The anti-polarizing effect of keeping one's identity small.

Keeping your identity small

Several years ago, Paul Graham, of Y Combinator fame wrote an essay entitled “Keep your Identity Small.” The premise is that discussions of religion and politics almost never result in anything resembling the give-and-take around other subjects. Two people can have an intelligent conversation about the pros and cons of certain brands of rice cookers[1]; but if the discussion turns to religion or politics, it’s essentially over. Graham’s conclusion is that religion and politics both engage a person’s identity. Once a conversation turns to identity, it’s hard to separate issues from people[2]

Perhaps the widely lamented political polarization in the U.S. is a product of over-identification. Sentences that begin with “I am an x.” shut down the fuller understanding of x, y, z, and others that you haven’t even heard of yet.

Take time to read Graham’s essay.

  1. We happen to use a Zojirushi and like it a lot; but I'd never introduce myself as a Zojirushian.

  2. The best-selling book "Getting to Yes" by Fisher and Ury on negotiation techniques touched on this issue with it's first principle of "Separate the people from the problem." Emotions are a source of real problems in negotiation because people respond with anger when their personal interests are at stake. By treating issues as entities separate from the people that involve them, holiding them, inspecting and debating them on their own terms, it becomes easier to have conversations about them.