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Keep your identity small (2009) (paulgraham.com)
184 points by nostrademons on May 19, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 153 comments

I don't think it's so much about identity as it is about (in)security.

Regarding politics, I completely follow his argument: I don't identify with any party and like to think I'm evaluating each policy on its on merits and according to my personal beliefs. Which leads me to the other one.

I happen to be Catholic and strongly believe in the mental and societal framework put forth by that theology. However, I'm more than happy to discuss objectively with fellows of other faiths (including atheism) and will happily point out the common threads in seemingly opposite belief systems. Yet if others make arguments that I'm not in position to counter, I'm happy to let it go. My identity is deeply rooted as a Catholic, yet my security is not in being right.

There is a temptation on my part to put forth the argument that some religions foster greater amounts of insecurity, but I don't think that is fair to say. Pretty much every belief system has a version of the Golden Rule.

To take Paul Graham's argument just a little further, I would say that religion and politics can be misused as convenient mental shortcuts behind which to hide one's insecurities.

Just a nitpick but atheism is not a faith, it's the absence of faith.

An atheist doesn't believe in the existence of god(s); a theist is the opposite and believes in the existence of god(s). The difference lies in lack of faith v. faith.

An agnostic believes it's not possible to be sure whether one or more gods exist.

Combinations are possibly; an agnostic theist believes in the existence of gods, but also thinks it's impossible to be sure.

There are also apathetic agnostics; they don't know nor care whether one or more gods exist. This usually seems to go with atheism.

I suppose there should also be a word like nontheists; those who have faith in the non-existence of gods.

An atheist doesn't believe in the existence of god(s)

Rather, an atheist believes in the non-existence of gods. We don't need a word like non-theist because we already have a word for it.

>Rather, an atheist believes in the non-existence of gods. We don't need a word like non-theist because we already have a word for it.

No. That would be a gnostic atheist. One who claims to know and doesn't believe.

Nearly every single atheist I know, and it is generally a safe assumption to make [0], is an agnostic atheist. One who doesn't believe but claims to not know for sure.

If you ask me if gnomes exist, I will tell you I am a gnostic atheist. I am certain in my knowledge that gnomes do not exist, and thus I have no reason to believe in them. If you ask me if god(s) exists, I will tell you I am an agnostic atheist. I am uncertain in my knowledge that a god does or does not exist, but I have no reason to believe that one does.

And yes - there can be agnostic theists too! Although they are the minority as most theists claim to "know" and that knowledge is why they believe. So theists are assumed to be gnostic theists unless they state otherwise. My grandmother is the only person I've ever known to claim to be an agnostic theist. She claims to not know but finds comfort in believing. She doesn't follow any major world religion and her god is not a god of any scripture.

[0] It's the vast majority and so "agnostic" is usually superfluous and unnecessary in conversation. I only ever see it brought up when a theist tries to claim the Atheist is really just a Theist who "believes in some opposite thing". Then the difference has to be pointed out like I've done in this post.

If you ask me if gnomes exist, I will tell you I am a gnostic atheist

gnostic agnomist, I presume?

As for the rest, sorry, I don't subscribe to Smith's redefinitions as I'm not sure the distinctions make practical sense. More specifically, I don't support the definition of "agnostic theist" because in the context of religion, there is no distinction between "knowing" and "believing". An "agnostic theist" would be someone who still subscribes to the same religious identity and the distinction is therefore purely academic. Moreover, religions already have words to describe agnostics within their ranks: they're considered lost sheep, apostates or even heretics (depending on which religion and strength of its convictions).

Finally: the term "gnostic" has already been coined and does not mean the opposite of "agnostic". Gnosticism is a theist philosophy closely related to Christianity.

I have never known a self-proclaimed atheist to actually say as much. This is purely a line toted about by those who wish to paint "atheists" in a certain light ("they're just as irrational as we!").

Then again, do you know many Christians who explicitly signal their beliefs like that? I think they're much more likely to say "Jesus is the son of God" than "I believe Jesus is the son of God".

It's rather uncommon for any follower of faith to preface their beliefs with "I believe". If they preface them at all, they're much more likely to use "I know", or "$authority says".

> Then again, do you know many Christians who explicitly signal their beliefs like that?

All of them that recite the Nicene Creed or some derivative...

Interesting. I'd never heard of it.

Doesn't matter.

When given the choice between

"I believe that God doesn't exist"


"I don't believe that God exists"

>99% of atheists would choose the latter as better representing their personal stance on the matter. Further, almost all would additionally agree that if there were evidence for God's existence, they would believe.

