The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Construction of Reality: Who You Feel With

This is chapter 6 of “The Construction of Reality”, one of the rewards of our 2023 fundraiser. We’ve now unlocked up to chapter 11 (There are 41 chapters in the whole book.) We are c. $1,800 from our final goal and the final reward, an article on the Middle Ages Academic crisis (overproduction and collapse.) Chapters to come include

7. The Ritual (how we create identification)

8. Interaction ritual (how daily life creates identification and personality)

9.The Ritual Masters (How rituals create different types and classes of people)

10. The Ideologues (How identity is tied into story, ideology and meaning)

11. Reign of the Ideologues (How ideology is used to create civilizations and the payoffs for ideologues)


We’ve touched on identification. I often say that identity is “who you feel it with.” Your tribe; your people—but that definition is not wide enough. Identity is your emotional body, which extends far beyond your physical form.

Identity is, to paraphrase Lois McMaster Bujold talking about love, “when they are cut, I bleed.”(x)

We see this, in pure form, when there are terrorist attacks. Most people are far more upset by terrorist attacks against people they identify with. Iraqis may suffer near constant bombings, but Westerners rarely hear of them, and when they do, most shrug. There may be a small pang, but most Westerners do not bleed.

But when there is a big terrorist attack in the West, in Paris or London, or New York or Manchester, many westerners become very upset.

People like us. People like them.

People we identify with.

People we identify as.

Identification is sense of self. If I identify with you, you are part of my self and while it isn’t 1:1, I treat what happens to you somewhat as if it happens to me. If something is good for you; if it makes you happy, I too am somewhat happy.

If something is bad for you; if it makes you sad or hurts you, I too am sad.

If someone is hurt while I’m watching who I don’t identify with the pain I feel, which can be measured, is much less or even non-existent compared to someone I do identify with.

Imagine for yourself someone you love being hurt vs. a stranger. If you’re very honest and have good introspection skills, you can do this exercise by degrees. Someone you love, a friend, an acquaintance, someone like you, someone not like you, someone whose culture or nation you dislike, fear or hate.

And all through it, you can feel your suffering decline.

This is why slavery requires, for most, the denial that the slave is like the master. Slaves are not equal, or not even really human. This isn’t just about race, you see this in Plato’s insistence that slaves, often fellow Greeks, were meant to be slaves, not the equal of citizens like himself.

Whomever you enslave, whoever they are, must be made something other than you; something you don’t identify with. Not “someone” but “something”. This is for your protection, so you don’t suffer when they do: this is so you can make them suffer without hurting yourself.

The same is true of war, and why in almost all wars the enemy is treated as subhuman, evil and vile. To the extent your soldiers don’t believe that, they won’t shoot. To the extent your civilians don’t believe that, they won’t support the war.

All of this is sometimes acknowledged; you may well have heard or read all this before.

But identification goes far beyond people, to objects and ideas and fictional characters.

Anything that is part of our identity is treated as part of our self.

If I am Muslim and someone destroys my holy book, the Koran, I am likely to suffer. This is not theoretical suffering, it will show up on brain scans. If I am Christian and someone desecrates an altar, same thing (especially if it’s the altar of my home church.) If I strongly identify as American and with the flag, and someone burns the “star and stripes” I will suffer. Hearing someone denigrate a person I love can make me angry or hurt, and that can be true even if the person is fictional. (If you don’t believe me, please go to a comic book forum and say bad things about a beloved super hero.)

If my house is burned down, or my possessions stolen, I will feel hurt.

If I believe strongly in, say, the right of people to have a trial, a high profile case where someone doesn’t receive a trial may make me angry or hurt or scared.

If I believe that people have souls, I may get angry that someone denies they exist. And, as anyone who has dealt with hard-core atheists knows, if I strongly believe there are no souls, I may get angry at people who insist there are.

Being upset at someone saying “your belief is wrong” is very human, but it only happens if we identify with the belief. Unless you pride yourself on your time telling, you’re unlikely to be upset if you say “I think it is three” and someone else checks their watch and says “it’s four”.

