I can remember those first few years, always looking for blazers. I was a newly minted Ph.D., and I wanted to look professorial. I was a member of a category of people called “professors” or “academics.” I wasn’t trying to fake it. I was a legitimate member of this category in good standing.
But there were things about being an academic — what they think, do, and value — that set them apart. I wanted to embrace those things.
They like coffee, preferably from independently owned coffee shops. They buy organic food at farmer’s markets and talk about far-off places like Kazakhstan. They enjoy stage plays and Ken Burns documentaries on PBS. They are liberals, and some look down on Republican voters as being small-minded or bigoted. They drive to work listening to Fresh Air on NPR.
And blazers. Of course, they wore blazers.
I didn’t sit down one day and draw up a list. It was a relatively automatic and unconscious process of just being around other professors in graduate school and at conferences. And yes, these were some pretty broad generalizations. All academics, including myself, don’t do these things. But I took pride in being an academic, and these were things I thought were good.
I became such a devoted blazer wearer that I was getting them as Christmas presents from family.
That process plays out countless times for any number of social categories people find important. These categories include religious or political groups, occupations, civic or nonprofit organizations, and lifestyles. Other types of categories are racial and ethnic groups, genders and sexualities, or social class.
I am talking about the categories you incorporate into who you are as a person and build your identity.
The Korean American transgender sex worker who belongs to a hiking club may incorporate all four of those categories into her identity as a person.
On Social Identity
For the social scientist, identity means “the distinctive aspects of an individual’s character or the character of a group, which relates to their sense of self” (Giddens and Sutton 2021). We have an individual identity — what makes us unique, and several group identities — what makes us like others. We need both to make us fully human.
This understanding is a bit different than how identity is used in everyday parlance. When we hear the word identity in the media it is usually linked to identity politics and advocacy for racial and sexual minorities.
In everyday talk, people who advocate for transgender rights are playing identity politics. Meanwhile, other forms of advocacy — farmers advocating for farm subsidies or Christians advocating for faith-based initiatives — are seen as just politics as usual. However, many farmers and Christians identify as such and are supporting those policies based on that identity. They are playing identity politics too.
One of the prominent theories explaining how identities are formed is social identity theory (see brief explanations here and here). According to social identity theory, three cognitive processes go into building a social identity:
Social categorization — We place people, including ourselves, into social categories. I think of this as seeing an individual as a series of the categories they belong to. I would be seen as “man” + “professor” + “Black” + “Middle-Aged” + “Dodger’s Fan” and so on. Some categories matter more often. Me being a Dodgers Fan has less meaning and matters in far fewer situations than me being black.
Social identification — The identifying as a member of a group of people who fit into a category and then doing what we think others in that category do. In this way, we become a part of an in-group. This was me with the NPR, the coffee, and the blazers becoming a part of the in-group of academics. We gain self-esteem by identifying with a group and becoming one of them.
Social comparison — We evaluate the social standing of groups in comparison with relevant out-groups. To maintain self-esteem, we try and find ways of evaluation that favor our in-group. In most comparisons, my job as an academic compares favorably. But sometimes, like when I chat with a medical doctor who I know has higher status and a higher income, it doesn’t. Because I want my group to compare more favorably, I might find things that make my in-group “better” in comparison. So, I may say to myself that at least I have more autonomy or that I have more free time to self-actualize than the doctor (which is likely true.)
I would not say these processes are necessarily sequential but reciprocal. There is a continual back and forth process of re-categorizing, re-comparing, and re-identification throughout a person’s life.
Developing a social identity can be a healthy phenomenon. It allows people to build pride and a sense of belonging. It’s not all good, though.
A sense of “we” is necessarily paired with a sense of “they.” A valued in-group necessarily means there are one or more out-groups. These out-groups are ignored or, at worst, devalued. On the other hand, once you have developed an identification with a group and your self-esteem is tied up in that group, you are vigilant of threats to that group’s competence or social value.
In other words, where there is group identification, there is conflict.