The concept of "faith" is not one that resonates with atheists. Christians however, love to pretend that disbelieving requires just as much magical thinking as believing, and this is a classic example.

Do you identify as atheist? Is the distinction important to you? Grouping different religious views together with atheism under the same category is useful when discussing people and their beliefs. Arguing the semantics of wether Atheism is a "belief" or "faith" (or some nicer, more certain-sounding term) is in my experience unfruitful and most often besides the point. /nitpick

I find there's a pretty wide gulf between our day-to-day beliefs vs. what we claim to believe with all the pedantics and caveats added when our beliefs come under scrutiny (especially by a critic).

I didn't mean to discuss, just to correct OP in case he was genuinely misinformed.

A big high-five to everyone in this subthread who decided to engage in a religious debate in response to this, of all articles!

Disagree. Atheists believe there is no god (without any conclusive evidence).

What is the name for people that believe there is no: santa clause, easter bunny, flying spaghetti monster, ... (without any conclusive proof)?

Most people who call themselves atheists disagree with you. You should respect others more.

If you don't care if a god exist or not and never thought about it then its not a faith. ;-)

Atheism is faith just like any other; belief that no god exists is just as substantiated (i.e. not at all) and provable (i.e. not at all) as the belief that particular god(s) exist.

What sysk is saying that atheism is not the belief that no god exists, but rather the lack of a belief in a god.

It's also not as if any two unsubstantiated and unprovable positions are just as likely to be true; see Russell's teapot[1].

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell%27s_teapot

Ok, then we're using two different definitions. I use agnostic for the one you describe as "atheist".

Agnosticism is the stance that what we are talking about is unknowable, as opposed to gnosticism.

I think what you refer to as atheism seems closer to antitheism than anything else. The difference here is the same as the difference between "asocial" and "antisocial".

So is there any difference between agnosticism and atheism (as you use it)?

Yes, but they're not different points on a scale that goes from religious to irreligious, if that is what you mean.

One can be an agnostic christian, for instance, in which case one would believe that it is unknown or unknowable whether the divine or supernatural exists (and believe in it still).

What I'm relating to the difference between "asocial" and "antisocial" is the difference between "atheist" and "antitheist".

Yes, that's what I meant.

Depends on your precise definition. Most atheists consider atheism the lack of belief in a god, as opposed to the belief that there is no god. The distinction is important.

Most people I know who claim to be atheists seem to believe there is not god, despite not being able to prove it. Agnostics seem to be the most honest ones....

That's a very theistic way to frame atheism. Theism requires active belief in prescribed dogma, whereas atheism can include both rejection of said dogma or simply not subscribing to religious ideas.

For example, many people are vegetarian for one subjective reason or another. Just because I'm not vegetarian doesn't mean I believe being vegetarian is wrong or isn't a thing -- it just means I like eating meat and don't have the same reasons as vegetarians to subscribe to vegetarianism. And I don't think about vegetarianism, like how some atheists don't think about god; this stands in contrast with those who subscribe to religion, which requires active belief / prayer / practice / absorption of certain ideals into your identity.

That's interesting. I know plenty of people who label themselves as atheists, but AFAICT not a single one of them take the position of "belief in god not existing".

Atheism doesn't have any doctrines or the spiritual connection of a religion.

I didn't say it does. But it requires faith, i.e. belief into something that is fundamentally unprovable.

Still depending on definitions, but faith is the belief in something. Not accepting that there's anything to have belief in is something separate, and grouping a-theism with different types of theism isn't a usually accepted argument. I appreciate the angle you're taking, but the semantics of it are important.

Many of them believe in a big bang, that came from nothing where the laws of physics don't apply, and created the universe...... (Sounds almost as crazy as religion to me).

"Many" perhaps, but Atheism != scientific belief.

> any mention of religion on an online forum degenerates into a religious argument. Why? Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript

Then later

> the question of the relative merits of programming languages often degenerates into a religious war, because so many programmers identify as X programmers or Y programmers.

Also as another poster said, this works because he's been able to go his entire life choosing what to put in and take out of his identity because he is of the privileged class in his society. If someone perpetrated violence on him because of something he _couldn't_ choose, say, his skin color, I have a feeling he'd be less likely to conclude that "The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you."

The people to whom this "labeling" is most important are those who were labeled. Not those who label themselves.

If I attack you because your identity conflicts with my identity, say over differing skin color, then it demonstrates his original point: the label I've given myself is making me behave dumb/stupid/evil.

My action creates no obligation on your part to adopt the identity I've assigned to you. Your station in life has no impact on whether you will accept the label; you are a human capable of reason and you have free will - the choice is yours.

