Convictions and Identities

Rejecting the casual erosion of our essential beliefs into sterile slogans

Justin EH Smith recently wrote about why he doesn't eat meat and why he loathes talk about not eating meat - about how important this ethical choice is to him, and how unimportant and futile identifying it as a 'lifestyle choice' would be. He sees the primary function of our voluntary 'identification' with labels or lifestyles as a way for others to treat our convictions are arbitrary, having no possible interaction with their own - we neuter our essential attributes, before we're even asked:

It seems to me that even in the best-case scenario the only effect of “identifying” in this way, on social media or on a conference questionnaire, is to enable others to neutralize your conviction by construing it as a choice of certain issues alongside other possible issues, taken up within a free market of ideas. This is the same market ideology that represents the sum of our individual choices as the fullest possible expression of our politics. But my own choices, as I’ve already insisted, are the least of things: my dietary habits should be of no interest to anyone, and will make no difference at all for the fate of the world. I will even acknowledge that at a strictly practical level some of my choices may well be incoherent — my diet is emphatically not the product of an effective-altruist calculus, but rather a strange blend of Kafka-like hunger artistry, neo-Stylitism, deep visceral horror at the very thought of factory farming, as well as at least some actual nutritional and ecological good sense.

This calls to mind the way that ‘tolerance’ can devolve into a refusal to examine anyone’s beliefs (including, ultimately, our own) long enough to notice anything that might require us to act. I don't think Smith's market of ideas analogy above works - I'm more convinced by Venkatesh Rao's theory of people voluntarily joining the tribes of online Knights and becoming Mooks (though incidentally, such segments can immediately be marketed to effectively). Yet the purpose of the exercise for the individuals involved is not buying or selling ideas (that would require some minimal engagement with your own choice and with alternatives); it is closer to grabbing anything that floats. Thrown into the culture of conflict of online life, or related spaces like education centers, atomized individuals look for someone sort of like themselves to join, terrified of going it alone - and the second they are within one of the in-groups, they justify (and propagate) their own fears by mercilessly policing the purity of the tribe and the boundaries of its members. In the meantime, whatever thoughts or beliefs might have marginally pushed them towards one group or another have been ruthlessly pared down into a slogan that is

a) easily recognized (in order to tell friend from foe),

b) stripped of all nuance or thought-content,

c) meaningless except as a token to fight over.

The more perfectly it fulfills these, the better it will serve in the internet of beefs; and obviously, the worse the world will get:

So it is not that I am not a vegan, but only that I consider it wholly irrelevant to any discussion of humans and animals that I would like to have to invoke this fact about my diet. In the depauperate terms of contemporary pseudo-debate, I find that in speaking “as a vegan”, suddenly the thing I am speaking for no longer seems worth it. It now seems like an “issue”. It seems worthy of the mockery it so often gets, the back-burner treatment, the deprioritization. Even whales —whales— start to seem like something no longer worth saving when “Save the Whales” becomes a slogan, and the only way to articulate how fully equal to us whales are is to adopt a language that will sound to others like the language of bumperstickers. This language is repulsive; it keeps things as they are. It keeps naval sonar bathymetry going and whales driving themselves to unsurvivable depths to escape the sound. I feel if we could really speak of the lives of whales, of who they are for themselves, such things would cease, both the mockery and the bathymetry.