Forward Thinking is a collaborative values development project in which Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism and I pose abstract questions about vital values and then round up the insights generated by our commenters and fellow bloggers. Today Libby Anne is posing the question, “What is Personhood?” on her blog. Below is some of the discussion generated by the question I posed two weeks ago about whether or to what extent it is ethical to challenge others’ beliefs and values that are constitutive of their identity. Can you criticize the commitments that someone understand as central to who they are without personally attacking them?
In reply, Shira Coffee elaborated creative strategies for getting through to people while avoiding having to directly challenge their identities:
My own approach to discussion does not usually involve challenging my partner’s identity. Usually, I do my best to slip past identity altogether, to a more central level. For instance, there is the level of stories.
Consider a fairly common story: “My life was a truly godawful mess. Then I discovered Fact X (and often, the community that accepts Fact X). Now my life is much better — still a work in progress, but I know I’m moving in the right direction.”
You can see this story all the time, if you look. It’s practically the foundation of groups like AA. The interesting thing about that story, to me at least, is how many sorts of Fact X there are: religious conversion, of course, but also “I’m gay and that’s ok”, “God doesn’t exist”, “9/11 was an inside job”, and so on. This is not the only story people construct about their lives, and it’s not universal. But it’s common enough that you quite often see two people challenging each other’s identity who, in fact, share that same story. Let’s say, someone who identifies first and foremost as gay and someone who is equally identified with Evangelical Christianity.
What I have tried to do, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, is to notice when I share a story with someone, and try to get him or her to notice this interesting thing, that the area where we differ is in some functional sense actually the same. When it works, it builds a bond of understanding, though just a fragile one.
In some cases, a person has stories as polished and performative as his or her identity. In that case, I try to slip in a little further, perhaps by turning the conversation to other people, people each of us cares about. (This has the additional advantage of breaking the obsessive focus on self, which can make us defensive and inflexible.) When I was a kid, I always used to be confused by the fact that grown women — mothers and grandmothers and aunts — would constantly turn the conversation to how family members were doing. It seemed so boring! But now I see that it served the purpose of making real connection.
I think at this point I need to talk about intentions. It would be wrong, I think, to try to get close to people in order to manipulate them or change their mind. It would either be futile — because people are good at detecting attempts to manipulate them — or it would be, if successful, a violation of their autonomy.
The view that one person can change another person’s mind is, for the most part, an illusion in any case. The conversion comes about naturally, by the ordinary process of change that is always going on. It might be that a would-be persuader happens to speak just at the moment when the conversion is imminent — or when initial recognition of an existing conversion is imminent. That creates the illusion of persuasivity (and often, inflates and falsifies the sense of self of the persuader.)
But my intention is not to persuade, even in the cases where I’m sure I’m right and I would very much like to see everyone agree with me. (This excludes the case where there’s nothing to lose, as, for instance, someone pleading with a murderer to spare her life. Obviously, if there is no recourse, even something that shouldn’t work is worth a try!)
My intention is simply to find and connect with the best, most ethical and effective, common ground between myself and another person. Because here is the thing (and I’m going to go all Buddhist theory on you again.) Whatever part of ourselves and others we touch with loving attention is strengthened. This is called “watering good seeds” in Buddhist theory. So if the person before me is a raging homophobe, but also a loving father of a three-year-old daughter with Downs syndrome, then which part of him do I want to strengthen? Perhaps, if the right moment arises, I can drop in the fact that my daughter, whom I love so very much, is gay. But the point isn’t to change him. He has to change himself.
He just stands a better chance of changing for the good if he encounters people who touch his strengths.
So that’s my view. If you’re going to challenge people, then their identity is probably the best thing to challenge, of the various aspects of their self. It might be a good spectacle, and I might enjoy watching it.
But I’m not sure it makes anyone involved a better person.
Hilary talks about the need to take into account the cultural context of disagreements over beliefs:
If you are going to challenge another persons core religious beliefs with the direct intent of changing them, you’d better have a very thorough understanding of what you’re asking. I’m not talking about challenging actions that can be empiracly demonstrated to cause harm, but religious identity itself, particularly if it is a minority religion or social position, and not one you share.
For example, Dan, if you as a white man were to try and convince an African American Christian to deconvert, you would have to take into consideration not just the religious belief in Jesus but the role the black church has played in the lives of black Americans. I’m not talking about explaining yourself as an atheist, what that means to you and why, but actively trying to pursuede another person.