In literature, Tom of Uncle Tom's Cabin is a solid example of this. Tom, a heroic black slave, rejects the labels and associated moral principals others (both black and white) wish to assign to him. He acts in accordance with his self-selected moral convictions. And when confronted with an ultimate evil that demands the surrender of not only his body but also his reasoning mind - demands he accept an unchosen identity - he refuses.

I had a friend once who would insult people and then when they got angry or hurt he would say: I don't control your feelings, you control your feelings. Technically true, perhaps, depending on certain philosophically assumptions. But practically absurd. And certainly a terrible mental model about how humans work in situ.

> If someone perpetrated violence on him because of something he _couldn't_ choose, say, his skin color, I have a feeling he'd be less likely to conclude that "The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you."

I disagree. Each person reacts to circumstances differently. It might lead him to reject (what he perceives as) arbitrary labels all the more because others were using it as an excuse to hurt him.

And yes, these labels often come from outside of us, but I think his point is to resist internalizing them.

> The people to whom this "labeling" is most important are those who were labeled. Not those who label themselves.

I'm not quite sure what you are getting at. We all get labelled, we all have cultural scripts we are expected to follow. And yes, some have more negative labels. Are you saying such people are more justified in internalizing and defining themselves by their labels?

I guess I'm just curious as to whether you accept his premise that striving for a minimalist identity helps remain objective? Is it not worth analysing in our own lives what identities we have internalized that we could do without?

"Keep" implies agency and control. Keep it simple. Keep me posted. Keep your identity small. The entire article is premised on the existence of this agency and control. If it is lacking, then I would argue that that's not the type of situation he is speaking to.

Such an obvious point shouln't have to be made, but sadly it often does these days, so thanks for making it so eloquently.

His conclusion is still valid even in presence of immutable labels; you can't help being black or gay, but you can help by not being religious or a "Python programmer".

I got the sense this article trended now because that's exactly where JavaScript/Node is right now.


Arguably some black people label themselves.

And the finger pointing begins.

> Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript

But it does happen with JS, among others. Critical remarks on PLs are met with the most religious of fervour in HN threads.

> Politics, like religion, is a topic where there's no threshold of expertise for expressing an opinion. All you need is strong convictions.

What I don't get is who/what determines a threshold?

A university degree? 10 years of experience?

As others have rightly pointed out, perhaps there is no such thing as a "threshold of expertise". Any programmer could have 10 years of experience repeatedly cookie-cutting their beginner-level code and never going beyond that. Does that give them the right to be called/known as JavaScript-Ninjas?

Perhaps Grahams identity leans towards anti-establishment/anti-religion/hacker-think, which by proxy of his argument, makes him partisan towards those opinions about religion and politics (see how the snake eats its own tail here?).

People determine the threshold themselves. Most people won't join in conversations about science or math topics unless they feel like they have a solid grasp of what is being discussed (relative to those around them). However, almost everyone feels like they have valid points to make on religious and political topics regardless of how well educated they are on those topics.

"Identity" in most psychological context generally refers to how a person perceives themselves. It's personal; there is no threshold. You can identify as The Greatest JavaScript Master of All Time and no one can do anything but disagree.

The way I read it, that's precisely the danger this essay is warning about.

When you start identifying as a "JavaScript Developer" you are making JavaScript development a part of who you are. Anything about JavaScript becomes personal. You expose yourself to attacks that aren't even being directed at you. The bigger you inflate your identity the more get hit, until eventually you can't hold a conversation without getting offended about something.

If you can keep these things out of your identity it is much easier to shrug off other opinions about them. You can stay objective and have meaningful conversations about the benefits and consequences of it. Because it's just a thing, it does its thing and gives you something to think about when it doesn't.

Identity is personal: Identity is what you choose to care about. Some things should become part of your identity. Studies find that in most successful relationships partners see each other as part of their own identity. But most things probably don't belong there.

The point is that with politics and religion people don't even think they need to be knowledgeable to contribute to the discussion.

I wish this "who can know for sure?" relativist hands-in-air sort of sentiment were less prevalent on HN.

One of the biggest invisible biases is thinking you've managed to free yourself of invisible biases.

Ugh - we were talking with a group specifically about unconscious biases and while one person was relating how they had unwittingly found out one of their unconscious biases, another person looked on in pity and then declared how proud they were that they were free of bias. Seriously!

I'm reminded of the inevitable "I'm not biased, but I'm going to complain about this because I think it's an attack on me" that comes up whenever anyone on the internet mentions that institutional racism exists.

You do understand the other side's situation right? You are, albeit impersonally, being accused of participating in something monstrous, the institutional subjugation and prejudicial treatment of an entire class of people, and there is literally nothing you can say or do which will demonstrate otherwise since your racist acts are unconscious and unknowable to you.

