identifying with a different musical genre an culture, and thinking about how to further develop this genre and contribute to it. Basically we can, and should, think of identities as collective projects, and of ‘identifying with’ an identity as delving into a particular collective project — and this can even include the project of developing a “type of person.” A person can be many things at once, but there are going to be some things that share a common logic — things that are highly co-compressible in some sense, if you want to get fancy — and are in this way a part of one ‘type,’ and expending and developing and exploring the potential of these types is a major way of developing the emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic capacities of humanity. Think of these ‘types’ as methods of being a person, sort of. We want a multiplicity of methods, and for individual people to be able to access more than one method in one lifetime and more than one method at a given moment, and we want these methods to hybridize and to splinter, but you also do have to, as some level, pick a method to develop or explore — you can’t develop or explore all methods at once.

  10. Identification is less a matter of objective facts than of priorities. On a scale of 1 (jaywalking) to 10 (extinction-level threats), where would you put sexual harassment? A person who rates it as an 8 will considerably disagree with someone who rates it as a 3, even if they agree about all of the relevant facts.

    Put another way, if you ask someone to identify the bigger problem between structural racism or the disappearing middle class, you get a very good idea of which presidential candidate they voted for. Yet there’s no objective answer to the question.

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