Monday, 26 July 2021

Identity: the Interminable Struggle for Right

by Thomas Scarborough


Social psychologist Peter Weinreich wrote that one’s identity is ‘the totality of one's self-construal’. To put it in the simplest philosophical terms, it is about the way that individuals relate things to things. Therefore, identity is ordinary. It lies neither in great things, nor in special characteristics, but in all the detail of my daily existence.

In former times, the subject of identity was not much considered. A hundred years ago, the very concept ‘identity’ was virtually unknown. The reason for this is simple. In former times there was, by and large, no other race, no other religion, no other language, no other role to play. Further, there was little choice in the matter. The very survival of the family, and of the larger clan and society, often depended on fairly fixed identities.

Today, this has changed. A global mix of cultures has driven the diversification, even proliferation of identities, while at the same time, economic and social necessity has retreated.

An obvious question now arises: what should we do with identities? More than that, what should we do with conflicts of identity?

As things stand, we have set ourselves up for serious conflict. On the one hand, we have embraced social pluralism which, according to philosophy professor Calvin Schrag, may be described as ‘diversity rather than homogeneity, multiplicity rather than unity, difference rather than sameness’. On the other hand, we have adopted the doctrine of absolute rights, which in the words of philosophy professor Carl Wellman, ‘always hold, that is, disadvantage some second party, within their scope’.

Such pluralism, writes the sociologist Ronald Fletcher, makes 'the problem of preserving order and freedom very great'. On our current views, we set ourselves up for interminable wrangling and conflict.

Within the limited space which is afforded to me here, I propose an alternative to our present, call it ‘trench warfare’.

On the one hand, we must reject the levelling of identities—if that was ever possible. This, on the basis that identity is about the way that individuals relate things to things. It is about the arrangement of the world in our minds—therefore identity represents a kind of virtue ethics. It comes from within. We reject, too, the policing of norms by the state, since authoritarianism skews the way in which things are naturally ordered, and so can prove perilous. Nor can groups or institutions, of course, compete with the state. 

This has the following corollaries.

  • A citizen, as a citizen, has the right to their identity, and the right to protection from abuse. Such ideas are familiar to us today. 
  • An identity-bearer, as an identity-bearer, has the right not to be involved in another person’s identity, or to have their own identity transgressed. This differs from the present status quo, which regularly penalises or disadvantages some second party. 
  • Beyond this—apart from this—the state applies principles which transcend identity, and provide a sense of security to all identities. Within reason, of course.*

Someone may object. These corollaries, these principles, may solve some problems, but potentially leave discrimination in place. Conflicts are inevitable. One or the other identity must yield, or suffer the consequences.  Punitive measures are essential.  No one may refuse, on the basis of their beliefs, culture, traditions, ethics, or conscience, to be involved in another person’s identity, or to have their own identity transgressed. 

This is 'problematic', writes Oxford researcher Alberto Giubilini—namely the 'freedom to act, or to refrain from acting'. He advances, as examples, the refusal of military service or the denial of medical procedures—conversely, the compulsion which brings about the objection in the first place. There would be many more examples, involving event catering, child discipline, traditional rites, or censorship, among other things.** 

We may, however, imagine a different scenario. While the state continues to protect identities against abuse, as it generally does, where there is loss for reason of identity—which need not be synonymous with abuse—the state may develop a system of equality benefits. That is, in cases where there are penalties today, benefits may take their place, which are provided by the state. Thus losses would be offset by the state.***

The approach is a positive one, to help and enable those who could be disadvantaged by their identity. In theology (it is a theological problem, too), this may be reconciled with common grace—a grace which applies to all humankind, regardless of their identity, or what one may think of it. More than this, it affirms the value of diversity and mixing, and enriches the common experience. Perhaps such principles would help turn down the temperature. 



* In some cases, identity may not serve the common good—alternatively, will do harm to all. Where this becomes apparent, the state will need to act in the interests of the greater good. 

** One modern justice system (South Africa) puts it like this: No one, on the basis of identity, may 'impose burdens or withhold benefits or opportunities'. The proposal here is that the state alleviates burdens, or provides that which is withheld.

*** If one is faced with loss without warning, however, this may cross the line of discrimination. Identities need to be sufficiently transparent to prevent conflict by surprise.

11 comments:

docmartincohen said...

The post states that "identity represents a kind of virtue ethics"… and then later on that "In some cases, identity may not serve the common good—alternatively, will do harm to all". Isn't there a contradiction here?

Emile said...

