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A Veteran in College: The Problem With Identity Theories

Cultural Studies in the Military

My fifteen-year career in the military seemed to last an eternity. At twenty years old, I found myself involved in the initial push into Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division. After my second deployment, I changed my military occupational specialty to Psychological Operations, a core component of the United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC)—and was deployed even more frequently. In special operations, there is no garrison time: you are always either deployed or preparing to deploy. For over a decade, I spent my time in and out of different countries, including Nigeria, Niger, Somalia and—of course—Iraq and Afghanistan. My only time away from operational deployments were the three years I spent as the Senior Instructor for the Psychological Operations Specialist Course, a grueling eighteen-week cycle in which I taught everything from basic behavioral psychology and cross-cultural communications to the extensively detailed tactics, techniques and procedures of our own doctrine.

My mission in Psychological Operations was to conduct detailed analysis of what drives a population towards certain behaviors, taking historical, cultural, psychological and other possible factors into account, in order to assist in the implementation of Information Operations. The goal was to find useful information that could assist our security force partners in combating terrorist organizations, countering radical ideologies and unifying citizens within the conflicted countries.

Across all the cultures that I have explored, people have always been able to divide themselves in one way or another. Tribalism is as old as society itself, and, until recent history, it was necessary for survival. Ironically enough, in today’s age, clinging to group identities just perpetuates division. The split between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq is so intense that a person with a Sunni name is subject to social persecution inside Shia territory. The Kurds in northern Iraq have undergone genocide and are still fighting for their own territory. Many of the current problems in Afghanistan stem from the British having drawn the Pakistan border down through the middle of the Pashtun tribal lands. Somaliland, which considers itself a sovereign nation, is only part of Somalia because the United Nations declared it to be, and, in Nigeria, there is a major division between the Christian south and the Muslim north.

What I learned from being in these countries is that all these facts are regional knowledge. Regional knowledge provides a broad overview that can be read from afar. It is not cultural knowledge. Culture is not concerned with national borders nor with any categorization efforts designed to allow us to study and understand it better. It is only by looking deeper that we can truly understand the complex nature of the problems within cultures. Our division of people into categories, based on what is convenient to our narrative, is counterproductive both to understanding and to the betterment of society. Cultural knowledge is the key to uncovering the mysteries of people.

To determine what drives behavior, in Psychological Operations we used a methodical process called target audience analysis. The first step in this process is to define the group you are looking at. To do this, we researched people within demographic categories, as a way of organizing the data we collected. Location was always the primary category. People’s motivations depend mostly on the location in which they grow up. For example, if you grew up in rural Montana, you will not have the same beliefs as someone who grew up in urban Miami. The next most important category was economic status, which was closely followed by ethnicity, and age. Depending upon the country we were in, gender, and marital status, followed. No single category could ever lead us to coherent reasons as to why people behaved in the way they did. Only by using multiple categories did we begin to see patterns that were useful for predicting what might motivate someone’s future behavior. Our work was focused on an end objective and we could not ignore a factor, or think in a single-factor mindset. The goal was not to promote any ideology or theoretical approach, but simply to find out what works—to find the truth.

The following portions of the analysis consisted of determining internal factors rooted in psychology such as attitudes, values and beliefs; and external factors, such as situations people found themselves in and events and things that people were subject to. We then incorporated Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to divide things into wants, needs, and desires. If the group was not defined well enough, these factors would contradict each other, which meant that the reasons behind people’s behaviors would differ. In that case, the group would have to be refined even further. If a group that was originally defined by location, age and marital status was found to have contradictory factors, sex, ethnicity or religion would have to be added. The categories used to define the group had no impact on the motivations behind people’s behavior. Automatically attributing a group’s values and beliefs to one of these categories is a mistake for a couple of reasons. First, since multiple categories had to be considered for the factors to align, no single category would allow for the generalization of any factor. Second, if we changed locations, none of the factors would stay the same. The attitudes, values and beliefs of a group had no direct link to race, sex or age, and are only used to simplify research and analysis. In a theoretical framework, it may appear as if categories and behaviors have a direct correlation, but this is an illusion that becomes evident when theory is put to practical application.

