On Irrational Identities

(Excerpt from Chapter 10 of Madness and the Demand for Recognition. OUP, 2018)

In Chapter 7 I raised and examined the distinction between failed and controversial identities. I began by pointing out that every demand for recognition – all gaps in social validation – involves the perception by each side that the other is committing a mistake. Given this, I formulated the question we had to address as follows: how do we sort out those mistakes that can be addressed within the scope of recognition (controversial identities) from those that cannot (failed identities)? The implication was that a failed identity involves a mistake that cannot be corrected by revising the category with which a person identifies, while a controversial identity involves a mistake that can, in principle, be corrected in that way. The issue I am concerned with here is no longer the identity-claim as such but the validity of the collective category itself; the question is no longer ‘what kind of mistake is the person identifying as x implicated in?’ but ‘is x a valid category?’. This question features as an element of adjudication for the reason that some social identities can be irrational in such a way that they cannot be regarded as meriting a positive social or a political response. As Appiah (2005, p. 181) writes:

Insofar as identities can be characterised as having both normative and factual aspects, both can offend against reason: an identity’s basic norms might be in conflict with one another; its constitutive factual claims might be in conflict with the truth.

For example, consider members of the Flat Earth Society if they were to identify as Flat-Earthers and demand recognition of the validity of their identity. They may successfully demonstrate that society’s refusal to recognise them as successful agents incurs on them a range of social harms such as disqualification. Yet it is clear that their identity does not merit further consideration and this for the reason that it is false: Earth is not flat. A similar predicament befalls some Creationists; Young-Earth Creationists, for example, believe that Earth is about ten thousand years old and was created over a period of six days, a belief that stands against all scientific evidence. It is not unreasonable to suggest that neither the Flat-Earthers nor the Young-Earth Creationists ought to have their identity-claims taken seriously, as the facts that constitute their identities do not measure up to what we know to be true, given the best evidence we now possess. To put it bluntly, whatever else might be at stake between us and the Flat-Earthers or Young-Earth Creationists, the shape of the Earth, its age, and the emergence and development of life on it are not.

Who does ‘us’ refer to in this context? To those who regard scientific rationality as an important value to uphold in society. By scientific rationality I mean an epistemological and methodological framework that prioritises procedural principles of knowledge acquisition (such as empirical observation, atomisation of evidence, and non-metaphysical, non-dogmatic reasoning), and eschews substantive convictions about the world derived from a sacred, divine, or otherwise infallible, authority (see Gellner 1992, p. 80-84). In rejecting the demands of Flat-Earthers and Young-Earth Creationists, we are prioritising the value of scientific rationality over the value of an individual’s attachment to a particular identity. We are saying: we know that it matters to you that your view of the world is accepted by us, but to accept it is to undermine what we consider, in this instance, to be a more important value. Note that such a response preserves the value of free-speech – Flat-Earthers and Young-Earth Creationists are free to espouse their views. Note also that refusing to accord these identities a positive response is a separate issue from taking an active stand against them (an example of the latter would be government intervention to ban the teaching of creationism in schools).[1] What we are trying to determine here is not who should receive a negative response but who is a legitimate candidate for a positive one. Owing to the irrationality of their constituting claims, Flat-Earthers and Young-Earth Creationists are not.

At this point in the argument someone could object to the premise of assessing the rationality of identities. They could object on two grounds: they could say there is no stance from where we can make such assessments; or they could say that even if such a stance exists and it is possible to determine the rationality of an identity, such a determination is always trumped by the demand for recognition and by individuals’ attachment to their identities. Both positions could further argue that as long as an identity is neither trivial nor morally objectionable, it ought to be considered for a positive response. We can recognise in the first position a commitment to cognitive relativism; in the second position we can recognise an extreme form of liberal tolerance. Both positions are problematic…

[1] For an example of what an active stance would look like in such cases and the problems it raises, see Appiah (2005, pp. 182-189) for an ingenious thought experiment based in the mythical Republic of Cartesia. The regime in Cartesia encourages the creed of hard rationalism and actively seeks to transform any deviations from rationality among its citizens.