“That's Not A Personality, Sweetie”

The Flattening of Culture and Flattening Culture

Yesterday, I read Matt Yglesias’s critical piece on Tema Okun’s anti-racism training materials that have been used in various progressive organizations and schools district. Basically, these materials contain extremely crude, reductive, and unhelpful ideas about what it calls “white supremacy culture,” identifying it with certain habits and dispositions, like “worship of the written word,” “objectivity,” and “perfectionism.” As Yglesias points out, some of them are, in fact, non-virtuous and counter-productive ways of approaching life and work, but they are not intrinsically connected to any race or racial ideology.

In fact, Okun’s materials are arguably deeply offensive: with a slightly different emphasis, they sound like they could’ve been written by a white nationalist because they suggest only “white supremacy culture” inculcates fastidiousness, precision and a concern with logic and objectivity, something that sounds suspiciously like actual white supremacist propaganda that connects “civilization” necessarily with whiteness. As Yglesias says, the categories proposed are “dumb,” another way to put is they are excessively abstract. They suppose that there is an essence, some core of “white supremacy” culture, that is instantiated in various behaviors, and that the matter is to just identify the behaviors that instantiate the essence, stop them. Of course, you can imagine an absurd situation where a management team has given this training, and uses it to actually uphold literal white supremacy, demoting and discipling employees of color who they decide have the features of “white supremacy culture.” This gets us towards the key problem with the entire approach, which is that it ignores any sort of context and tries to find a silver-bullet to resolve all questions by just moving around abstract terms: “this is an instance of x, therefore we know y lurks close at hand.”

The problem with Yglesias’s approach is that he turns to a similar, albeit slightly more sophisticated, version of the same type of error in thinking about what produces things like Okun’s work:

This whole document instead comes from a place of extreme characterological aversion to hierarchy and structure.

And we know from a range of evidence that if you look at the white U.S. population, being a Democrat correlates with the personality trait of openness to experience and being a Republican with the personality trait of conscientiousness. And indeed Christopher Frederico and Rafael Aguilera document that among the white population, having a high score on racial resentment batteries is associated with high conscientiousness and low openness.

In other words: if you filter the white people to find only the white people who are most fired-up about anti-racism, you will end up with a high-openness, low-conscientiousness group of people who are probably inclined to agree with Okun’s general sentiments.

But these are facts about white people.

White Democrats are eccentric because most white people are Republicans. In non-white communities, most people are Democrats and consequently, non-white Democrats are less ideologically left-wing than white ones and also have personality types that are closer to the broad population average. That’s why the ex-cop, tough on crime mayoral candidate in New York City is Black. That’s why religiously observant Democrats tend to be non-white. Generalized aversion to hierarchy and discipline is not a characteristic of people of color at all — it’s a characteristic of white leftists.

Yglesias is referring to “Big Five” personality tests, which measure five traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The relative presence or absence of these traits are supposed to be able to predict a great deal about people, including their politics. According to Yglesias, the reason why Okun’s materials exist and are popular is because white liberals have certain intrinsic “characterological” features that incline them to these sorts of beliefs. The implication here is that there is a type of personality or character that preexists their political and aesthetic preferences and reliably birth to them. So, basically just substitute the “white liberal personality type” for “white supremacy culture” as the explanatory cause.

These traits become so abstract that they start not to resemble anything that we normally associate with the words, indeed they abstract from any recognizable context:

…if you filter the white people to find only the white people who are most fired-up about anti-racism, you will end up with a high-openness, low-conscientiousness group of people who are probably inclined to agree with Okun’s general sentiments.

This seems odd, because we are often told that white liberals who are “woke,” who are into anti-racism and so forth are excessively close-minded about others, namely white conservatives, and also too conscientious: too fastidious and obsessed about their use of words and their thoughts. “Wokeness,” we are told over and over again, is a religion. Then let’s look at this statement: “[T]he white population, having a high score on racial resentment batteries is associated with high conscientiousness and low openness.” Should we really say someone who pays little heed to racial sensitivities of others in their society is actually more “conscientious?” They also might be highly “open,” just to ideas and politics that happen confirm or inflame their prejudices.

The rejoinder is “well the terms mean something particular in this ‘scientific’ context:” by “conscientious” they mean something like “not messy” with their personal affects. Moreover, “High openness” individuals are supposed to not be easily disgusted, but wouldn’t we expect a liberal to react quite intensely to detected racism, finding it presence to be its own sort of disorder and squalor? In fact, going back to Okun’s materials, isn’t the feared problem with them that they might inculcate a kind of bad fastidiousness and conscientiousness we associate with “excessive PC”: prompting the searching out the signs of “white supremacy culture” to the point its becomes close-minded and anti-intellectual?

But the more outrageous part of Yglesias’s piece comes next:

In non-white communities, most people are Democrats and consequently, non-white Democrats are less ideologically left-wing than white ones and also have personality types that are closer to the broad population average. That’s why the ex-cop, tough on crime mayoral candidate in New York City is Black. That’s why religiously observant Democrats tend to be non-white. Generalized aversion to hierarchy and discipline is not a characteristic of people of color at all — it’s a characteristic of white leftists. [Emphasis mine.]

