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The Whole Human

The identity trap: Being less wrong

Doctor Manhattan. Ozymandias. Silk Spectre. The Comedian. Rorschach.

You may recognize them as names of characters in the famous comic book series Watchmen, but they’re more than that. They’re representations of different moral systems — or more broadly, identity systems — that people use to understand the world around them.

Each character sees reality in a certain way, and they make decisions accordingly. Other people with different worldviews to theirs either criticize or compliment them, and the series is an observation of this interplay.

Doctor Manhattan, for example, is a demi-god, and to him, the day to day matters of humans, quite often, seem beyond relevance. Trivial, even.

Ozymandias is sharp and strategic. He views humanity through a lens that zones out of subjective interpretations, preferring numbers and impact. Many see him as the villain because he is okay sacrificing millions of lives. But of course doing so saves many millions more, which he values highly.

Silk Spectre and The Comedian play big roles in driving the story and shaping the actions of other characters, but as representations of ideology, they are a little simpler: They’re a ying and a yang of optimism and pessimism.

This brings us to Rorschach, who is perhaps the most interesting of them all. He is also the character that many see as the hero of the series — he represents what a number of people today consider the ideal way of interacting with the world: namely, he is someone with strong, certain values and he sticks by those values no matter what.

I’m not here to give a philosophy lesson and nor do I have any strong opinion of which one of these moral systems is better than the rest. But I do want to dig a little deeper into the appeal of Rorschach, because his representation, I think, people often apply beyond just the moral domain and that frequently leads to a poor interaction with the world.

Rorschach is consistent and committed. But is that really such a good thing?

The trap of a systematic identity

Human beings are unreliable narrators who mistakenly think they are painting an image of self that corresponds to the reality they interact with.

We implicitly assume that our identities are static, and from there, we lead ourselves towards the only logical conclusion: the need for a systematic framework that anchors who we are so we can maintain this consistency.

We use the mask of specific values to draw perimeters — defining good and bad, right and wrong — and we then live our lives within them, just like Rorschach did at the end of Watchmen when he chose to die rather than compromise on his worldview.

In some ways, there really isn’t a clear path away from doing this. We all follow this pattern to one degree or another. The difference, however, is that some people can recognize the fact that having and maintaining a systematic identity is an illusion, one that leads to frequent missteps, and as a result, they can then correct course before it occurs.

What we call an identity is mostly a product of memory, and memory — as both science and history have consistently shown — is incredibly hazy and questionable. It’s not a map that accurately reflects the territory.

Think about the difference between how you viewed a big event in your past, with all its facts and feelings, versus how you view that same event now with different thinking patterns dominating your mind. Now consider how that may change again in 10 to 20 to 30 years.

This gap between the reality (that our identities are in constant flux ) and the mistaken fantasy (that rigidly confines them within the bounds of a particular systematic framework) causes us to make decisions that are neither in our own self-interest nor that of those around us.

Whatever your actual, objective identity is — if such a thing even exists — is always a step ahead of the frameworks you design to capture it, and this attempt at capturing drags with it a past that may no longer be relevant.

The world around you exists independently of the opinions of right and wrong that you enforce on it. Rorschach may have done something heroic and touching by showing courage as he refused to compromise on his principles, but if we step back a bit, this lack of compromise actually lead the world in a direction that he, himself, was fighting to avoid.

Always being consistent makes you inconsistent with the reality around you.

Learning to dance with chaos

Values and frameworks are best utilized when they are referenced as orienting generalizations — roughly right — rather than hard, fast truths.

One thing that a systematic identity overlooks is the feedback loop that exists between self (you and your identity) and other (the rest of the world).

In an increasingly chaotic reality, one that is becoming more and more difficult for us to comprehend, the solution isn’t to enforce more static interpretations on it; it’s to deal with it how it is asking to be dealt with — in a fluid way. If the world is constantly changing, we have to change with it.

Humans are the only animal that can plan to the extent they can, with all their lists, calendars, tools, frameworks, systems, and technologies. We use this planning to add order where there is none. But just because we can plan doesn’t mean that we should plan.

If there is anything that the 21st century is going to demand, it’s the ability to tighten that feedback loop between self and other so new information is openly evaluated and so that errors and mistakes are viewed beyond the confines of a biased, subjective identity defined by these same plans and frameworks. In other words, we have to learn to dance with chaos.

We can still respect our identity systems and our values, but we also have to develop the capacity to step outside of them when circumstances demand.

Commitment to a cause and consistency in action are both important and valuable until they suddenly aren’t. Being less wrong is about knowing when this change occurs so that you can adjust your frame of reference.

It’s a scary thing, dancing with chaos, because it goes against our instinct to do away with anything that resembles a threat, which is most often associated with things that are uncertain. So, instead, we create illusions of false certainty to feel at ease, not realizing that the real threat is still in front of us.

There are a dozen or so moving interactions that occur to create your conception of what is going on around you and what you need to do to act optimally, and these interactions aren’t always kind to a dated model that refuses to be left behind when it becomes incoherent.

Uncertainty, chaos, and complexity are always best dealt with in the moment because you can’t predict where they will lead before you’re near them.

In an ideal world, rather than heroically sticking to what he knew, Rorschach, instead, would have had the courage to look beyond his own ego and the self-importance it had attached to a worldview that no longer worked.

The takeaway

When we really break this down, the ability to correct mistakes and to be less wrong over time comes down to one thing: the capacity to embrace and understand the contradictions that arise in the world when they do.

When you believe one thing and reality tells you another, to self-correct, you have to first see the contradiction that has shown up. Similarly, when your identity is tied to one system and the world breaks it down, it’s this same contradiction that needs to be embraced before you can reconcile the pieces.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that the prior belief or the prior system is suddenly wrong in every situation. It just means that it has reached its boundaries. It still works in certain places (and you should use it there) but there is something else — something contradictory — that covers for where it falls short, and this something also has a truth that needs to be treasured.

Walt Whitman’s famous poem Song of Myself is written in the voice of a narrator who is more than a self — a transcendent self, one that is not only singular but also plural. Its most famous expression?

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The world around us is inconsistent, and whether or not we want them to be, so our identities. The way to fight this chaos isn’t by forcing it to conform to a pre-existing solution; it’s to live in a fluid and malleable way.

We are who we think we are, but we are also so much more than that. It’s on us not to dull this potential by rejecting whatever this more is.

Want to think and live smarter? Zat Rana publishes a free weekly newsletter for 30,000+ readers at Design Luck.

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