Identities are breaking down all over

It’s [not] funny how often I see lamentations for the way things used to be. It’s no longer pure! Whatever it is. These new people don’t get it. They ruined it!

They aren’t true Scotsmen.

You can probably think of numerous examples. This is supposedly the driving force behind right wing populism around the world, for starters.

There’s an interesting rumination on changing identity in a recent Aeon article on “hacker”. It sweeps through the evolution from curious kids playing with technology, through “cypherpunks” and “crypto-anarchists” to the modern, bro-y t-shirt and jeans Silicon Valley types.

It really gets interesting towards the end, as the author places this change within the concept of gentrification. As more people take on an identity, some of the difference, the “disaffection” as he puts it, disappears.

Technology was stereotypically the domain of “geeks”, who harnessed its power to build an identity, community and to express themselves.

But an influx of people without those same predispositions has left it a rather muddled identity. More people have worn down the edges, making it child proof.

At the frontiers of gentrification are entire ways of being – lifestyles, subcultures and outlooks that carry rebellious impulses. Rap culture is a case in point: from its ghetto roots, it has crossed over to become a safe ‘thing that white people like’. Gentrification is an enabler of doublethink, a means by which people in positions of relative power can, without contradiction, embrace practices that were formed in resistance to the very things they themselves represent

…We are currently witnessing the gentrification of hacker culture. The countercultural trickster has been pressed into the service of the preppy tech entrepreneur class. It began innocently, no doubt. The association of the hacker ethic with startups might have started with an authentic counter-cultural impulse on the part of outsider nerds tinkering away on websites. But, like all gentrification, the influx into the scene of successive waves of ever less disaffected individuals results in a growing emphasis on the unthreatening elements of hacking over the subversive ones.

From the POV of those who lament changing definitions, there seems to be diminishing returns to people taking on a group identity. The new people don’t have the same experiences as the founders. They have other identities that may be in conflict or demand different treatment.

It reminds me of something I noticed in Coders by Clive Thompson. He gives this pretty innocuous description of what makes a coder:

More than introversion or logic, though, coding selects for people who can handle endless frustration. Because while computers may do whatever you tell them, you need to give them inhumanly precise instructions.

This fits within the framework of the Aeon article, of an identity shedding its roots as of outcasts and rationalists to one that is purely functionary.

Just like national identities that shed ethnic and cultural roots, forming instead around civic ones. Flexible enough to embrace new people with other experiences and histories.

Maybe there isn’t really anything specific in the various, changing national, regional or activity-based identities. It’s just the result of falling barriers and more people taking them on. As ever it was.

What happens when you ban headscarves?

We find that the law reduces the secondary educational attainment of Muslim girls, and impacts their trajectory in the labor market and family composition in the long run. We provide evidence that the ban operates through increased perceptions of discrimination and that it reduces assimilation by casting religion and national identities as incompatible.

This is from a recent working paper looking at a 2004 French law that banned “religious signs” in primary and secondary schools. It affected many religions, but was essentially a de facto ban on Muslim girls wearing headscarves in school.

These bans are purportedly to encourage assimilation and a homogenisation of values. But study authors Aala Abdelgadir and Vasiliki Fouka find that it can actually intensify a minority sense of identity.

Which makes sense. I’m struggling to think of a ban on anything that actually changed minds. Some part of the population will follow the decree because they believe in it already. Others will stomach it. And the rest will contravene and reap the consequences/rewards.

In cases like murder, the benefits of a ban outweigh the consequences for the individual. For some drugs, the tide seems to be shifting in the other direction.

But do the benefits of forced cultural homogenisation really outweigh the consequences for these women and their families? Especially given they could rebound for generations?

We measure educational and socioeconomic outcomes of French-born women with parents from Muslim-majority countries who were just old enough to have been at school when the law was enacted, and compare them to older cohorts who did not experience the ban, and to a variety of control groups, including non-Muslim immigrants and Muslim men.

Our first finding is that exposure to the ban significantly reduces the likelihood of completing secondary education. Part of this effect appears to be driven by a negative impact on enrollment rates in secondary school for Muslim women aged 16 and above… We also find that Muslim women affected by the ban took longer to complete secondary education, conditional on their pre-existing age-educational profiles. These higher dropout rates and longer completion times indicate that the ban disrupted the educational progress of Muslim girls. This negative educational shock carries over to a number of longer term outcomes, such as labor force participation, employment rates, and fertility patterns.

These women and families were wearing scarves for a legitimate reason to them. That a top-down approach is destined to fail is driven home by the mechanism by which this all occurred:

We show that these longer run effects of the ban work through two hypothesized pathways: a discrimination channel, and an identity channel. First, women affected by the ban report increased perceptions of discrimination at school and a lower trust in the French school system… Second.. Muslim women were forced to choose between a secular French identity and attachment to their religious practices, a conflict that often led to alienation from the French society. In the data, Muslim women affected by the ban increase their identification with the nationality of their father relatively more than their identification with France.

As always my emphasis.

Time to update our democratic models

Throughout childhood and until late adolescence, our brains are building their internal models of what is out there and how it all works –physical, social, emotional and so on. After that, our core beliefs harden and we find change, according to Professor of Psychiatry Bruce Wexler, ‘difficult and painful’. The power of our many cognitive biases skews our view. We attack unwelcome information. The gravity of our personal worlds attracts us to other, similar worlds –people who ‘see it like we do’, whose opinions give us the warm, reassuring pleasure of comfort, familiarity, safety. It all thickens the illusion that our way is the trueway.

I’ve just finished reading The Heretics by Will Storr. It’s part investigation, part memoir, as Storr embeds with homeopaths, faith healers, neo nazis and others with “weird beliefs”.

I’m slowly going through my notes and may pull out some more, but the thing that consistently struck me throughout is what this means for institutional design.

Our democracies absolutely were not built, and have not evolved, with our more sophisticated understanding of how people build beliefs and make decisions. How fallible our memories are, how we capitulate to group think, react and then build post hoc justifications (etc.).

Meanwhile those who wish to take advantage of us certainly have.

In that strange, chemical and alchemical moment when an unconscious decision is made about what to believe, how much is genetic, how much is rational, how much is concerned solely with reinforcing our dearly held models of the world? And how does personality collide with all of this? How does the character of the decider – all that complex emotionality, the calculation of possible outcomes, the current state of mind, the kaleidoscope of motives, the autobiographical heromission – pollute the process? With these questions, we have struck rock. There is no answer.

(My emphasis)