It's like trying to convince someone that you're not crazy when they already think you are. It doesn't mater, anything you say or do just reinforces their belief.

We all hold biases and prejudices for just about everything from concepts, ideas, products, institutions, and especially one another based on their history, race, creed, social status, clothing, voice, stature, hometown, manner of speaking, educational background, career field, job title, wealth, attractiveness, political beliefs, the list goes could go on for pages. But trying to equate these kinds of biases to being *-ist in any meaningful sense is missing the forest for the trees.

If you don't believe in widespread racism, what is your explanation for why people of color, as a group, keep having a bad time?

It can't be some property of them, because believing that would be racist, right? If it's not them and it's not us (I'm white) then what is it?

You've clearly made up your mind and preemptively called everybody who disagrees racist. That's not exactly conductive for an insightful conversation.

But I'll bite anyway: historical racism clearly still plays a significant role. Whatever the level of present-day racism, I'm sure we can agree that it's orders of magnitude lower than it was historical. The plight of people of colour today can be attributed to historical widespread institutional racism independently of whether any such racism exists today. Also, your model fails to account for the possibility that racism can exist and be harmful without being widespread, and that people of colour can make bad decisions without that being a "property" of their colour (shaming people for "acting white" strikes me as particular counterproductive).

That's not saying that's the whole explanation (or even that it is the explanation), just that your model ("it's not them and it's not us") is a false dichotomy and generally too limited to be likely to yield a satisfactory answer.

I haven't made up my mind, actually. I just asked you questions, didn't I?

I think your argument is sound. Axiom: there's actually not that much racism. Theorem: the remaining racism is confined to a small number of people.

I just disagree with your axiom.

If you don't believe in widespread racism, what is your explanation for why people of color, as a group, keep having a bad time?

Why does it need a different explanation then why many people of the white persuasion keep having a bad time? When you selectively group people together, you will always get an identifiable pattern. But you can't then claim that the pattern is universal, since the pattern was predefined in your selection.

That's a really good question. I guess I want to collect as many explanations as possible. I am interested in making society better, so I want to have thousands and thousands of explanations for every little bit of violence. So I can make decisions that undermine them when I have the chance. If I don't have the explanations its hard to understand what's happening and how to react.

I also collect explanations for why there is so much violence against white people. I think a lot about violence against men lately. But that doesn't stop me from thinking there are some instances of violence that are best explained as violence against women.

The previous and continuing actions of bad people but not "you" as a collective, just the racist ones. (I'm mixed race, not that it should make my point any more/less valid).

Well, you're assuming too much about me... I am racist, I see it happen every day.

I'm reminded of the inevitable "I'm not biased, but I'm going to complain about this because I think it's an attack on me" that comes up whenever anyone on the internet mentions that speaking about institutional racism is just virtue signalling.

You can see that arguments of that form aren't effective. I don't think that's a compelling argument for anyone other than those who have similar beliefs to you. Arguments from the left like that are the reason for the resurgence of the right.

Belief is something everyone the world over lives and dies by. The only thing to worry about is if you have a positive belief, as opposed to a negative one. Negativity, in any form, is harmful to all, while being positive has the opposite effect. Summarily, all communication can and should be based upon opposing viewpoints. This does not make either one wrong, it is just the way it is. So I agree but would change it to "keep your identity positive", large or small is relative.

> Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript or baking or other topics people talk about on forums?

He must not spend a lot of time on Slashdot, or Hacker News, for that matter.

Hacker friends who have started new hobbies are often posting their bewilderment about how it follows everywhere. Beekeeping being the most surprising example.

Well, he did acknowledge this later on:

For example, the question of the relative merits of programming languages often degenerates into a religious war, because so many programmers identify as X programmers or Y programmers.

I am seeing this point being repeatedly pointed out on this page (i.e. his first mention of Javascript as non-controversial as baking, and then later on in the essay Programming lang X vs Y) .

Remember it was 2009. Surely Chrome had come out by then a few years, with the much improved JS engine, but IE still had the dominant market share. And so I doubt there were so many JS frameworks as today. Surely there was jquery and also things like GWT already, and I am sure quite some other frameworks.

But the full impact of a fast JS execution engine, had still not played out, I guess. Today, if PG writes the essay, he would most definitely not include Javascript there.

Also if I look at the context of what he is trying to say, that mention is not important. Its about wearing labels or not. Or in other words about being open to think, because of not tying ourselves down with published identities.

I've realized there are things I can change and there are things I cannot change. I try not to feel too strongly on the things I cannot change, because it distracts me from the things I can change.