Or if you Dan were trying to deconvert a Muslim woman who came to the US a few years ago as an adult, you might want to reflect that you’ve lived in the same country all you life, and I’m going to assume your family has been here for a few generations. (Feel free to correct me if I am wrong). That woman has already had a momunental change of identity, and wearing a hijab as a Muslim woman might be a critical way for here to maintain her understanding of herself in a very foreign world. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t critisize toxic actions, but be aware of the network of culture and identity involved in her religion.
On this score, James Croft has written a must-read post for anyone who wants to talk honestly, critically, and responsibly about Islam.
3lemenope argues that not all identity-forming beliefs are equally unsusceptible to challenge:
I am reminded of Nietzsche’s admonishment on faith and doubt: strong faith allows the luxury of doubt. Weak faith cannot endure it.
Likewise, I think that we overdraw the circle of ‘identity’ when we include aspects of self that are so fragile they can be thrown into doubt or damaged by a simple intemperate criticism from a social peer. If I were to say to a Christian acquaintance “Christianity is wrong” I have a prior expectation that he or she already believes “Christianity is right” and that that belief is not so fragile that me merely asserting the negative will throw their religious identity into chaos. If it does, it seems doubtful to me that “Christian” was a correct identity label for them in the first place.
The concept of identity, to me, has implications of persistence; that which persists through the incidental shuffling of material. Persistence, if it is meaningful, has to include a factor of resilience; else, what persists is merely an accident of conditions, instead of prevailing against them. Homosexuality, as an identity marker, is persistent and resilient primarily because it is rooted in a person’s biological incidence; the mental experiences that follow (attraction to a given sex) are supervenient on something more properly basic. Christianity has a hard time pointing to similar facts, and so while a person’s Christianity *can* be persistent and resilient, it’s not nearly as common a status.
Slow learner wants to argue that we can be more critical of the identity forming beliefs and commitments of religious people than trans* people because they have more power as a group that trans* people do:
trans-gender people as a group have much less social power than Anglicans(/Catholics/Evangelicals) as a group. They are less numerous, less visible, and less respected by society at large and the media.
Yes, there are going to be edge-cases, and yes, at the edges it is always better to err on the side of courtesy. However, there are a range of people, be they politicians, religious leaders, CEOs, who wield sufficient power and have enough deference granted to them that it seems “natural” to respect their every pronouncement. When disagreeing with someone in that exalted category, mockery and snark is fully justified and indeed useful.
As it was said by whomever, “afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted”.
My subsequent response to Slow learner is here.
In my original post I laid out my own strategy for separating challenges to beliefs and commitments from personal attacks: “So, for example, if a commenter wanted to query and challenge transgendered people’s understandings of their genders, the commenter could only do that on an abstract level [...] The commenter is not allowed to call transgendered interlocutors by pronouns they reject or say directly to them ‘you’re really this or that gender’.” In reply to that suggestion, a trans* commenter erin.nikla wrote:
I don’t think this is possible. A commenter who “abstractly” argues that, for example, there is no such gender as genderqueer is telling genderqueer people, concretely, “you’re really this or that gender.” Abstract discussions like these are only abstract to those people whose “understanding of their gender” is not up for question (that is, cis people).
I also think your general comparison of religious identity with minority sexual orientations and gender identities is off the mark. There’s a distinction, for example, between telling a Christian, “I think Christianity is wrong” and telling a gay person “I think homosexuality is wrong.” That distinction being that being Christian has not (at least in a *very* long time) been illegal, being Christian has not been equated to being subhuman, being Christian has not been an excuse for denying someone basic human rights, etc. etc. There’s a context here that makes questioning the validity of homosexuality different from questioning the validity of Christianity.
Building on this claim, an anonymous commenter added:
It seems to me that even abstractly discussing the “validity of being trans*” erases the existence of trans* people, whereas questioning the claims of Christianity does not erase Christians. [...] I would say that if the “validity” of being trans* is questioned, the trans* person’s identity is being challenged in a unique way. Being trans* is a fact about a person in a way that being Christian isn’t. E.g., being trans* doesn’t per se involve propositional beliefs. Propositional beliefs may be part of being a Christian, but there is more to Christian identity than just propositional beliefs. Questioning those beliefs isn’t questioning the validity of Christian identity in the same way or to the same degree.
3lemenope and erin.nikla proceeded to have an interesting back and forth on whether trans* identities were indeed incomparable to belief-based (or non-belief based) identities, starting here.