Cultural Studies in the University

Upon being medically retired from the Army in 2016 for PTSD—including what is referred to now as moral injury—I left Fort Bragg, North Carolina for the Midwest, to attend a major university. As a teenager, college had never been in my future, and, since I am fascinated by different cultures, I felt this was my opportunity to explore the experience that thousands of kids across the United States get every year.

During my first semester, I began noticing underlying themes in several of the classes, and, by my second semester, I realized that this was not localized to a single course or field. These underlying themes formed the groundwork of every course throughout the college of liberal arts. The new ideas of racism and power were very confusing to me. I took in all the information about identity and race and culture that was directly contradictory to everything I had learned by studying culture across continents for over a decade. I lost months of sleep attempting to understand where all of this was coming from. After dissecting all the theoretical approaches to identity, intersectionality and postmodernism, I began to realize just how fundamentally flawed the research methodologies and interpretations were. Using subjective surveys, racial categorization and mass generalization, these disciplines are attempting to explain the world by putting it into neatly defined boxes, when in actuality they are conducting localized cultural studies, at best.

These categories, which are now being defined by universities as identities, are nothing more than symbolic representations of what people are like underneath. The categories themselves do not hold any attitudes towards any specific ways of life. They do not keep people away from certain areas of town, and they do not cause people to kill other human beings. In fact, the underlying factors that they represent do not stay the same when applied to different areas of the world. They are only relative to the specific area in which they are being studied. It should come as no surprise that replicability is the primary problem when trying to equate human behavior with scientific fact. Attempting to explain the underlying motives of a person based on identity categories is barely coherent at the theoretical level, and, in practical application, falls apart completely.

I was not overly concerned at first, because I assumed the young adults in these classes would just dismiss this as nonsense—just as kids often ignore half of high school. Then I began to notice that the ideas were actually sinking in. While attending a class on comedy theory, I played a clip from a stand-up comedian, and opened up a discussion about whether this clip could be considered to be in support of equality. The class’s answer was overwhelmingly no—the reason being that the comedian was a heterosexual, white male, therefore his opinion was invalid. The liberal arts students no longer had the ability to interpret any statement without first filtering it through the race and sex of the person who said it. They had officially been indoctrinated into the ideology of these identity theories.

The first class I took at the university was a course in cultural psychology. Given my background, I thought it would be perfect for me. As it turned out, the class primarily focused on intersectionality, power and the altered definition of racism. One of the first studies that we read was downright laughable. I have conducted multitudes of surveys in several countries, and have never considered one to be grounded in scientific fact that could be used cross-culturally. I scheduled a meeting with the two instructors, who were both PhD candidates, to see if they actually thought that this peer-reviewed study could be considered gold standard, and valid enough to form the basis of a class at a major university. I have no problem with people conducting studies, no matter the topic, as I believe that anyone should be able to write about anything, but to use studies whose participants were all college students with a mean age of twenty-four, and then generalize about an entire race on the basis of the findings and use them for the purposes of educational instruction—I found that simply baffling.

One of the instructors was open to dialogue and curious as to what I had to say. The other, however, would only reiterate what the syllabus said, refused to discuss any topic in depth, and would not even look at me when she spoke. I had attempted to explain my viewpoint that automatically blaming race for everything was lazy on the researchers’ part, in the same way that judging people based on race is lazy on an individual’s part, because, instead of searching for the true answers to problems, such people rely on simple categorization. When the other instructor and I began to engage in discussion on the topic, the reluctant instructor shouted that this was about race, and that it is always about race. I’ve spoken to enough people in enough areas to know when their ideological views are blocking their ability to hear an opposing viewpoint so I thanked them for their time and left. A large part of my job was to study beliefs, and I know that they will not change with one discussion, nor through forced logic. They are cemented inside individuals, and can only change over long periods of time.

The ideologies floating about on campuses make for a complex situation. Social scientists are making a mistake in attempting to reduce life to a single variable. There are many factors contributing to this situation, in which a problematic ideology has been produced. We think of college as the pinnacle of education, and assume that the educators support objective, universal education. It therefore terrifies me to see that this ideology has not been questioned. This is what I have seen in so many countries, and now I am seeing it play out in the United States in the name of higher learning. Universities have created their own theoretical dystopia, which exists only within their own boundaries, and are selling it to young adults for the price of everlasting societal mental segregation. With the backing of the university brand, these individuals have found a way of rejecting opposing opinions and deterring inquiry. Science encourages skepticism because the point is to find the truth. Anything that discourages people from questioning its validity needs to be questioned.