Surely the personal struggle for 'identity' recognition' emerges as a consequence of, or sometimes manifests the primary struggle of, first knowing who I am. Without consciousness, we cannot know identity. And without context, we cannot know identity because consciousness cannot happen in a vacuum, it requires a context. While I agreed that the issue of identity was not nearly as controversial or popular a hundred years ago as it is now, would you entertain that the issue of race has been raging for hundreds of years – and at the core of the issue of race we must surely see the matter of identity?

Also – it occurs to me that if we talk identity, we have to think about change (think the Ship of Theseus, as reported by Plutarch with the changing deck planks) and the permanence and impermanence of identity. Locke (1632–1704) uses Theseus’ ship in luring his readers to consider the balance between the persistence and transience of identity. Surely it is only in persistent individuation that we can find personal identity – as it is in corporation or sameness that we find collective identity.

It was the philosophical Greeks who inspired their worlds with the quip, "Know thyself" encapsulating this struggle. The challenge is surely that we do not know ourselves right. And if we are skew on our self-knowledge, everything else is a little skewed.

The discussion of the permanence and transience of identity is perhaps more complex now than it has ever been. Consciousness (which cannot be separated from identity) has for many become fluid, even to the point of sexuality being about current manifestation – underscored by Eckhart Tolle’s focus on existential ‘nowness,’ or living in reality which is found exclusively in the ‘now’ moment. All else is either memory (past) or fantasy (future) – whereas the now moment is the only place we find reality – and the only place we can therefore experience and express identity.

Emile said...

The challenge with entrusting the state with the responsibility to protect identities from abuse, is that we may be asking the fox to guard the henhouse. I cannot help but wonder if the current pendulum swing of subjectification of identity is a natural reaction to social stratification at the expense of personal individuation - that must run its course before we can find the richness of holding onto both the individuation and collectivation of identity. Or is that a vain hope?

Thomas Scarborough said...

A reply first to Martin. You comment perceptively.

According to my definition of identity, it is ‘ordinary’, which echoes the socialist intellectual Raymond Williams, ‘Culture is ordinary.’ Therefore identity includes everything which defines me. However, we will often reduce someone’s identity to a number characteristics, such as we find in descriptions in dictionaries. ‘X was a philosopher, or an aviator,’ and so on.

I propose, then, that the role of the state is to protect all identities, and to provide them with a sense of security. However, in its quest for the common good, the state may discover that certain identities (significantly) compromise the common good. Any examples one advances here are likely to be emotive ... which is what I seek to obviate in my post!

Here are two possible examples. Pacifism was once construed as a dangerous identity. But by and large, this was found to be untrue, and laws were changed or repealed accordingly. On the other hand, cohabitation was once thought to be fairly harmless, if immoral. Yet it was found to be very costly to the state. Some states addressed this in law.

In short, where there is personal ‘virtue ethics’ vs. public ‘common good’, virtue ethics (not in the sense of being virtuous, but in the sense of being personal) may need to yield in some way, for the sake of a thriving society. This should be, not on the basis of sentiment or belief, but on the basis of broad and methodical investigation.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you, Emile, for some interesting points. I'll be bold, and try to address them all.

Race as identity has been with us for a long time. Yet in the last few generations, our exposure to other races has greatly increased. My father, as an example, described to me how the first Black man walked through his village. People crowded at their gates to see him. In the next generation, his son (which is me) married a Black woman.

With regard to the fluidity of identity, this is implied in my post: 'Identity ... is about the way that individuals relate things to things,' and the way that we relate things to things changes, of course. This means that identity changes -- even my own identity over time.

We may indeed be asking the fox to guard the hen-house, and this comes up in many of my discussions. I have put it to insurrectionists, too. What will safeguard your shining new order? In the case of this post, it is who will safeguard identity. Yet there is something about the state which provides stability, in keeping with its ideals.

I like your broader, diachronic view of identity. The pendulum swings. In our present time, my own question, and the very reason for this post, is how to 'turn down the temperature'. In certain news media, on certain days, one may see most of the headlines filled with conflicts of identity.

I'm not sure whether consciousness 'cannot be separated from identity'. On the surface of it, it seems to me that a human being observes their identity, from a place one step removed, as though consciousness itself has no qualities. I have thought a lot about this, but this medium does not really provide room for a reply.

Emile said...

Nice response - thank you Thomas. I appreciate your development/reiteration of your post. I still wonder if we need to be a little more lenient than relegating the awareness of identity to the last 100 years. Gender identities, have existed since early man crawled out of the womb of his creation - and have played such a major role in identity objectification and stereotypical dehumanification. Race and location differences have empowered our sense of identity for almost as long. My sense that identity needs context is expressed in the sense that outside of context there can be no identification. If there were no females, none would identify as males. When someone asks us where we are from we do not yet answer ‘earth’ because at this stage there are no alternatives. Identification is as much about what we are not as it is about what we are. And without context, identity has no meaning. Identity is always a relative statement. This is surely true when we speak of individual identity and collective identity. Johnathan Friedman of the University of Lund further expresses that this identity needs context, and, if chosen by the subject, is typically a statement of empowerment. (American Anthropologist - 1992) It would leave me to suggest that even our identity of others is normally a statement of self empowerment.