For politics, I try not to feel too strongly about Trump and the electoral process. I would still vote, but I know it would have a minimal impact, no matter how strongly I feel.

Instead, I focus my energy on my business, which I can change.

The Serenity Prayer may resonate with you.

> God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

> Courage to change the things I can,

> And wisdom to know the difference.

I always remember this from Slaughterhouse Five.

God, I love Kurt Vonnegut.

Better (and not tainted by association with AA...)

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

Better ?

The first is shorter, less abstract and easier to remember.

I think Suster was going there today: https://twitter.com/msuster/status/733330477046587392

People waste so much energy trying to change others when they could change themselves with practically no effort.

> People waste so much energy trying to change others when they could change themselves with practically no effort.

Seriously on point. A lot of the former happening on the internet, probably because it's easier to complain.

The greatest takeaway I've gotten from the stoic philosophy: For obstacles we face we can either accept them or work on changing them. Worry and complaint are unnecessary, for if we accept, then we are at peace, and if we work to change them, we are on the right path.

This is the weakest pg essay I've come across. I can think of so many counter-examples. "Stand for nothing and you'll fall for anything." It's very convenient to have a small identity with few convictions because convictions are costly. Sophie Scholl identified with anti-Nazi politics and it cost her her life. We have a word for people like her: hero.

Paul didn't say "have no convictions", he said "keep your identity small"... save your convictions for things that really matter, not stupid shit like sports teams, programming languages, favorite <games/movies/books/TV>.

I don't feel like you grasped the article clearly.

His main examples of identity were politics and religion.

I think it is possible/fairly safe to cheer for the Denver Bronco's or the New York Yankees, or Crystal Palace football club or Team SoloMid or whatever without making that one's identity.

Edit: Just now, someone showed me a video which claimed drinking apple cider vinegar helped prevent cancer. I tried to say that this is billshit because nobody can really say drinking something prevents cancer without a long-term study that I doubt this YouTube celebrity had done.

I don't claim I don't have a bias. But I don't think we should be sin free to cast the first stone on ideas.

Regarding sports teams and identity, I suspect the guy who says "wow good game" after their home team loses and the guy who feels crummy for a week is the extent that they identify with the team. I had a brief stint with that in college with my college football team. The wins felt like giant ego rushes and the losses felt like I had lost a million bucks.

Now I can pretend to cheer but I don't really care as much.

Seems like you didn't grasp the article clearly. PG says you can't think clearly about things that are part of your identity. You think he's arguing that you should choose things that really matter to be the things you _can't think clearly about_?

The way I understand "keep your identity small" is something like don't broadcast your identity all the time. That's a position antithetical to narcissism.

Did she identify with anti-Nazi politics or did she only support them because her principles and deepest beliefs told her that Nazi politics is just wrong?

"I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people's identity"

You might also say that people have identity and religion and politics use those to advantage. But is it wrong to have identity? I'd argue it as a basic human requirement.

Religion can be considered a technology of group identity which was refined over millennium to be most effective at generating a unified form. Like all technology it was disrupted by something better and more efficient at transmitting shared consciousness.

That definition also fits the web which is the most powerful method of transmission yet invented, and is the fruit of the science religion.

Wow, you just out-generalized Paul Graham. nice.

can you give me specific examples of how tho?

Sometimes identity has a way of finding you, even if you try your hardest to keep it out. People define you, and depending on who or where you are, those definitions can have profound impact on your life.

This piece reads like a person who has never had to deal with that, or at least never had to think about it.

Is "identity fluid" the same as "precious bodily fluids" [1] ?

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1KvgtEnABY

Philip Tetlock has done a lot of research on objective measures of political expertise, specifically the ability to make objective predictions about future outcomes and likelihoods. He wrote a pretty famous book on it. The basic conclusion is nobody is really that good, but some people are objectively better than others. If you are really interested in this he has as website called "good judgement project" where you can test your ability to predict against other people on the site over time.



Remind's me of Paul Buchheit's [I am nothing][1] and Jiddu Krishnamurti's [The observer is the observed][2].

An application by Buchheit (and others!) that improved my life: Gmail.

Two books by Krishnamurti that improved my life: Think on These Things and The First and Last Freedom.

[1]: http://paulbuchheit.blogspot.com/2011/08/i-am-nothing.html

[2]: http://www.jkrishnamurti.org/krishnamurti-teachings/view-dai...

Isn't it just more succinct to say we have tribal instincts because of our evolutionary origins? I see heated debates in politics, religion, even sports, because people identify from a certain "tribe". And I agree with Paul there, from what I have noticed, tribalism does seem to give you a certain blindspot to opposing arguments

Not particularly well articulated but the core point is one of the most valuable lesson I had learned.