Identity theories tell you that what a person is, is embedded within the categories into which the theorists break people down, but if they had separated people by other categories, we would have to be concerned with those instead. In order to have what they call black culture, for instance, you have to believe that all black people have something in common, and, if all black people across all cultures have something in common, it can only be attributed to biology. I have studied culture across East and West Africa, and this is not the case. Black people across cultures are not the same, and white people across cultures are not the same. In order to produce these theories, small fractions of the population are surveyed, and then generalizations are made about their entire race. A small piece of life is being made to look as if it represents all of life. Believing this is no different from believing that social media represents real life.

This theoretical framework is polarizing, since it is rooted in language and not in actual life. The realities of the world are under no obligation to adhere to our linguistic restrictions, and only an ideology could justify such an inherent contradiction as the idea that stereotyping people is the answer to ending stereotypical prejudice. Successfully integrated countries do not promote divisions between people, but celebrate similarities. Race has no meaning across cultural boundaries, but religion does, not because religion itself is an answer, but because it celebrates a common belief system. There is a hole in the American viewpoint that can only be fixed by putting away our ideological filters, going outside, and recognizing that our differences are small, but our similarities are endless.

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27 comments

  1. TY for this concise essay., Sir.

    “They [ideological views] are cemented inside individuals, and can only change over long periods of time.”

    A telling observation.
    The long term harm and damage these identity ideologies are doing to the whole of society is obvious to any objective observer. The long term harm and damage being done to individuals is less obvious.
    In the future, many of these current ideologues will require serious long term assistance (deprogramming) in order to healthily reintegrate into normal society.
    Considering the degrees that these ideological identity views have also been ingrained in to the psychological fields, I’m not sure where or how these individuals are going to get the long term help that they are going to need.

  2. Eliot Miranda.

    Nick, a fine read. Thank you. You are of course exactly right; identity is abused in the US and crucially so. I argue that identity politics are the key means by which US elites distract and divide the population while they continue perpetual war, a war for resources and for funneling tax payer dollars into the military industrial complex.

    After the JFK assassination the ‘60’s civil rights movement was allowed to make ground while the Vietnam war (the American war from the Vietnamese perspective) started and deepened. MLK was allowed to inspire until he addressed the economic and military situation, at which point he was assassinated. Meanwhile the economic realities affecting people of colour changed little; redlining continued to occur; the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 ushered in two decades of the destruction of African American neighbourhoods via urban freeway construction; affirmative action did little to change the economic realities for people of colour (as evinced by the effect of the 2008 crash falling heaviest in black home owners) while itself becoming a wedge issue.

    In this century, divisions over sexual identity and rights, including abortion, welfare, and the apparent political divide between Democrats and Republicans (one that disappears when one examines votes on foreign policy and war) continue to inflame our political discourse while the underlying realities of US economic and military might continue without meaningful deviation due to elections.

    It surprises me not at all then that you experience this identitarianism being institutionalized in the US University system. Research depends on funding and in the US corporations provide funding and lobbyists influence what little government funding is available. The identitarian project, to inflame and confuse at home, while continuing to pillage abroad, continues in full force.

    Chimmanda Ngozi Adiche’s novel Americanah is superbly penetrating on the realities of racial identity in the US. Adiche is Nigerian and studied in the US and hence sees racial identity (and not just black racial identity, but white perceptions and projections) with precise clarity.

    Your own experience at university is fascinating in illuminating this central facet of US culture. But for me your piece has one extraordinary leap, from here:

    “My mission in Psychological Operations was to conduct detailed analysis of what drives a population towards certain behaviors, taking historical, cultural, psychological and other possible factors into account, in order to assist in the implementation of Information Operations.

    The attitudes, values and beliefs of a group had no direct link to race, sex or age, and are only used to simplify research and analysis. In a theoretical framework, it may appear as if categories and behaviors have a direct correlation, but this is an illusion that becomes evident when theory is put to practical application.”

    to here:

    “UUpon being medically retired from the Army in 2016 for PTSD—including what is referred to now as moral injury—I left Fort Bragg, North Carolina for the Midwest, to attend a major university.”