Of course you might if they imply you’re stupid for not knowing it, but unless they bring your self into it, you’ll likely shrug.

Now, imagine a baseball fan who prides themselves on knowing all the statistics is told he has some statistics wrong. Not hard to imagine that he might take that as an attack.

Identification is not all negative. If I identify with the Red Sox baseball team and they win the World Series, I’m likely be ecstatic. If I identify with Christianity, and I say a Christian prayer, it will almost certainly make me feel better, and it will be much more effective at doing so than if I am not Christian.

When the flag is raised, if I am a patriot who identifies the flag with my country, I feel good. When the anthem is sung I feel good, and I feel connected to everyone else who sings. Are we not all citizens of this glorious country?

Identity is expanded self. Anything I identify with allows me to be happy or sad or proud or loving when without that identity, I would shrug.

This goes to extremes in spiritual circles. Not only is there identity with God in theistic religions, but there is radical non-identification. In Buddhism, for example, the first great stage of accomplishment (stream entry) requires that you stop identifying as your body.

Buddhists value this because if you don’t identify with your body, when it is hurt, you suffer a lot less. It’s not yours, it’s not you, and you feel the pain, but a lot of the suffering is gone. (You may also have experienced this under the effect of some drugs, due to great tiredness or hunger and so on.)

A vast amount of our construction of reality can only be understood through the understanding of identity, and identification. Great religions, nations, philosophies, family and war, all are impossible without identification.

If we want to change reality, one of the most fundamental ways is to change who and what we identify with. Create a new identity, and you create a new reality. Destroy an old identity, and you destroy an old reality.

So, how do we come to identify with things? How do we create symbols, like flags and anthems and Gods? How does it come to be that when someone pisses on a statue of my God I get offended; and when someone says “I love Captain America” I feel warm, because I identify with him (though not as him.)

It starts with the ritual.



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  1. Joan

    Fascinating, this has given me a lot to think about, thank you.

    Growing up during the Afghanistan and Iraq invasion, it was framed for me as some place far away with a crazy religion and their society is all a mess so we’re going to go fix it and bring them democracy. It wasn’t until I got to college that I was able to get an idea of how propagandized I was on that. But indeed, I reeled after the attacks on Paris, whereas it feels like something awful happens in the Middle East every five minutes. I felt bad for the people in the Middle East, human to human, but it’s not the same connection I felt when it was other Westerners.

  2. Purple Library Guy

    A fellow Bujold fan. Source of identification!

  3. mago

    The identity issue runs deep.
    There’s assumed, ascribed and adopted identity.
    Assumed and ascribed are what others identify as your identity. Skin color, gender, height, mannerisms of speech and movements along with cultural perceptions thereof.
    Adopted. Haha. I’m gay, a shemale, a Shabbat goy.
    It’s all confused and confusing. People don’t know who or what they are, chameleons shifting and blown about like leafs in the wind but ready to firmly defend their flimsily stances to the point of genocide and suicidal destruction.
    Identity. . .
    Ultimately it comes down to ego clinging, which is beyond a blog comment. . .

  4. zach

    “If we want to change reality, one of the most fundamental ways is to change who and what we identify with. Create a new identity, and you create a new reality. Destroy an old identity, and you destroy an old reality.”

    To what extent does reality inform one’s identity in your theory? Identity happens, then reality, or…?

    Why is it necessary to “destroy” an old identity in order to change reality? Is that even possible? Even on a computer hard drive, where you’d expect to be able to fully erase content or data, my understanding (and maybe it’s outdated or misinformed) is that data never really completely disappears.

    Wouldn’t it be more effective to add depth to the established identity through the imposition of conflicting worldviews/methodologies/traditions? That is, not “either/or” but “yes, and…?”

    And what happens when the identity set for destruction is the “human” identity itself? Do we call that bodhisattva, or do we call that antichrist?

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