Exceptionalism & Identity

Identity_CirclesIdentity” is often used to mean “groups in which we are invested”.  To the right I have created in illustration of our expanding circles of identity. The adaptive advantage of forming identity — or allegiance to groups — is obvious: it enhances competition and cooperation. Though it may be useful to mentally feel allegiance to a group, such thinking also has a dark side: “Exceptionalism

“Exceptionalism” is a stance of superiority, feeling like the top of the pile, the best, the chosen, the destined and such.   Such feelings are prevalent because they are useful both in terms of internal happiness and security and outwardly in helping groups cooperate with each other or compete against other groups.  But truly identifying with any of these circles exposes Exceptionalisms obvious dark side.

Exceptionalism can be seen in all these identity circles.  I am presently reading Henry Gee’s book “The Accidental Species: Misunderstanding Human Evolution” where he brilliantly criticizes the common misunderstandings of evolution including the pervasive mistaken view that evolution is progressive (with humans on the top, of course).  That progressivism view becomes “Human Exceptionalism” which creates a huge blind spot in our religions by blocking insight into what I call “Roadkill Theology“.  But it is not just religious folks that abuse the delusion of progressivism and exceptionalism, we all do.

Other examples of Exceptionalism as related to the Identity circles:

  • Human Exceptionalism — blind spots in science, poor treatment of animals and our environment.
  • National Exceptionalism: American Exceptionalism : polluting our world: international interventionism, Manifest Destiny
  • Religious Exceptionalism: Christian Exceptionalism: an ugly concept (more later)
  • Self Exceptionalism: To view yourself as exceptional — see my “Self” index.

Note:   I could have added other important circles to the identity circles such as gender, race and ethnicity but the ugliness would have gotten crowded.

Question to readers:  Your thoughts on Exceptionalism and Identity?




Filed under Philosophy & Religion

3 responses to “Exceptionalism & Identity

  1. rautakyy

    Exeptionalism often leads to illusions of superiority, which is a very dangerous state of mind.

    When people refer to the exeptional position of us humans in evolution, I ask them, if they honestly think they live a better and more enjoyable life than a lion?

    The most extreme example of national exeptionalism were the nazies who believed to be some sort of superhuman race, even when there was no evidence what so ever (exept anecdotes) to back that up. Only because it pleased them. This is interresting in the sense how easily people believe stuff just because it pleases them. Perhaps nazism was a form of religion in that sense. All it required was faith.

    Religious exeptionalism seems like a very good mode for many religions to actually expand, because it often allows the adherents to treat pagans, infidels and heretics, whith no regard to human dignity.

    Here in Finland self exeptionalism, is often jokingly referred to as a person being exeptional “according to himself and his mom”. Any intelligent person should be able to recognize, that even though a person might be exeptional in some fields of life, nobody is exeptional in all of them and that being exeptionally good, does not grant you rights over others, but instead increases your responsibilities. But a person might be exeptionally stupid as well.

  2. I’ve always tried to see myself as one of the crowd, as not exceptional, though of course one cannot completely succeed at that.

    Looking at your identity circle diagram, I identify primarly as a member of humanity, and secondarily as a citizen of the nation. City/State don’t actually do anything for me — they are merely where I happen to live.

    Here are some that you missed.

    Workplace: I strongly identify as a member of the group “university community” — not a particular university, but universities in general.

    Profession: I strongly identify as a mathematician. I’ve been in a computer science department for several decades, but I still identify more as a mathematician than as a computer scientists. I guess I was already a mathematician at heart by age 12.

  3. CRL

    While your diagram is interesting, I think it (perhaps unintentionally) creates a false hierarchy. As Neil’s comment points out, people vary quite a bit in how they identify themselves, and while it might make sense to talk of family identity as being within city identity within state identity within national identity within human identity, it is not easy to place something like religious identity or workplace identity within this hierarchy. I might alter the picture to look something like a Venn diagram with circles of various sizes and overlaps around the self.

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