Who are you?

Who are you?

No, seriously. Take a minute to attempt to answer that question. I know it’s not easy. Just think of a few sentences that may describe who you are. I’ll wait.


Got it?  Great. Now, look at the words you used to describe yourself to see how many of them are groups you belong to or labels you have identified with. Liberal. Conservative. Democrat. Republican. White. Black. Midwestern. New Yorker. Muslim. Christian. American. How many of the words are characteristics you have used to group yourself or others have used to group you in?  Tall. Short. Blonde. Ginger. Smart. Funny. Sarcastic. Sardonic. Outgoing. Introvert. Immigrant. Patriotic. Hard working.

There are some characteristics of ourselves that we may take for granted day to day, but when put into a different context, they come to light. If you did this ‘Who are you?’ exercise once a week for a year, your answers will probably change. When I’m back in Ohio with family, I will be more apt to identify myself with categories like son, brother, uncle, cousin, nephew. When I’m with high school friends, I will probably be more apt to identify myself with categories like Ohioan, suburban, sports fan, basketball player – things I identify with that group of people. If you ask me right now to identify myself, I may not get to the word “American” quickly. But if I spend the next 2 years in China and you ask me then to identify myself, “American” is probably coming up much quicker.

Inclusive and Exclusive

What group we belong to is fundamental to who we think we are. We have a difficult time answering the question ‘who are you?’ without at least some reference to a larger group. That’s partly because identity is both inclusive and exclusive. Humans have a fundamental need to be part of a larger group. If everyone in the world was a part of that group, however, then there is no meaning to the group. So the group must exclude people. We must all feel like we are part of a group we identify with while at the same time creating an exclusionary group in the process.

If someone identifies as tall, what makes up that group?  Is there an objective arbiter of who is and who isn’t a part of that group?  I’m 5’10”. Does that exclude me from that group? Is there a minimum height requirement? Would a 12 year old girl who is 5’10” be excluded from the tall group? Obviously definitions of what the group means and who is a part of the group are flexible. There are no arbiters of tall and short. Nor are there arbiters of conservative and liberal, of funniness, middle class, intelligence, or any other group or characteristic.

So, to recap.

  1. Identity – knowing who we are – is extremely important to us as human beings.
  2. Our identity is largely based on the groups we identify with.
  3. Even if we don’t identify with a certain group, context may define us into that group.
  4. Groups are necessarily inclusive of some and exclusive of others.
  5. These groups have no objective definition of who is in the group and who is not.

I am not the Resistance

This brings me to the New York Times anonymous “Resistance” editorial and the No True Scotsman fallacy.

A anonymous White House staffer wrote an editorial for the New York Times describing how some within the White House see this President’s leadership as ” impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective.” The writer then describes the work of some in the White House to keep democracy afloat despite, not because of, the directives of the President. The writer’s motivation for publishing this may be unclear (self justification for taking the job itself, as the next step in a lucrative post-White House career, a simple duty to country in the author’s mind maybe?).

What is clear, though, is that the writer of the editorial identifies as a conservative and as a Republican – and those identities are important to them. They take several clear steps to declare themselves a member of this group. For instance, early on in the editorial they express that “(w)e want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous.” This passage then shows the audience that the author is a part of the group that wants conservative policies to succeed. The next passage is the most telling.

Although he was elected as a Republican, the president shows little affinity for ideals long espoused by conservatives: free minds, free markets and free people. At best, he has invoked these ideals in scripted settings. At worst, he has attacked them outright.

This passage shows me a few things about group identity.

  1. The author identifies both as a conservative and a Republican.
  2. The author defines this group in terms of ideals they believe in. (free minds, markets, people..whatever that means to them)
  3. The author then claims that the ideals the author identifies with are not shared by the President.
  4. They then show an emotional reaction to the purported lack of genuine interest of the President in the ideals that define them.
  5. The author is implicitly committing the No Scotsman Fallacy

No Scotsman Fallacy

The No Scotsman Fallacy occurs when one attempts to protect a universal generalization from counterexamples by changing the definition in an ad hoc fashion to exclude the counterexample. The No Scotsman Fallacy often gets used when we have a cognitive dissonance we must solve. Often the problem is: I am part of this group, this other person is part of the same group, but this other person is terrible, so they must not really be a part of the group I’m in.  In the NY Times editorial, it looks like this:

  • I am a conservative
  • Conservatives hold principles like free minds, free markets and free people.
  • President Trump claims to hold those principles too
  • President Trump, however, is “not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.”
  • I know conservatives hold these principles, therefore
  • President Trump is not a real conservative.

The decision point is in the cognitive dissonance.

On the one hand, you are a conservative and conservatives have these principles. On the other hand, this member of your group doesn’t seem to be living by those principles. You have a choice. You could adjust to a different definition of conservative than what your identity has been built on so that it includes Trump and his amorality. Or you could keep your identity and exclude Trump from being a ‘real’ conservative.  I covered a similar issue when it came to Bernie and the Democratic Party previously.

When faced with that decision, we almost always choose the later – to redefine the group to exclude the person or people, not to redefine a key part of our group identity. And this is a decision we make automatically. We may not even think of alternatives.

Our identity is vitally important to us. Our groups define our identity. Defining who is in or who is not in a group constantly changes. This makes the decision simple: redefine the group members so that we can keep our precious identity in tact.

Don’t worry, be happy

Of course claiming Trump is not a “real” conservative isn’t something new. USA Today did it. CNN did it. US News wrote about it during the campaign. It’s been a popular refrain.  Not just with Trump, but also with the last Republican President too. Remember after his re-election in ’04, after years of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, response to Hurricane Katrina, and oh yea, that economic collapse, when his approval ratings dropped into the 30s?  Yeah, that’s when conservatives starting redefining their group to exclude the President as well.  Here’s a Forbes article titled “George W Bush was No Conservative”, here’s a book dedicated to Bush betraying conservatives, here’s The Atlantic claiming Bush wasn’t a conservative.

What this argument does is twofold. One, it allow anyone to exclude anyone else from any group for any reason. Two, it allows everyone’s identity to remain intact, knowing that they still belong to a pure group that hasn’t changed. Identity is both exclusive (excluding group members) and inclusive (feeling like you belong to a certain group). The No True Scotsman fallacy is a simple way we deal with our own identity problems when they become strained by a group you identify with.

Powerful nonsense

But that doesn’t make it true. You can argue over the general ideological differences in policy, but just because Trump is a moron or an asshole doesn’t stop him from being a conservative. Claiming he’s out of the group not only satisfies psychologically the members of the group, but it abdicates responsibility from the group to the individual. That then allows the group to continue blindly ignoring the realities around them, redefining their way to purity and virtue.

This is partly how the groups can get away with anything. The conservatives didn’t cause economic disaster when the stock market crashed in ’08 when millions of jobs were lost and hundreds of thousands of homes were foreclosed. Oh no. It was Big Government, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and those poor people who took out loans. It wasn’t conservative economic policy of deregulation of the financial markets. George W Bush wasn’t even a conservative anyway. Real conservatives would have stopped the government from spending so much and we wouldn’t be in this mess.

This is why we argue over labels. This is why we argue over who is the ‘real conservative’ or the ‘real progressive’ during campaign season. These may seem like nonsense debates sometimes. But at the root of these debates is a simple but powerfully emotional question: Who are you?