If you’ll indulge me for a moment: “Identity,” variously defined, has been one of humanity’s most vexing problems from the get-go.

Is the world we perceive, the world as it actually is? How reliable are our perceptions? For that matter, how reliable is the perceiver? If we can’t trust our senses when it comes to external objects — and we all know how shaky our senses can be — then how can we trust them when they report to “us” (whatever that is) on our internal states? Ever had what the docs call “referred pain“? The pain, at least, is real, though it doesn’t necessarily hurt at the site of the injury. Ever felt mad when what you really are is scared? Nothing, it seems, is reliable. Nothing is stable.

I’m not qualified to take you on a tour of the history of epistemology, but please, bear with me, there’s a point coming. Whatever the world really is, and whatever we really are, human social life is impossible without the consensus that our senses are reliable enough, and our own identities persistent enough, to keep the peace.* The law “comprehends,” as I think the legal term d’art is, the fact that our senses aren’t always reliable. If you kill the knife-wielding maniac in self-defense, it doesn’t matter, legally speaking, that the maniac’s “knife” was really a stage prop. You had every reason to believe he intended you grievous bodily harm, and had the ability to carry it out. In a sane world, no jury would convict you.

Moreover, the law also comprehends the fact that our senses can be completely deranged. Maybe the knife-wielding maniac was trying to kill you because he had a psychotic break, and he really, truly believed you were the Devil, come to steal his soul. In those circumstances, no one would be at fault — the maniac can’t be held legally liable for his assault on you, because he’s insane; you can’t be held legally liable for shooting him, because self-defense. Everyone involved made a series of snap judgments that involve all kinds of tricky epistemological concepts. The jury, of course, is making more considered judgments, but they’re still dealing with the same deep underlying philosophical issues…

…or, you know, not. Not even the sleaziest defense attorney in history would think to call a philosophy professor to the stand, to befuddle the jury with a lecture on “the problem of other minds.” There are two words in the phrase “common sense,” and both of them are crucial. “Common” means “accessible to every normal person.” “Sense” means something like “the assumption that our senses report accurate information about a real physical world in a systematic way.” Whether or not there really are “other minds,” whether or not there’s really a “phenomenal” world out there or just a “noumenal” one, etc., doesn’t matter. We might actually be brains in a jar, a la The Matrix, but we social life is impossible without the common sense that we are real beings in a real world whose minds all function basically the same way most of the time.

The problem is: Modern life calls all that into question. And I don’t mean in some gassy Frog bullshit Postmodern way, either, a la Baudrillard. I mean the stuff of everyday experience.

Consider the Basic College Girl. By the time I finally pulled the plug on my academic career, I was “teaching” “students” who had no real concept of a test. Put simply but not at all unfairly, the infamous No Child Left Behind legislation of 2002 mandated that henceforth, all children in America shall be above average. Seriously. The notion of “adequate yearly progress” means that more children must pass The Test each year, and since The Test supposedly represents minimum competence, the number of “competent” students, like the GDP in a communist economy, must constantly grow.

Commissars being what they are, and parents being what they are, pretty soon ALL “grades” worked like that. It’s pass/fail, all or nothing. If it’s not an A, it’s an F. And, of course, conversely — if it’s not an abject failure, then it’s perfect.

See what I mean? Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the very real problem of professors not knowing how to grade papers. Even if I could give a student a 462 bullet point checklist** for turning that C- into a B+, it wouldn’t matter. From the BCG’s perspective, the checklist is a category error. For her, as we’ve seen, it’s binary — total perfection or abject failure. I might as well try telling her “this is a decent start, but it needs a lot of work” in Tagalog for all the good it’ll do.

She has grown up in a world where the Powers That Be let you re-take “tests” until you get the grade you want, so long as each attempt “shows improvement.” I’m dead serious. It’s so common that I had to put it in my syllabus: Exams in this course are one-shot deals.

Think about that for a second. For me, the professor, an A paper is one that shows not just mastery of the material, but real thought — a student using the information she’s learned in class to explore new (to her, at least) ideas and draw new (ditto) conclusions. To her, an A paper is just a series of hoops to jump through — how many times do I have to resubmit this, “showing improvement,” before this fucking jerk finally just gives me my fucking A? The one I deserved the first time?

Flip all the way back to that “identity” stuff at the top of the column. See what I mean about everything losing coherence? I, the professor, approach my subject as a body of knowledge: a set of agreed-upon facts; a set of universally-valid methods; the combination of which is, by definition, self-correcting — the agreed-upon facts are agreed upon because they were discovered by the universally valid methods. To the “student,” though, my subject is just marks on a Scantron, or lines in a blue book — what words do I have to write down, in what order, to pass The Test?

