Monday, July 3, 2017

You don’t get to choose your identity; you get to make an offer and it’s up to others whether or not to accept.

From Your identity is not your choice by Eric Raymond on the imbroglio over transsexual and transracial identities, i.e. what is the logical approach to acknowledging people's desires to self-identify as something that they are not.

Postmodern critical theorists don't have much problem with this claim as it is in accord with their ideological assumption that all reality is socially constructed.

Anybody out of the Classical Liberal, Age of Enlightenment tradition has a greater challenge. Classical Liberals accept that there is an objective reality to be discovered but acknowledge that that discovery is an always continuing process. Knowledge is always contingent. Classical Liberals also have a challenge with trans claims in that the units of relevance for Classical Liberals are individuals not identity groups. For a Classical Liberal, individuals can make whatever identity claims they might want about reality as long as those claims are not imposed on others.

Conversations between the postmodern critical theorists and Classical Liberals about trans identities are therefore somewhat fraught, originating as they do from such divergent world views.

Raymond has an interesting perspective I have not seen elsewhere. He is viewing identity claims as essentially a contract offer to be verified by experience. It has little to do with tolerance, politeness and respect, the usual line of attack by postmodernists.
But that’s in a corner of academia where one rather expects postmodernism to have shut down rational thought. In its own way, the following statement in an exudation of mainstream journalism is much sillier, and has finally pushed me into writing on the topic. I quote it not because it’s a unique error but because it’s representative of a very common category mistake.
Thus should there be a weighty presumption against so blocking people, against subordinating them by substituting our judgments about their identity for their own.

This would seem to be a rather uncontroversial point, based on ordinary liberal arguments in favor of tolerance and respect for the dignity of others.
Ah, yes. So, what then would be amiss if I stood up in a public place and claimed to be the Queen of England? Who are you to substitute your judgment about my identity for my own?

There would actually be two different kinds of things wrong with this claim. One is that I can’t grant peerages – the people who administer the English honors system wouldn’t recognize my authority. The other is that the claim to be “Queen” (as opposed, to, say, “Prince-Consort”) implies an observably false claim that I am biologically female.

These criticisms imply a theory of “identity” that is actually coherent and useful. Here it is:
Your “identity” is a set of predictive claims you assert about yourself, mostly (though not entirely) about what kinds of transactions other people can expect to engage in with you.

As an example of an exception to “mostly”, the claim “I am white” implies that I sunburn easily. But usually, an “identity” claim implies the ability and willingness to meet behavioral expectations held by other people. For example, if I describe my “identity” as “male, American, computer programmer, libertarian” I am in effect making an offer that others can expect me to need to shave daily, salute the Stars and Stripes, sling code, and argue for the Non-Aggression Principle as an ethical fundamental.

Thus, identity claims can be false (not cashed out in observed behavior) or fraudulent (intended to deceive). You don’t get to choose your identity; you get to make an offer and it’s up to others whether or not to accept.
It is an interesting argument and there is an intriguing parallelism to postmodernism. For the postmodernist, reality is socially constructed whereas Raymond is arguing that claims are socially contracted.

He ends with:
As a culture, we got to the crazy place we’re at now by privileging feelings over facts. The whole mess around “identity” is only one example of this. It’s time to say this plainly: people who privilege feelings over facts are not sane, and the facts always win in the end. Though, unfortunately, often not before the insanity has inflicted a great deal of unnecessary suffering.
Cue Rudyard Kipling's The Gods of the Copybook Headings.

I think Raymond's perspective sheds some light on the key difference between postmodernist totalitarianism and Classical Liberalism. The postmodernist claim of reality being socially constructed imposes a coercive (and destructive) obligation on others to accept non-true claims. The Classical Liberal allows everyone to collaborate/contract with one another to the degree that suits their purposes without harming others. This free entry into collaboration/contract then allows them to discover whether their assumptions are true or not.

No comments:

Post a Comment