Does Yglessias really think that Eric Adams’s politics and the New York mayoral race can be explained by personality tests? Probably any thoughtful person couldn’t actually hold this view. Isn’t more likely to have to do with how he needs to situate himself in the race and a life-long political career of finding a stance that distinguishes himself and answers the desires of multiple constituencies? These constituencies are shaped by, yes, ideology and historical experience as well as current events, but I don’t think saying black Democrats in New York are more likely to have “Personality Y” rather than “Personality X” of their white counterparts is constitutes a contribution to political analysis and understanding. Also, if you told a conservative that leftists have a “generalized aversion to hierarchy and discipline” they would laugh at you and justifiably point to leftists and liberals enthusiastic obedience to the current public health regime. Were the Bolsheviks averse to hierarchy and discipline? By just shifting the context, these explanations just appear to be nonsensical.

Personality test theories of politics should have predicted the fastidious, cleanly, disease-fearing conservatives freaking out about coronavirus with liberals being more relaxed about it. The opposite dynamics actually set in. This launched a great deal of rationalization and creation of auxiliary hypotheses to explain how the theory was still correct, much in the same way as the apparently eccentric movements of the planets required followers of the Ptolemaic conception of the universe to invent more and more tortured notions of epicycles to keep the whole thing working. The response was, “Well, within this context…” Yes, but this highlights the problem with the entire conception: it supposed to be robustly predictive and not get us mire us back into the judgment of particular situations, and if it does, it’s failed on its terms and you might as well junk it and just do analysis without such tortured abstractions and unearned scientific pretensions.

The point is these are all pseudo-explanations. They all hope to find some simple essence prior to the actual concrete world and its complexities and make them stand in for actual thought and interpretation. There is no such thing as “personality” prior to the world: what we call someone’s personality is highly dependent on and shaped by context. It’s also dependent on someone’s principles or pretensions, namely what they think they should say and do in order to be the kind of person they want to be: they may affect a greater degree of belief in this or that value. People lie all the time, especially to personality tests and to pollsters all the time, probably without even realizing it, because they know they ought to be saying that sort of thing in order to be good or proper by the standards they have adopted.

Back in 1807, Hegel developed a critique of these types of “characterological” pseudo-explanations, back then called “phrenology” and “physiognomy.” The argument is terribly complex and difficult, but here i s what I think is a good summary of it from Terry Pinkard’s commentary on the Phenomenology of Spirit

Moreover, even superficially identical actions or statements do not have a meaning that can be divorced from the interpretation of oneself and others:

What we take ourselves to be doing and expressing in our actions and how they are interpreted by others can be radically different: for instance, I think I am being very fastidious or conscientious, that is is to say highly aware of my actions and their consequences, but another person thinks this is an example of a heedless and unthinking adoption of some kind of pre-existing norm, say one inculcated by something like “white supremacy culture.” Or, I think I’m just being myself, another person thinks I’m just instantiating some kind pre-existing historico-cultural structure, “performing” my gender and so forth. These conflicts of interpretation are unavoidable in modern life and the question of our self-identity and the meaning of our actions is not answered by recourse to a simple pre-existing essence, either that of “personality” or “culture.”

Character, culture, personality—these all undoubtedly refer to something real and help us to describe the world. But not when they are used in this abstract fashion. Can one really specify an entire “culture” through some abstract quantities, or someone’s entire “personality” for that matter. No, of course not. Does anybody seriously imagine that you can “test” your personality. I certainly hope not.

It seems worthwhile to return to context and point out that both the Big Five personality test and the “white supremacy culture” materials both are used a great deal in the context of corporate management. They both contain promises to managers get certain kinds of results: the right kind of employee, a harmonious working environment, a workplace that accords to legal standards and will not result in discrimination lawsuits, etc.. They are in some sense quick-fixes. It would not be beyond the pale to suspect a touch of fraud in any technique that promises an easily-accomplished beneficial outcome in a business environment. Reach for your wallet, as a fella says.

But even if they are fraudulent and fake in some sense,—providing inaccurate representations of humanity,—they can be no less destructive. In the HBO Max documentary Persona, based on Merve Emre’s fantastic book The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, there’s a heartbreaking story of a young man who is rejected from a job because of a personality test and is so affected by this rejection and what he thinks it says about himself and his value as a person that he eventually takes his own life. The really angering thing is that it’s not even clear that these tests provide any benefit to employers whatsoever. They’ve just been marketed to and sold this dubious product that makes them feel like they are applying scientific techniques. People are being ground up and spat out, not in the gears of some monstrously efficient machine, but by idiotic gadgets sold by borderline hucksters which might not even do anything!

People love to take these sorts of tests, love to assign themselves a coordinate on a Cartesian plane, or a find a handy four-letter abbreviation for their soul’s contents. They are fun and harmless to a certain degree, if not much stock is put in them, but I really have to wonder what’s going on here. To return to the question of culture, it seems like all of these things—the Big Five, the Myers-Briggs, stupid, reductive anti-racist HR training—participate in the same contemporary cultural tendency: flattening. We constantly seek ways to flatten ourselves onto some two-dimensional grid. When we don’t do it, our employers will do it for us. It’s easier that way. At least it gives us a place, a location, an identity in a world that seems to have so few fixities. We are this sort, or that type: Empathetic, extraverted, analytical etc. Perhaps we are testing our personalities not so much not to find out what type of person we are, as to make sure there’s anything there at all. But everything that seems to give us a location, an identity, a self, I believe is potentially deforming. And the more we insist on jamming the world into awkward and crude abstractions that appear to give things shape and meaning, the more of its actual shape and meaning we will lose.