Fewer Identities to Choose From
The number of categories that we have to build our social identities is dwindling. Important identity-building categories are increasingly becoming proxies for “left” and “right.” Additionally, categories that are not readily tied to left and right are becoming less capable of building one’s identity.
Consider these categories — “Christian,” “Educator,” “National Rifle Association (NRA) Member,” and “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) Member.” These social categories have become de-facto political categories. You are on the right if you strongly identify as a Christian and an NRA member, and you are on the left if you strongly identify as an Educator or a PETA member.
I am aware that these are generalizations. Some may say that many people who are Christian are on the left. But I am talking about social identity here. And aside from the raw numbers that consistently show white evangelical Christians and Catholics supporting republicans — even the morally questionable Donald Trump — one can see that in the public arena, folks who wear their religion on their sleeves are almost synonymous with “the right.” Because Christians are tightly linked to conservatism, devout liberal Christians may find less reason to adopt being a “Christian” as a part of their social identity.
You can apply this same reasoning to other categories. “Educators” are perceived to be on the left, and “law enforcement officers” — are perceived to be on the right. I already mentioned being an academic. This social category is linked to the left. Being a member of the NRA? The right. And so on.
Even racial categories work this way — at least for black or white. If a person strongly identifies as black, the chances are good that they will be on the left. Meanwhile, if a person strongly identifies as white, the chances are great that they will be on “the right.” I tweeted this idea out as I was writing this essay, and it got a lot of feedback. I believe that this happens for gender and sexuality to some degree. If you are transgender, for example, then you will likely be on the “left.”
Not all categories are this way, of course. Being an ultramarathoner — people who compete in races longer than the traditional 26-mile marathon — is not yet tied to politics. One can identify as an “ultramarathoner” and say things like “we ultramarathoners are a different, tougher breed of person”, and it has no political meaning.
But there are fewer of these identity-building, non-partisan categories. And this is the second part of the problem. Even if you wanted to identify with a non-partisan group, where are they? The first place one could look would be our occupations. To my knowledge, something like dentistry has not been politicized. But how important are these non-politicized occupations to identity building? Who says, “we dentists?”
The Big Smush
In the early 2000s, journalist Bill Bishop dubbed the increasing trend of Americans moving into neighborhoods of like-minded people “The Big Sort.” Bishop argued that this was not just about blue states and red states but instead about homogeneity at the micro-level of city or neighborhood. The trend that Bishop had given a name to has only intensified since then.
But I think something else is going on here in addition to the Big Sort. It is the collapsing or “smushing” together of many social identities into just two: “left” and “right.”
It is the Big Smush.
Remember that the process of building a group identity is three in number: assign ourselves to a group, adopt the characteristics of individuals in that group, and then compare ourselves favorably to people not in that group. It is a process that allows people to build self-esteem and community. The Big Smush is constraining our freedom in building self-esteem and community by only presenting two possible options for group identity — left or right, liberal or conservative.
When two massive identity groups engulf so many lifestyles, occupations, ethnoracial groups, and gender identifications under their respective tents, we have the creation of communicative chaos. All people must fit into one of the two categories. You must identify with one of these two categories — if not, people will do the identifying for you. All issues in society are points of comparison, and the side that one identifies with must compare favorably for that issue.
The Big Smush is the primary reason why we have so much “with us or against us” thinking and “both sidesism.”
We can think about the “with us or against us” problem by analogizing it with our two-party system. Think about how moderate Republicans who find the racist ravings of the far-right reprehensible but tolerate them for party unity, or moderate Democrats who are appalled by a notion of defunding the police but still must ally themselves with progressives. The moderates, even with disagreements, must support the general goals of the political party they identify with. If they do not support the party, like many moderate Republicans found out, they will be cast out when they did not support Donald Trump.
You are either with us or against us.
The structure of our political system necessitates these compromises and constraints, and some may say this all-or-none structure keeps our democracy stable. The problem with a smushed world is that this structure is applied across various issues and everyday activities. Almost everything has become an occasion to reprimand or expel someone from the in-group.
