Keeping a Small Identity

One of the most wonderful articles I have ever read in my life is Paul Graham’s Keep your identity small.

The summary of his argument is that discussions about religion and politics draw heated debates while most other topics do not. Why? Because we make one choice as part of our identity. Once we make something as part of our identity, most of the reason and unbiased analysis goes out of the window. What remains is our matched filtered bits we have selectively chosen to boost our intellectual ego.

Below is an excerpt from his article.

Do religion and politics have something in common that explains this similarity? One possible explanation is that they deal with questions that have no definite answers, so there’s no back pressure on people’s opinions. Since no one can be proven wrong, every opinion is equally valid, and sensing this, everyone lets fly with theirs.


I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people’s identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity. By definition they’re partisan.

Later, he provides a solution.

Keep your identity small

If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

This is a step beyond tolerance. Tolerance is having a strong opinion about something but still respecting opinions of those who differ. An open mind has the ability to entertain different possibilities at the same time. Long ago, Aristotle said something quite similar: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

One way to keep our identity small can be learned from a child. If we get curious about things instead of considering ourselves too knowledgeable about them, we can think about any matter and enter any discussion with an attitude to learn and discover new angles and points of view. This process of discovery is a joy in itself that takes us through a deep ride and opens hidden facets of the problem at hand. On the other hand, no one can fill a cup that is already full — a fate that befalls those who overvalue themselves.

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