It not just applies to religion and politics but many other things in life. We might be wasting too much of time on certain thing with very little impact. It is hard to not to fall in that trap but trying surely saved a lot of time.

People who don't have an identity... I hate those people.

It's usually inappropriate to draw in politics and religion when they are off topic, but sometimes they are involved. Ethics are involved frequently with technology, so politics and religion are not that far off.

Though really, It's pretty shallow to draw like for like comparisons between religion/politics and JS discussions. JS is trivial. Most tech discussions are trivial the day after they've been had.

>the more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you

You could keep going, stripping yourself of all labels via the discovery that labels are neither good nor bad in a qualitative sense. But this begs the question "what is good?" And then you might conclude that you know what is good, and then form your labels as such.

Having labels isn't dumb; not being mindful of your labels is dumb.

Labels might make you "dumber", but there's a huge tradeoff: you can arrive at a conclusion a lot faster. Of course in a discussion you wouldn't just jump to the conclusion, which is why labels fail in the situations Graham described.

Great advice. Don't believe in anything, and you won't have to stand up for what you believe. Ever. And others won't be disappointed if you don't. Win-win.

The story about the person who kept his identity small, during WW2 ( https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007392 ) :


First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

TLDR: paul graham is sofa philosopher.

Um. Are you missing the entire point of the quote, or am I?

I understand the quote as meaning that we should speak out even when groups we do not identify with are being oppressed.

But you seem to understand the quote as meaning that we should identify with as many groups as possible.

I very much doubt the author of the quote meant it the way you do, and even if they did it just sounds very wrong. It's expected and accepted to not care about any other group than the ones you identify with then? I do not identify as LGBT or as a woman, so I should not speak out for LGBT and women's rights? What about groups that will remain small because you can't just decide one day to identify with them, they're screwed?

> I did not speak out

Even if you are not a jew, why couldn't you have a discussion about jews? In fact, isn't that Paul Graham's entire point, that if it's not part of your identity (i.e. you're not a jew), you can have a much more reasonable conversation about it?

This is almost the opposite of keeping your identity small.

The point is not that this person should have expanded his identity till he was a Socialist. The point is that there are principles that you should stand up for in the defense of people outside your identity group.

The two more or less inescapable identities are "human" and "yourself". I read this essay as saying that you should embrace both of these, and nothing more.

A socialist, a trade unionist, and a Jew are still all people. You should be a human being, and treat others as such. If your identity is, as per your example, "right-wing", "German", "Christian", "pagan", "working class", or "member of the NSDAP", then you may not feel that your shared humanity is more important than your other identities.

I don't know which reading is correct, but I prefer mine.

not only graham is right on the spot but even more than that. how often we tend to joke about the programming languages we love and do our jobs with. case in point every developer likes the following: https://www.destroyallsoftware.com/talks/wat

Not the first Paul to think like this, 1 Corinthians 9, 20-22: [...] I am made all things to all men [...]

Any thread about C versus C++ degenerates pretty fast too.

I would added sports.

Aw c'mon! Don't attach to (identify with) things is, like, Spirituality 101.

" Why? Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript or baking or other topics people talk about on forums?"

I do not believe this author had much experience discussing JS on forums.

I thought of commenting on that as one thing in this article that didn't really stand the test of time. As a sibling comment points out, the JS world was very different in 2009, and we didn't have the same kind of flamewars that we do now.

I think that's actually a point in favor of the article. In 2009, virtually nobody considered themselves a "Javascript programmer". Rather, Javascript was a skill that you used to build webapps, which itself was a skill you used as part of a larger software system. It was pointless to get emotionally invested in Javascript arguments on the Internet, because whether you won or lost, you still needed Rails/Django on the server, and SQL or C++/Java on the backend.

Sometime between 2009 and 2015, Javascript became a tribe, where you could invest enough of your life in it that discussions about it became a matter of identity. And its growth became threatening enough to other programming "tribes" (eg. Windows programmers, Rails programmers) that you could suddenly have very heated discussions about it on the Internet.

>In 2009, virtually nobody considered themselves a "Javascript programmer".

I'm guessing the "Javascript is my identity" era began with Nodejs. Before 2009, Javascript was something that was "tolerated" because it just came with all the browsers. Back then, having any point of pride in being a "Javascript programmer" would be a little weird as if a homeowner proclaimed he was a "Panasonic keypad microwave programmer instead of a Samsung microwave programmer". Nobody cares what buttons you press to pop your popcorn. Likewise, the "Javascript" stuff was just something you had to do for interactive webpages.