I don’t even think I’m joking when I say I could’ve gotten Basic College Girls to turn in “essays” about how Adolf Hitler taught Michael Jackson to moonwalk at Barney the Dinosaur’s bar mitzvah. I stopped making jokes in class the first time I got a midterm essay arguing that Fabius Maximus was on Team Edward, but Hannibal was on Team Jacob. By the end of my run, I was just reading from my own powerpoints like the worst caricature of a burnt-out professor, because I knew everyone was simply recording what I said on their iPhones… after which they’d use the voice-to-text feature to spit it back at me, verbatim, on the “exam.”

For the Basic College Girl, then, what’s real is what gets a reaction. I’ve written many times about how they’d lie straight to your face, for any reason or no reason at all (that I could figure out). I mean, why not? Similarly, why not accuse someone of making “problematic statements,” or sexual assault, or anything else, if it gets you what you want?

Did it really happen? See above: The very idea of something “really happening” out there in some vague “real world” is a category error. There are no “facts,” only statements written in blue books. Statements in blue books aren’t “true,” or “false;” they’re only “effective” or “ineffective.” The effective words in the effective order gets the desired reaction. And if you don’t get the desired reaction the first time, try different words in a different order.  Lather, rinse, repeat, until you get what you want.

Take it out a step further. If that’s their world, then what, ultimately, are they? Most of us have never spent a second noodling over questions of epistemology and ontology, but we — meaning, those of us born before about 1980 — have a “common sense” understanding of the world. We are real entities operating in a real world, interacting with other people who, though often mysterious, are nonetheless as real as we are. And because they’re as real as we are, we understand, at least intuitively, that getting them to do what we want is much easier if we do what they want. We might not have a pat answer to the famous “problem of other minds,” but we’re able to manipulate (in the purely mechanical sense) “other minds” all the time. We exist, and we know we exist, only because they exist.

I’m terrifyingly sure that, in some very real way, we don’t exist to the BCG. She doesn’t see me, the professor, as a person. I’m just a hoop to jump through, no different, really, than filling in the blanks on the college admission form. Put down the effective words in the effective order to get an A, and then, poof! “I,” the professor, vanish in a puff of irrelevance.

The old joke — “old” here meaning “relevant to those born before c.1980” — is that there are certain comely coeds who will do anything to pass the class. It’s not a joke anymore, though not in the way you oldsters are thinking. In all my years of teaching, I never had a student even hint at trading so much as a dollar, let alone anything else, for a certain grade. But here’s the truly terrifying part: I’m certain they would’ve done it. I’m quite sure I could’ve gotten more than one student to do any damn thing I wanted, had I come right out and said it: “Do ___, and I’ll give you an A.” The BCG, of both sexes and all however-many genders, is brutally instrumentalist in all things.

The only reason she never suggested it to me is: It never occurred to her. If I’d said “give me a hundred bucks and I’ll give you an A,” she’d have understood immediately. Would’ve been relieved, in fact — this asshole finally just told me what to write in the blue book! But figuring out that $100 (or whatever) might tempt me would mean regarding me as a real person, with real wants and needs and desires. It doesn’t compute.

This, more than anything else, explains SJWs. What’s real is what gets a reaction. Getting a reaction is the only way they know they’re real. It’s the endpoint of Postmodernism, the terminal stage of the disease. If they can be fixed, the only way to do it is by bringing back personal identity, which starts by bringing back sincerity.



*This is the fons et origo, as philosophy types say, of the Left’s famous “____ is just a social construction” mantra. A simple statement like “John stole the bread to feed his hungry children” is hellaciously “problematic,” from a philosophical point of view. Pretty much every single word in that sentence can be — and, critically, has been — subjected to withering scrutiny by very powerful intellects. But for human life to exist, we have to have a more-or-less consistent, stable, common-sense notion of what all those terms mean. But… what if we’re wrong?

** A little something for the old-skool Players out there.

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6 thoughts on “Identity

  1. texinole

    “It’s so common that I had to put it in my syllabus: Exams in this course are one-shot deals.”

    I believe you and all, but, damn, I don’t believe you. It’s, as usual, worse than my cynical ass thought. Like the % of job candidates that have their parents involved in interviews…the numbers are staggering and depressing.

    1. WOPR

      I have trouble comprehending it as well. In my journey from elementary through to HS in the 70’s and 80’s, you could see the rot though. Interestingly, I was lucky to have a bunch of old school teachers. So, in 4th grade, the teacher simply told us to ignore the New Math in the text book and do it the normal way. In 6th grade, out WWII combat vet principal was so ticked with our math performance that he made everyone take a timed test where if you missed one you flunked the test. English teachers in HS actually taught you how to structure a paper, i.e. the inverse pyramid. One of the math teachers discussed how when he started, the kids wanted to put their desks together to do the tests together and he had to put a stop to that. The excellent science teacher had gotten her teaching certificate when she was 18 and still teaching. We had a kid in HS transfer in from one of the big city schools to our school in the cornfield. He was bragging about his straight A’s. Reality soon hit him that he hadn’t learned much.

