I don’t like Bach. – Uttered in a conversation amongst academics, this sentence will make you stand out. I remember some occasions when that remark was met with a blank stare. When the conversation was sincere, however, people would go on and ask for reasons. Now you might think this is just highbrow party talk, and I won’t blame you. But it does have a crucial side-effect: it shapes my identity. The idea behind this assumption is that personal identity is crucially shaped by what psychologists call distinctiveness. Put crudely, distinctiveness is what distinguishes you from other individuals. So in a group of people who are likely to like Bach, expressing my dislike will probably set me apart. If you still think this is a concept of snobbery rather than identity, just think about your youth or even childhood, when expressing dislike was vital for building some first if perhaps shaky foundations of an identity. How and why did you choose your football team? Were you a Beatles or Stones person? Star Wars or Star Trek? Closer to home: continental or analytic? Of course not all identity markers are attained by expressing dislike. After all, expressing dislike is an expression of a preference. But in a highly homogenous environment, expressions of dislike clearly help carving out your niche, for better or worse. In what follows, I want to do two things: firstly, I’d like to explore this feature of identity formation a bit more; secondly, I would like to suggest that this feature might be relevant for explaining why many of us, not least philosophers, are attracted by disagreements so much.
Discovering and inventing yourself. – Admittedly, it took me quite a while to get from my Bach statement to identity formation. It was triggered by a chat about a boy who had recurrently expressed dislike of a certain kind of music, knowing very well that doing so would leave him hugely unpopular. Why does he do this, I wondered. I tried to imagine myself doing that and hit upon the Bach statement. But obviously, my Bach statement involved no social risks (at least none that are known to me). So I had to go back in time, to my adolescence: What makes you stand out, for better or worse, amongst a bunch of rock or classical guitarists? Right, jazz! What makes a fourteen-year-old stand out among their friends? Right, reading some philosophy. What makes your three-year old daughter stand out at an harmonious dinner table? Right, throwing a tantrum and knocking a glass off the table. The degrees of dislike and authenticity may vary. Some acts might not be continued; some might be mere experiments, but my hunch is that they figure in building distinctiveness and thus in determining personal identity.
Social functions of expressing preferences. – That said, I doubt that determining personal identity is an end in itself. Distinctiveness is embedded in social relations. Speaking from the now somewhat remote inside of my teenage head, a preference or dislike could be determined in several ways. Role models’ statements would often inspire me to try whether I liked something, too. In this case, I would hope for similarity with the role model. My parents, at least back in the day, often inspired the opposite. I guess one reason for that is that my parents wanted me to be “normal”, but building distinctiveness is all about being unusual. Or to quote from a pertinent psychology paper: “You are what makes you unusual”. While people’s expressions of preferences could inspire or help me in discovering my own preferences, such expressions also helped in building friendships. If you find yourself at a party disliking the music, you might be happy to find a companion sharing your dislike. Now you can mutually acknowledge how special you are. – But while expressions of preferences or dislike help building identity in social relations, they are also value judgements. And since such judgments are linked to our identity, they can feel empowering or hurtful. It might not hurt to hear that I dislike Bach, but if an esteemed music professor speaks to an aspiring pianist it might make all the difference.
From dislike to disagreement. – Seen as a type of judgment, expressions of dislike can be part of a disagreement. If it is true that we strive for distinctiveness, then initiating a disagreement is an obvious tool, especially in a highly homogenous setting such as an academic exchange. Perhaps this partly explains the adversarial culture in philosophy. I was once told that a straightforward way to become famous among philosophers would consist in defending an absurd thesis. Although this was rightly meant to be taken with a grain of salt, it makes even more sense in view of the identity-forming function of disagreement. But if such claims are also linked to our identity, then we should bear that in mind when expressing our disagreement.
Given that such claims can be quite empowering or hurtful, it is not surprising that certain discussions, especially on social media, often quickly get emotionally heated. If we strive for distinctiveness and try to achieve this partly by expressing dislike, then expressions of dislike or disagreement are often linked, in one way or another, to our social identity. Expressions that signal virtues to our in-group might be seen as vices by an out-group member. Arguably, social media facilitate (perhaps even encourage) expressions of distinctiveness. So we’re much more likely to find similarity (e.g. through ‘likes’) as well as disagreement and dislike, and along with it all the empowerment or hurfulness involved.