Wednesday, February 07, 2007

I am that I am

Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels notes that she is female. Also, she is American; she is heterosexual; she is white.

Which of these statements might be claims of identity and which are just descriptions of characteristics? As a clever man once said under different circumstances, “It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is.”

Identity, in the more interesting sense, is a matter of the way you think about yourself. I rarely think of myself as white but more often think of myself as English.

So what makes you more likely to think about yourself in terms of a certain characteristic? Here are a few factors:

  1. If that characteristic is a shared by only a minority of the population.
  2. If others with that characteristic publicly relate to people in terms of whether they have or lack it, thus leading to an identity group and an out-group.
  3. Conversely, if people without that characteristic relate to people with it differently.
  4. If, in the case of a physical characteristic, it has an effect on what you can and can’t do (over and above any legal and social reactions to it).
  5. If that characteristic is a matter of personal beliefs and values.
  6. Following the above, if the attitudes associated with the characteristic include a tendency to view it as important.

Some of these interact, for instance: the rarer a characteristic is, the more likely you may be to think of yourself (and be thought of) in terms of it, but rarity also reduces the scope for an effective identity group to mobilise. The existence of a defined in-group also makes it likelier that certain attitudes will be associated with having the characteristic, and that people without it will themselves start to define themselves thus and to treat the in-group differently.

These factors also can vary in their scope. As Ophelia acknowledged, some of her characteristics come to seem more salient to how she thinks of herself in different situations – for instance, her nationality comes to the fore in the face of anti-Americanism. But different characteristics in different people take on more enduring centrality to their identity. This can be because life more regularly throws up circumstances in which a certain characteristic becomes relevant (regular racial discrimination can help to build a racial identity), or because of any attitudes constituting the characteristic that stress its significance (followers of a religion will not just hold particular beliefs but also believe that it’s vitally important to do so).

So, what are the prospects for people coming to think of themselves as party of humanity as a whole? How can you come to think of yourself as a human, or as an individual, first and foremost? Most of the factors above will be of little use in promoting such an identity. After all, we’re all individuals.

If so, and if we think a universalist politics that embraces people regardless of differences is desirable, then it won’t work as a type of identity politics itself (just at a higher level of identity than the others). So the ideal would be for politics to transcend identity – or, to put it another way, for identity to escape from identity politicians. Tough call.

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