Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Identity, exclusivity and choice

Norm and Ophelia and Matt have recently remarked on identity, with sympathetic reference to Amartya Sen’s views. Sen is worried about the tendency for people to define themselves solely in terms of one aspect of their being, their membership of one category (nationality, race or, most topically, religion) – whereas in fact we are all multifaceted, with characteristics and plural loyalties defining groups that vary and overlap in all sorts of ways.

Norm thinks that this is less a matter of individual choice than Sen suggests; some aspects of our identities we cannot just take or leave, downplaying or even rejecting them: “that some of them are absolutely central and very weighty may just be a given for me, in consequence of who I already am”. And I think this is true. There are some things about my life and myself that I choose to focus on, but the really important stuff just feels important.

Ophelia finds it hard to understand how the ‘solitarist’ view of one’s identity manages to carry so much clout with so many people, despite the apparently obvious existence of multiple traits defining, in theory, multiple allegiances: “I see the temporary appeal of identifying with other (whatevers) – women, Muslims, Americans, Jews, gays, blacks, Asians, whatever – but I don't fully see how one item on the menu manages to trump all the others all the time.”

I don’t fully see, either, but I think one factor is worth noting: those identities that are a matter of holding certain belief systems (rather than physical traits or accidents of birth) are probably more susceptible to this sort of exclusivity. If I’m proudly British, that doesn’t mean I think the French are cowards and the Americans are vulgar; if I’m a keen footballer, that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the excitement of other sports; if I’m white, that doesn’t mean I sneer at Asians or shout at blacks; if I’m straight, that doesn’t mean I think gays are perverted. And, more to the point, none of these aspects of identity mandates anything about other aspects: nationality, pastimes, ethnicity and sexuality per se don’t say anything about each other.

Beliefs are different. If a certain belief system is part of my identity, it may well be that part of it does dictate that I look down on unbelievers, and that other aspects of identity are prescribed or proscribed. This can be the case with the stricter, more literalist religions, and some of the more totalitarian political ideologies.

If I hold such a belief system, then the exclusivity that it mandates, and the primacy within my identity that it demands, will feel compelling – as Norm suggests, this will not be a matter of carefully reasoned choice – and other aspects will be downplayed, rejected and/or opposed in others as appropriate.

Another factor that strikes me as relevant is the brute simplifying power of reaction and counter-reaction. If, say, a small minority of Muslims (of a very specific branch of Islam, perhaps) take it upon themselves to have such a solitarist sense of identity, and if this makes them disparage other identities – in a few cases, violently – then there will be a reaction against them. The nuances of their extremism will be lost on many ‘non-Muslims’ (itself an identity whose prominence is parasitic upon the initial extremism), who will react against Muslims in general.

In turn, many Muslims – including those who might wish to distance themselves from the extremists – will counter-react by defending their Islam, and public debate will increasingly be filtered through this one category and its negation. The circle continues and the polarisation of identities around one aspect grows.

(If a government tried to ban left-handedness, no doubt ‘lefty’ identity would become more strongly held.)

Matt concludes:

“in order for a country to be truly liberal, or even democratic, the general view must be that individuals are of equal worth and that we all share a common, basic human nature underneath the superficialities of culture and upbringing. … It’s this shared nature, the things we have in common, that provides the basis for society – uniting us around common goals and values.
“Identity politics – defining individuals based on just one aspect of their personality – is short-sighted, divisive and (by promoting an Us and Them mentality) ultimately quite dangerous.”

And to that good sense I have nothing to add.

1 comment:

Matt M said...

Fine words (yours, not mine).

Identity is a tricky one: obviously some elements of who I am are more important than others - and few of them are rationally chosen.

(cheers for the mention)