Defining ourselves arbitrarily

July 10, 2012

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

Robin Hanson writes that he does’t use slang:

I [Hanson] am not into slang. I want to talk to the widest possible audience, and to focus on timeless issues and insights, as opposed to the latest fashionable topics. I can see why people want to signal loyalty to their groups, especially in the military, but I have little confidence that this is good for the world as a whole.

I don’t know anything about the military (I don’t think this really counts) so I can’t comment on that part, and I don’t see the opposition between slang and “timeless issues and insights, as opposed to the latest fashionable topics” (after all, Mark Twain used slang and he had some timeless insights), but I’d like to pick up on a slightly different angle here, which is the set of quasi-arbitrary choices we make in order to define ourselves.

Robin Hanson happens not to use much slang and he uses this trait to define himself, not quite to stand out in the crowd but to put himself on one end of a scale. I wear nice clothes and a tie to work every day. I don’t have to, in fact it puts me on the fancy end of the dress scale at the university, it just feels appropriate to me. I think (with no particular evidence) that I’ll be effective if I dress-for-work for work, also I feel that it shows respect for students to dress in my “uniform.” And this ends up being part of how I define myself.

Thus, although I don’t buy Hanson’s analysis of what it means to use or not use slang—or, to be precise, I accept that these are Hanson’s motivations, I just don’t see them making any sense in general—I do feel I understand the meta-issue that it is convenient to define ourselves based on the somewhat (although not completely) arbitrary choices we make.

I’m pretty sure that some psychologists somewhere have studied this more systematically; the above is just my personal bloggy take.

P.S. I was amused (and slightly disappointed) that all the comments on this post have been on the definition of “slang” and nothing on my main point about our desire to define ourselves arbitrarily.

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