    What happened? How did someone involved in psychological operations, presumably not a combat soldier, get PTSD? What was your trauma, were your traumas? What were the moral injuries? And how did those injuries relate to the attempt to “find useful information that could assist our security force partners in combating terrorist organizations, countering radical ideologies and unifying citizens within the conflicted countries”?

  3. An incredible read and take down of one of the abhorrent and shaky theories dominating our discourse. In the future, we will look back at this time, its impacts on the people and the horrors it will unleash, and we will wonder, “How did they miss all this?” and the answer is one of perspective; it is very difficult to notice when in submerged in it.

  4. “Universities have created their own theoretical dystopia, which exists only within their own boundaries, and are selling it to young adults for the price of everlasting societal mental segregation.”

    This line really resonated with me. During my undergrad a few years ago I felt my beliefs diverging from my friends who were not at university. I started to think I couldn’t hang out with them anymore, their language was too problematic. In fact, the vast majority of society all seemed too problematic. But how could it be that I was right and they were all wrong, it didn’t make sense. Eventually I started to see the nuances and motivations of people’s beliefs. I’m glad I still have my friends too.

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  5. “One of the instructors was open to dialogue and curious as to what I had to say. The other, however, would only reiterate what the syllabus said, refused to discuss any topic in depth, and would not even look at me when she spoke.”

    Sounds like a straightforward case of intellectual fraud, based on the author’s description of the study and the reaction of the instructor. No surprise to anyone these days.

  6. I think you need to find a better program and/or instructors, but I see the point. It seems like the folks you’ve talked to are taking a socially constructed concept (race), and trying to apply it as if it doesn’t have different meanings in different contexts. The same thing often happens with gender. We say males and females behave in particular ways, but what we really are saying is something within a particular culture’s socially constructed concept of male and female is the root of the behavior. The original research done on what you are discussing in class, if it was methodologically sound, would also discuss limitations in their findings similar to what you point out (i.e. surveying college undergrads in the U.S.). It’s actually getting somewhat difficult to publish research that relies on samples of undergrads for the participants. I would suggest seeking out some scholars working in the interpretive world using qualitative methods…I’m sure you would find a different perspective, and you wouldn’t be making the same mistake (i.e. lumping all colleges and universities and all scholars of social theories into one big culture) that you are accusing these scholars of doing.

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  7. As it happens I was teaching a classroom of currently serving military this morning. One of my comments was that many of these “well known” or “accepted” theories turn out to be based on one study 20 years ago where the study subjects were 40 American undergraduate Psychology students. Who are of course widely accepted to be completely typical of the world as a whole.

    (Obviously I was exaggerating for comedic effect, but not by as much as I wish I was).

  8. That was a very interesting perspective…one I share. Having spent many years as a minority white man, to get along, you had to see past color because YOU wanted to be seen as something more than a white oddity. To get along, you either quickly, (if you don’t already), start treating people like people. In most places outside the ‘1st world’, the majority of the people are shades of brown. They don’t all look alike and many times, woe be unto you if you incorrectly guess their country of origin, or heritage, instead of asking. Unlike what SJW’s would have you believe, most people in the world HATE being lumped into a huge group.

    I was born in 1960. I grew up in Norther Canada, again as minority white person. I was only distinguishable from my friends by my skin color. In all other ways, dress, food, even accent, I was just another town kid. Occasionally, I did get my ass whupped for being some form of white devil or another but them’s the breaks.

    Even from my remote vantage point, the 60’s and the 70’s shaped my world view. War was hell. All people are equal. Personal responsibility. Individuality. Free speech was sacred. These concepts are who I am, so the very recent fervor for judging people based on inalienable group characteristics, is not just bizarre to me…but abhorrent on a very intimate level.

    It just doesn’t add up. When I was a kid, I couldn’t grow up fast enough. I don’t remember ever being supervised when playing…and all playing was outside. We were poor. My mom has as many as 3 jobs at a time, and I had my first job when I was 12. If we wanted something, we worked until we could pay for it. After high school, a buddy and I worked for a few months and saved up enough money to spend 7 months traveling Europe and Morocco…alone, without a plan, no safety net, no safe spaces…not much more than our barely formed wits and a well developed sense of politeness.

