Boundaries of the identity

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Prompted by this tweet, I realized I've been thinking about forms of collectivism and individualism for a long time, and that these are different answers to the question "What is the boundary of all that I identify with?". I recently finished Deneen's book Why Liberalism Failed (it was on Obama's summer reading list a while back and I had it on the ever-present stack of books to read). 

Deneen argues that both Republicans and Democrats agree that the basic unit of society is the individual human, but that they disagree about the means of realizing that individualism. Republicans prefer markets that serve individual preferences (free from interference by the state), and Democrats prefer government programs that tax and subsidize certain vulnerable groups, and a larger state that can regulate markets and intervene to liberate individual consumers from unearned wealth differences. Deneen says that this left/right battle of markets versus the state is actually complementary, and that the right tends to get its way on economics, and the left tends to get its way on sexual and social issues. He argues both of these things act in a "Pincer Movement" to destroy older, inherited social structures, and that the logical consequence is a world with no real community or social structures besides the market and the state.

Deneen says this left/right battle, despite having gotten more polarised, actually masks a deeper consensus about the basic unit of society, or what I'm calling the boundaries of the identity. So, if not individualism, what are some other ideas about the boundaries of the identity?

Boundaries of the identity (super-individual)

  1. Family lineage identification (temporal collectivism)
  2. Long Self identification (localized temporal collectivism)
  3. International communism (spatial collectivism)
  4. Nationalism (localized spatial collectivism)

Boundaries of the identity (sub-individual)

  1. Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder)
  2. Tulpamancers

The first is familial. When I read The Iliad or The Bible, the way people are addressed is all about who their parents are. Agamemnon is "Son of Atreus". And in the Bible, painstaking chapters are filled with ancestry, and so much time and attention is dedicated to offspring, God's promise to Abram (later renamed Abraham) in Genesis 15:5 was:
"And he brought him outside and said, 'Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.' Then he said to him, 'So shall your offspring be.'"
This seems unusual if your primary sense of who you are is bounded just at your individual self, right now. But if your identity stretches back to include your parents and ancestors, then identifying with your future offspring seems natural. This sort of boundary is also present in many indigenous groups, like the Haudenosaunee people (hoe-dee-no-SHOW-nee), who practice the Seventh Generation Principle. This form of collectivism is lindy, as they say.

There's another kind of temporal collectivism that is bounded in spacetime at the birth and the death of the individual person. It's called the Long Self. In Eric Wargo's Precognitive Dreamwork and the Long Self, he makes this explicit by formulating principles for how to interpret your own dreams and receive hints from your future self. He argues that since the laws of physics are time-symmetric, it must be physically possible for information from the future to influence its own past. By virtue of the consistency constraint (i.e. paradoxes are not possible), the only way this can happen is if the information refluxing into the past plays a part in that future event coming to pass. The past is not changeable.

In Precognitive Dreamwork and the Long Self, there is even a chapter on caring for your younger self. That is a very beautiful example of expanding the boundary of your identity, because I know with myself how easy it is to see your younger self as a totally different person. Same with your older self. Save some money and take care of your body now for him. He is sending good gratitude and good intentions backward toward you now.

Even if you don't believe the time symmetry/retrocausality idea, you still can identify with your future self to varying degrees. Taking on debt is taking from your future self. Saving is giving to your future self. Going to the gym is strengthening your older self. Your future self will remember how you treated him.

After temporal collectivism, let's get to spatial collectivism. These come in two dominant forms (both had quite an impact in the 20th century). Those two forms are basically: Communism and Nationalism.

Communism is informed by Karl Marx's ideas, he advocated for workers to form collectives and essentially cut out the capital class, as he saw them as a parasitic and oppressive third party between the workers and their output. Vladimir Lenin attempted this in Russia, starting with the 1917 Russian Revolution and culminating in the creation of the USSR. The problem with Marxism-Leninism in practice is that when worker solidarity fails, the only way to get people to work is to force them. That's how the Gulag forced labor system evolved. In practice, it meant an oppressive totalitarian state that had to compel people to work. This was an identity boundary failure that had to be solved with brute force.

Many communists today think there are ways of implementing large worker collectives without state coercion, and labor unions embody a weaker version of this idea: see AFL-CIO. The idea of solidarity with fellow workers is very similar to identifying with them.

There is a temporal version of this labor collectivism, which is how many professions used to be passed down from father to son. The English surnames "Smith" and "Baker" used to represent the family profession. Prior to the industrial revolution this was very common in England and Europe. But since the industrial revolution, work has been changing so fast that it doesn't make as much sense to do what your dad did. Economic dynamism and growth means that each new generation has a different set of choices for work. My grand-dad worked in farming, My dad worked in aerospace engineering, I work in software engineering, and my son will probably have a job that doesn't exist yet.

Finally there's nationalism, which is all about identifying with your nation. If you would die for your nation, then you identify enough with the people within it that your boundary of identity has a larger spatial extent than your body.

There are probably other examples, but I'll leave it for now since I wanted to get to one other class of identity boundary. This is sub-individual. Dissociative Identity Disorder is a condition where a single person has multiple different identities, active at different times, which also don't share the same memories. This is a fascinating condition, and it shows that it's possible for people to identify with something even smaller than their body.

An adjacent phenomenon is the example of tulpamancers, which spread via social media influencers who work to create "tulpas" which are semi-autonomous identities that exist in your own head. Little imaginary friends, but developed enough that the host doesn't really identify with the tulpa, nor does the tulpa identify with them.

We have traveled the spectrum of scales of identity boundaries, from large to small. But there's one final one that deserves special mention. The state of Christ-Consciousness and Nirvana are both about "emptying oneself" and experiencing some state of total peace and liberation from all worldly concern. What's different is that Christ-Consciousness is about unifying with God, and God introduced himself to Moses as "I AM WHO I AM". This is commonly interpreted as saying God is self-existent, eternal, and unchanging. The Catholic understanding of this is that God is Being Itself. So these heightened religious states of consciousness are like the final identification boundary at infinity. You become one with everything and there's nothing outside of you. In the limit as you identify with everything, the distinction between individual and collective disappears, and you return home.

#religion #time #philosophy #books #identity