However, for someone to have the audacity of duplicating the Javascript environment on the server side... that means subsequent programmers get to make an invested choice, which means... flame wars.

I don't consider Rhino nor other Javascript environments like Adobe Actionscript and Microsoft JScript as contributing to the "Javascript identity." It really seems like the Javascript apologia/evangelism was kicked off by Nodejs' popularity.

As a consequence, we see many "I'm leaving Nodejs for Go" and virtually zero "I'm leaving Rhino for Python".

To be fair, the JS world has changed considerably since 2009.

Agreed, though the explosion of desktop applications (that are bundled with a browser), although understandable, is annoying.

keep your identity to yourself ..until you're rich enough to be shielded from the consequences

Or at least until "rich" becomes your identity, then you defend your position.


This essay only works because Paul Graham is a white man in America, whose 'identity' is the presumed default in the society he lives in. Anything he makes a part of his identity, he gets to choose. If he chooses nothing, he has the luxury of being 'just normal' and gets to go through life thinking of himself as perfectly rational.

Sometimes you get to choose what you identify with. Other times, people choose for you. For instance, you don't get to wake up one morning and decide not to be black, or gay, or a woman. You don't get to simply shed those categories and avoid the increased violence that comes your way apropos of nothing.

I know, you're already thinking, "but this essay is about religion and politics!", but the thing is, for a lot of people, politics are not abstract.

I'm also a straight white cis guy living in America, and so I have the luxury of choosing or choosing not to support gay rights, or feminism, or racial justice. I can choose or choose not to make those things a part of my identity. In fact there's incentive for me to choose not to, because if the balance of power were re-arranged in society, and poverty and violence were more evenly distributed, my life might not be so easy.

But for a lot of people, making "politics" a part of their "identity" is a necessary defense mechanism, because the society we live in implicitly sanctions violence against anybody who shares characteristics of their identity they can't do anything about.

"Politics" is not some separate sphere you can disconnect yourself from. Politics are embedded in everything. Choosing not to "identify" with any political orientation is implicitly choosing society's defaults, and those defaults implicitly condone a specific power structure and make acceptable a certain amount of violence against certain people.

Couldn't you simply believe that for yourself, your biggest contribution to humanity is not politics? Plenty of people are plainly worried about it and discussing it in great detail. Why should everyone be bound to the same goals when their marginal contribution is just that.

This is not to say that you shouldn't participate if you feel compelled to, but unless you have an issue, isn't it mostly just a waste of time? What if you want to enjoy life and not feel angry all the time? If you have options, does that mean you should never ever exercise them in solidarity with those who have fewer?

Does not PG's advice apply to people without the ability to choose some aspects of their identity given that they have a universe of other traits they do have control over? Sure, one may be a dominant problem, but you can help yourself out by not adding more problems to your problems.

What I wanted to say upon reading this article, and you laid it out quite nicely. Thank you.

P.S., if you're in San Francisco:

>On Thursday morning, a San Francisco police sergeant shot and killed a woman who was driving a suspected stolen car near the Bayview neighborhood, officials said. There was no immediate indication that the 27-year-old woman had a weapon or was trying to run down the sergeant before the shooting, police said.

There's a vigil tonight at 8:30 at Shafter Ave and Elmira Street in San Francisco, and if you're nearby and you're reading this, you should be there.

As a rule, any mention of religion on an online forum degenerates into a religious argument. Why? Why does this happen with religion and not with Javascript or baking or other topics people talk about on forums?

Um, Graham is more than a little off here.

Like, by a country mile.

Is he though? Questions on the most performant way to iterate over something rarely result in flame wars.

I believe you are thinking of people arguing over JS frameworks or whether JS sucks or not. Both are identity related.

When it comes down to arguing the specific mechanics of comparing how framework X uses MVC vs how framework Y uses it, you don't see so much conflict because it is expertise, not identity driven.

Yes, he is. In fact he's SO off that he goes on to directly contradict himself later in the article:

> For example, the question of the relative merits of programming languages often degenerates into a religious war, because so many programmers identify as X programmers or Y programmers.

I doubt pg was off when he wrote that about Javascript in 2009. If it had been obviously untrue, he would have known it from moderating HN.

It doesn't much matter, though, because the important point holds: arguments about JS became more like religious arguments when people started to identify for and/or against being a JS programmer. The same could become true about baking; there's nothing stopping people from identifying with anything.

Agreed. I find it depends on how people go about talking about the subjects.

I think it has to do more with the potential impact it has on us and others. Not to mention how much broad appeal there is.

I don't know much about Javascript, but debates about how to properly use it aren't going to change a nation. Or the implication of someone's life, both now and after death.