      Anyways, I hear what Sev is saying. I simply cannot process it. At some point, such people can only be slaves, driven by the whip.

  2. Southern Belle

    In grad school I had a mentor who explained that there is no reality, only perception. It blew my mind! I had always believed that there was a reality, only people who had the wrong end of the stick. It got me thinking, but I’m still not sure I grasp all the nuances of the concept. I can apply it. A crime is committed with several eye witnesses. The investigator is puzzled because each one gives a different description of the same assailant. After scratching his head a few times, he decides to go to the scene at the time the offense occurred to get a lay of the land. What he finds is this: a plexiglass partition at a bus stop, and depending on where you stand, colors change in the light. So one witness saw a brown-haired man while another saw a blonde and so forth. Each witness had his own reality of the same event.

    1. Severian Post author

      I love that kind of thing.

      For the benefit of those still in undergrad (assuming a few of y’all still wander in here from time to time), here’s how you can tell if someone is raising a serious philosophical issue, or just bullshitting for tenure: How do they handle change?

      Three different people give three different descriptions of the murderer. One guy saw a redhead wearing a black hoodie, 5’10”, maybe 180 lbs. Another one saw a blonde in a gray hoodie, 6′, 220. A third saw a guy with light brown hair, 5’8″, 160, wearing a jacket and ball cap. Which one is the “real” murderer?

      For our purposes, it’s irrelevant. The relevant question — to determine whether or not your prof is making a serious philosophical point, or just bullshitting — is: Do we all agree that there’s a dead body on the ground?

      Your “Idealist,” whether Subjective, Objective, or Postmodernist (don’t worry about it; it’s a distinction without a difference) really wants to argue that since there’s no “murderer,” there’s therefore no “murder.” Perception is reality for these clowns, so if there was such a thing as a “murder,” there’d be three different “murderers,” and since this isn’t an Agatha Christie novel, ha ha, that’s impossible. This position, crudely but not unfairly, is the Strong Programme [sic] in the Sociology of Science… and it’s how you end up with things like the Sokal Hoax, where you get a bunch of Literature professors telling a working physicist that gravity is just a social construction.

      Raise the question of the body lying dead on the pavement to one of these jokers, and they’ll blow you off, the same way they blew Sokal off (nobody resigned in disgrace after publishing Sokal’s paper; all of them are still pulling six figures in their tenured teaching jobs).

      Your real philosopher, on the other hand, will use the opportunity to talk about epistemology. He might deny that there was, in fact, a murder, since cause and effect are just linguistic conventions (your professor is David Hume in this case), but he won’t deny the body on the floor. Nor will he deny that IF causality exists, then someone must’ve stabbed it…

      And so forth. But if this is coming up in a college classroom in the first place, all you really have to do is shout “Black Lives Matter!’ and you’ll get free As for life.

      1. BadThinker

        Are you secretly Thomas Barlow? His ‘social justice’ character throws herself from a window at the beginning of his story, A Theory of Nothing.

        “All men and women have a moral obligation to achieve the highest state of autonomy possible. I am opposed to the soulless and frigid constraints imposed upon us all by the laws of science. I object to the disempowering and disenfranchising consequences of mathematical representations of life, energy, matter, and our universe. There is but one power to which I can yield a heart-felt obedience: the decision of my own understanding, the dictate of my own conscience.”

  3. Maus

    I react, therefore I am. So, a couple reactions:
    1) Common sense is the only way to navigate our world, fraught as it is with faulty perceptions and epistemological uncertainty. I have always enjoyed the anecdote about Samuel Johnson’s earthy response to Bishop Berkeley’s immaterialist philosophy. He is said to have kicked a rock and uttered, “I refute it thus.”
    2) Deans are implacable assholes who delight in placing front-line instructors on the horns of a dilemma. I recall with particular irony my first and last conversations with mine. At the start of my academic dalliance, circa 2008, I was told in no uncertain terms that I was to avoid giving too many “A” grades. Apparently that had been a great failing of my predecessor. Jump ahead a year or so, and I am told that regretably my contract will not be renewed for the Fall semester because I have too many “negative” student reviews. The chief complaint, that despite being a good lecturer, I was a tough grader. It seems a “B” or “B+” is simply beyond the pale in an upper division course required for the major. This whole experience taught me that as much as I loved the subject, I loathed the students. And podunk State U. exists for the student (i.e. fee-paying consumer), not the canon.

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