Deafer than Thou
I attended a deaf-sensitization workshop recently at work and I was struck by one thing I learned there in particular: That there is a hierarchy within some of the deaf community, based on how deaf you are. It looks something like this:

  • Some hearing (at the bottom)
  • Acquired deafness (in the middle)
  • Deaf since birth (which is further categorized by)
    • Deaf child of hearing parents
    • Deaf child of one deaf parent
    • Deaf child of deaf parents
    • Deaf child of multiple deaf generations (at the top)
A deaf person can mitigate their status by how active they are in the deaf community, whether they went to a deaf school, and whether they associate with hearing people (including their life partner), and whether they have a "deaf" job.

Blacker than Thou
When I heard this I was immediately taken back to another sensitization course I took way back when, for racial understanding. I ended up in a Blacks-and-Whites group, where I learned that there is also a pecking order among some blacks, based partially on skin tone (!) with the darkest-skinned at the top of this chain because they are "blacker than thou." Similar questions of participation and "purity" can mitigate your status: How active are you in the black community? How much do you associate with non-blacks?

Gayer than Thou
Personally I remember during my coming out phase that there were other gays who pissed me off by playing this same game: they were "gayer than thou." This was a matter of how out they were, how active they were in the community, parades, etc.

Holier than Thou
And of course there are people who are "holier than thou," which means that they--by some measurement--feel that they are more in touch with their god or religion, probably by adherence to precepts and participation in the community. In my personal experience, this has always been most exaggerated not in those people who were born into the religion they choose to practice, but those who acquired their religion along the way.

So of course realizing this similarity put me into my favorite Rodin pose. What's similar here? Why would such different groups participate in similar purity pecking orders? And do all groups?

Identity Formation
My amateur guess is that it's a matter of identity formation. It's a personal realization, but not that original a thought. I got the idea from Richard Troiden, one of the leading homosexual identity formation developmental theorists of modern day. I studied him as part of my adolescent psych class in undergraduate. I'll have to go into his theory briefly, but bear with me. He identifies four stages.

  1. Sensitization, in which the individual notices differences between themselves and others but does not know why.
  2. Identity confusion, in which the individual recognizes the root cause of their difference, and that it is stigmatized (and often that they themselves have internalized prejudice). This is characterized by lots of uncomfortable cognitive dissonance and coping strategies.
  3. Identity assumption, during which the individual defies the stigma, "tries on" the identity, coming out to others and participating in the subculture, learning its roles, rules, and rituals
  4. Commitment, in which the individual accepts themselves as human first and that gay is just a part of who they are
It's in his Identity Assumption phase that people are exploring identity. "Trying it on." It takes a lot of guts and committment to make the step out, stop hating yourself, and openly declare yourself part of a stigmatized group. The psychological momentum it took to cross that line can carry people way deep into the other territory. This new aspect of identity becomes the identity. But since identity has no standard of measurement, the surest way to make sure you're definitely X is to be Xer than people around you. Which is especially easy if you're competitive or insecure. (Trademarks of adolescence.)

Now, couldn't that apply to anyone dealing with marginalization? How deaf am I? How black am I? How Christian am I? This is an unscientific extension, of course, Troiden never studied any other groups in any other culture, but it rings true to me. And of course racial minorities never have to "come out" but of course they choose how active they want to be in their communities, and how much their racial heritage is part of their identity. If that's true, Troiden's stages apply, and are really stages in dealing with marginalization.

What this realization did for me is that I am no longer as bothered by encounters with Xer than Thou personality wranglers. It used to just stick in my craw when some guy in a flaming rainbow sequin clothes, plastic wig, and sucking on a Fuzzy Navel sneered at me because I wasn't as obviously gay. But now if it happens, I can think to myself that they're part of a journey that I was once on myself. I'm now just as X as I Need to Be.


Other noders note similar politics in other subcultures:
  • Andromache01: I've seen it a lot in the punk scene, with people playing harder-core than thou and straighter-edge than thou, for all the reasons you described.
  • TheLady: there's also of course more-minority-than thou. funnily enough, in the US Jews are close to the top of this pecking order, wheras in the UK they're right at the bottom, with non-Jewish people getting really pissed off when I even say Jews are a minority... so the pecking order is not universal, it seems.
  • And, most self-referentially, Timeshredder notes that I might be accused of being More Identity Politics Than Thou. :)