People have a lot of opinions on baking. You don't need to be an expert to blog about it (e.g. probably 1/2 the mommy blogs out there). But again, who cares if you add organic cheese to your chili or sour cream? Very few. And most would remove it if not important.

Let's discuss text editors. Anyone?

I like, and frequently use, nano. There, I said it.

Now vim and emacs users can both mock my child-like ignorance of real text editing.

I will join in on the love for nano. If you are just doing simple things like editing config files it is all you need. I don't use vim often enough ever get really comfortable with it.

Perverse! Nano is actually more difficult to use than vi over time. Sad, but true. The first time you have to learn the arcane control-keys to search for something, you've already lost, because vim is approximately as arcane, but much faster.

I don't think I've ever had to search for anything in nano or vi to get a system into a state where I can use an editor with good ol' Ctrl-F. But then I'm not hot-patching a server over an acoustic coupler from a phone booth in rural Nevada, or whatever hardcore sysadmins do.

Death to Emacs! It's as arrogant as it is shoddy; it has a narrow provincial name for the Alt key, and it makes you learn Lisp in order to make it handle backspaces properly!

Also, you Limeys need to learn how to spell.

(There, that should get the conversational juices flowing...)

The "narrow [, [sic]] provincial name for the Alt key" is actually what it was once called. And backspace just works as expected in a unix environment.

> (There, that should get the conversational juices flowing...)

Sane people here know when to engage in a conversation, no trolling needed.

Upvoted this for the first part (noticing the information while missing the pointless quibble about comma use, which should have been a red flag), before I saw the second. A "take back upvote" option would be nice...

Well, I'm an emacs guy, because I've used it for 30 years, and the commands are burned into my fingertips by now. I'll admit that vi is more logical and easier to learn, though.

And I don't get "religious" about editors except in jest...

I think that's what it comes down to: vi is easier to learn, but emacs is much more powerful. My current job involves using a very esoteric in-house language, which doesn't have any IDEs or even Notepad++ text-formatting extensions; I'm thinking about learning emacs, which can be programmed relatively easily to become little less than an IDE for it.

(Speaking of, behold another holy war: IDEs versus command-line development...)

I'm a weirdo. I love visual studio and I love vim. Windows and Linux. Haskell and C#. Etc. I more I learn the less I think I know.

lol @ Vim users that have to write configuration files, memorize complicated keyboard shortcuts, and install 20 plugins just to be able to copy and paste text between files. It's 2016, try using a real editor like Atom.

(Am I doing it right?)

I use vim w/o plugins and with the stock configuration.

I frequently have two files open side-by-side.

If I want to copy the current line in the left file to the right file, the keystrokes are:

It's really not that hard to copy between files in Vim. :P

Yes, you certainly are -- you hateful covert Emacs advocate! I know what you're up to, you're trying to discredit the good editor so that you can quietly build up your overbuilt piece of crap! Atom is built on Emacs, isn't it?!

(/s. All the /s in the world.)

Atom? What is this, 2015? Sublime is still king, Atom was a passing fad.

A user who has been using vi[m] and emacs for 20+ years - what are you trying to say? Please don't tell me that I should just use the mouse and context menus, I'm so much faster with touch typing....

[EDIT: yes, I know both editors very well and have config files for both; does this make me "worse" than someone who has not taken the time to learn how to configure his/her editor?]

> (Am I doing it right?)

No, you're using Atom

Notepad++, anyone?

Yep. I don't think we need to even talk about JS, and I'm happy to point him to a few baking forum flame wars that are epic.

And his comment about the problem being a threshold for expertise is equally laughable. People feel perfectly happy to comment on anything catching their fancy, expertise or not. (Add to that Dunning Kruger...)

To be fair, he's not saying other topics don't have their major disputes. Just that they don't happen as often.

Just that they don't happen as often.

Again, have you read the spam online about different frontend frameworks?

I don't feel strongly either way about this. It isn't worth getting into an argument about.

You used 14 words to say what could've been said in 3 or 4.

This doesn't help when you aren't in your right mind.

Downvote away, but I speak from personal experience.

Whats funny is this theory pushes us to be more like computers. Less passion and more logic. Not to mention people on the Internet say and talk about options in forums reinforcing maybe a small part of ones identity. while in the real world you might get punched in the face. I still favor this theory but I would say spend less time on Internet interactions, so you don't have your personal held beliefs blossom into something more toxic for rational communication and real human connection. Being at the computer is a suit of idealogical armor and you can disengage from conversations like I am about to do.

> Less passion and more logic.

You can be more passionate and have more logic.

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