    We got ourselves into some scary situations…and every time we got ourselves out…we grew.

    Today, we have a generation of Peter Pans…unable to cope with the least amount of stress, incapable of accepting personal responsibility, wanting…NEEDING…to be sheltered at all times, to be forever a child, to be perpetually cared for, contributing nothing more than outrage, anti social petulance and too many God damned bloody man-buns.

    Not just children…but spoiled children…brats, the kind that are dragged down Walmart aisles by exhausted mothers. Except…Walmart would never do for this bunch. It’s Whole foods or nothing.

    Life has simply been too easy. Of course, social ills haven’t been solved, but life in the western world has never been more prosperous, generous, free and equal for all people, as it is now. There’s nothing to protest…so the brats protest at nothing.

    It literally makes my brain hurt. What they all need is a bloody good spanking…and if they keep this shit up, that spanking is coming.

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    1. Well said, but unfortunately it’s far too late to spank the cohort of children who have now been fully indoctrinated to hate rather than to love their fellow man, based purely on prejudice. As you said, when we were kids, colorblindness was the ideal because that meant that everyone was treated as a product of their individual circumstances. Nowadays that’s called “white supremacy.”

      I think we’re in for miserable times because of these fanatics.

  9. Meaningful essay and consequent positive feedback. Nick, I hope you’re basking, feeling encouraged to contribute more articles. I wish there were a way to contact you as it seems you may have known my brother who served as a CSM in the same army division and during the timeframe you served in Iraq. Small world, large mysteries and wonderments. In the meantime…Thank you, Nick

  10. I’d like to propose a new Identity: Reasonable person. Reasonable folks tend to hold moderate and centrist views. They are open to persuasion and like to discuss things in a friendly and respectful way. They are kind and charitable, but they also know that sometimes folks are going to have to pay a price for their bad choices. They are both skeptical and yet curious. They are hard working and they know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. They are unlikely to try to convince you that they are a victim, even if they’ve had a few hard knocks. They might be religious, but they’ll always be tolerant of other views. They trust science. They can be of any color, creed or gender. They make good farmers because farmers have to get things actually accomplished.

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    1. sure, sounds great in theory. but reparations for the historical oppression of reasonable people would break the backs of every economy in the world.

    2. The only thing I’d disagree with is that any category of ‘reasonable people’ would include people’s who’s views aren’t necessarily moderate or centrist. There are plenty of people (admittedly you don’t spot them inn public life that often any more) who would be avowedly conservative or leftist, who are tolerant of others views, wouldn’t seek to impose them on others, are open to reason and happy to debate in good faith, are often kind and charitable.

      1. @Andrew Miller

        It’s a wide tent. The ‘center’ should include anyone who is open to nuance and who is skeptical of overly simplistic utopian narratives. I myself think it is impossible to be reasonable, kind, tolerant, etc when one’s political views are extreme. Is there a tolerant Nazi or a reasonable Maoist? Surely not.

    3. I’m too lazy to be a reasonable person then. I live within my modest limits and accept that working less means having less, but if you insist I be hard-working then I guess I’m out of the club. 😉

  11. Excellent observations are made by this author about the variety of individuals who make up larger identity categories. It gives the lie to arguments which content that all members of a racial identity group have more in common with one another than with members of a different racial identity group. We actually have most in common with those who have shared experiences with us, who share our likes and dislikes, who laugh at the same things we do. When the woman says “it’s always about race” she is limiting her own world view and denies that others could have another one. Everything is NOT about race!

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  12. E Pluribus Unum remains the only viable method of maintaining a modern nation & civilization. Thanks for reinforcing this will a clear concise description, scientific support, and a look at how it’s been & being destroyed.

  13. In business school, many of my classmates were active duty or ex-military. Compared to undergrad, I felt the level of intellectual discourse was much higher and people had a much better grasp of personal responsibility and emotional maturity. This well-written piece reminded me those perspectives. Perhaps it’s no surprise that having real world and military experience is effective vaccination against the sad deconstructivist and postmodern nonsense too often encountered on college campuses these days.

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    1. Someone said to me while in college, “you have to play sports, because sports are a metaphor for war and war is the only thing that matters.” It’s worth giving extra consideration to how we treat issues in lethal context.

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