I have personal experience with this. I have received much flack over my views on men’s issues from my lefty friends. My interest in the plight of men runs counter to their expectations. My focus should be on patriarchy and sexism and their damaging impact on women. That’s what “we” on the left do. By breaking from orthodoxy, I am reprimanded. Some have even done the social media version of expelling me by unfollowing.
I do not believe that this is unique to the left. If someone on the right speaks accurately about critical race theory — namely that it is a fabricated issue and no one is teaching to hate white people — they will get reprimanded just as I was.
The problem is that too many things are “smushed” into left and right issues. Groups will constantly police their members. There is no way around that. But if the groups encompass so much of our social life, it becomes an ideological straightjacket.
It is conceivable that the arguments over men’s issues need not require a political framing. This could be an issue primarily of concern to counselors and therapists (men have higher suicide rates and poorer educational outcomes). There is no reason for this to be about patriarchy or a danger to women and become a left-and-right issue where one must follow the lefty party line. Similarly, conversations around critical race theory could have just been between educators and parents. They could have negotiated — in a non-partisan way — a balance between classroom content and the values parents want to be instilled in their children (see my writing about this issue here).
In a smushed world, you are either with us or against us — for everything.
A second problem is both-sides argumentation, the tendency to assert that both liberals and conservatives commit the same sins. According to social identity theory, our self-esteem is tied to the social esteem of our group. Accusations of wrongdoing for “us” can be countered by saying the “other side” does the same thing. This balances the scales.
For example, it can be argued that both the left and the right are guilty of attempting to cancel people. But saying both sides attempt to cancel ignores the fact that those attempts are far more prevalent with younger, highly educated people. These folks are the most sensitive to people’s words and see these words as a form of violence. They are also more likely to be aware of the many ways oppression manifests itself, including in the ideas that people present publicly. In short, they are “woke,” and that puts them clearly on the left. The left attempts to cancel far more than the right.
Similarly, accusations of grifting abound online, with people arguing that both sides are guilty. That is not how I see it. Grifting is clearly a problem that is far more prevalent on the right. Prominent voices on the left tend to be in institutions providing them with economic stability. They tend to have carved out careers before they gained prominence with their books or media appearances. There is less of an incentive to pander to an audience for income. Moreover, being members in good standing of those institutions has a normative effect on their public actions, mitigating any desire to stretch the truth or be outrageous. There are far fewer Andy Ngos, James Lindsays, or Steven Crowders on the left.
The point here is that there are no “two sides” to either of those issues. A group of people in this country are more likely to attempt to cancel. Another group of people is more likely to grift. In a “smushed” world, we can’t get to that conclusion. Our side must compare favorably.
Trying To Unsmush Myself
I don’t wear blazers as much as I used to. One reason is that I care less about looking professorial. Another reason is that my identity as an academic has been “smushed” into my identity as a lefty. I no longer gain a sense of community from being an “academic” or a “sociologist,” although I will defend my profession and discipline from attacks by conservatives.
Instead, I gain a greater sense of community from exhibiting my support for social issues and having that support validated on social media. I have several online friends — all lefties, who I am more than happy to support as they point out the defects and moral failings of antiwokes and conservatives.
I suspect this has happened to many people in American society in many ways. A football fan finds himself less interested in identifying as a “49ers fan” and instead is drawn deeper and deeper into unwanted conversations about kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner. A person on Twitter who wants to see herself as a “small business owner” tweets out her concerns about customers not wearing masks. She then must weather a barrage of nasty comments from anti-vaxxers. These people, and countless others, become drawn into a culture war where they must choose a side and make that side their primary social identity.
This is not a good thing, and I don’t have any answers. But I think I have identified the right question: how can we make other social categories more important in the lives of Americans? If we can do that, then maybe we can unsmush ourselves.
Giddens, Anthony and Philip W. Sutton. 2021. Essential Concepts in Sociology. Polity Press, Medford MA.