Your questioning of identity and consciousness is interesting - but (for me, anyway) could stand further discussion - to which you indeed allude - citing context, medium and space - and with this I concur. Consciousness is about self awareness, and identity is about how I desire to manifest or choose to be seen. That seems to beg an audience - or a context. I have not yet managed to decouple consciousness from identity and relegate it into the gray abstraction of observer status - smiles.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you, Emile. If I can take your own point of dehumanisation further (dehumanification is a rare and stronger term), we may dehumanise ourselves, by adopting identities which reduce us. This raises the question, though, as to what it might be that reduces us. I think in this moment of a woman who was fixated with a cat, or a man who speaks of nothing but his liaisons.

Let me take another point of yours further. Identity, you write, is always referenced to something else. Now consider the principal syntactic elements, the subject and predicate. Today one says that the predicate ‘completes an idea about the subject’. For instance, ‘The woman (subject) is good (predicate).’ We take ‘the woman’ as a bare-bones concept, to which we add that she is good, and so we expand on the concept 'the woman'. Yet suppose that the predicate ‘is good’ serves not to expand upon the subject, but to narrow it down. The woman, who potentially could be and do anything and everything that a woman is and does, ‘is good’. We have now isolated just one aspect of her anything and everything. 'The woman’, rather than excluding most things, now includes them. Identity, therefore, is not merely referenced to something else, but contains all possibilities within. Or something like that!

What really interests me -- and to this there is not yet a reply -- is whether the idea seems viable, that penalties which are imposed through identity-bearers' absolute rights, may be replaced with identity benefits. Take a recent example in my home country, where rural commissioners of oaths have refused to perform certain functions. They now face severe penalties -- including the loss of their careers. In the case of an identity benefit, the state would guarantee that the identity-bearer is served with those functions, in one way or another, at the expense of the state. Besides which, the expense of going the penalties route is great in itself.

Emile said...

Thomas – your question about the target or reduction in self-dehumanification intrigues – as does the matter of its purpose or ‘funding’. The motivations, subjects, and empowerments, of self dehumanification almost demand further investigation.

Your aspectivised ‘anything and everything’ of a woman is a point well made. I may consider then that there is both an absolute AND a relative sense to identity, that it is both inclusive AND exclusive, as it embraces both objective AND subjective facets.

On Identity Bearers Penalties and Benefits
James Fearon (Department of Political Science, Stanford University) in the abstract on his paper on ‘WHAT IS IDENTITY (AS WE NOW USE THE WORD)? – 1999)’ wrote, ‘As we use it now, an “identity” refer(s) to either (a) a social category, defined by membership rules and (alleged) characteristic attributes or expected behaviors, or (b) socially distinguishing features that a person takes a special pride in or views as unchangeable but socially consequential (or (a) and (b) at once). In the latter sense, “identity” is modern formulation of dignity, pride, or honor that implicitly links these to social categories.’

It seems to me that while the title and article of your PI post focuses on the subject of Identification – this discussion and perhaps even your questions rather centers around the behaviors that flow out of these identifications.
The world in which we live naturally punishes or rewards identificationism that is disruptive or congruent with its collective or sometimes isolated relative judications. The challenge with attempting to systematize this outcome is that one then has to objectivize the punitive, non-punitive or even benevolent consequence of such identificationism. Yet, by definition, it seems to me to be a relative standard. We have to then criminalize certain personas and reward others – the fluid classifications of which would be nightmarish – and we would introduce a whole new set of sticks and carrots to add to our already over complex, teetering social structure. In the absence of general acceptance of such standards, and with the transient nature of those personas reflected by individuals over short or longer periods of time, and with the diabolically shifting interpretation and application of such right and wrong depending on who is judging – it seems that such a system would be enormously complex, extremely fluid, and cripplingly subjective.

Keith said...

I believe people are largely identified by their minds: knowledge, memories, creative instincts, intentions, wants, likes and dislikes, sense of self, sense of others, sense of time, dreams, curiosity, perceptions, imagination, spirituality, hopes, acquisitiveness, relationships, values, and all the rest. All complexly interrelated, to compose ‘personhood’. This aspect to ‘personal identity’, which John Locke encapsulates under the label ‘consciousness’ (self) and which undergoes continuous change, underpins the identity of a person, even over the course of time — what has been referred to as ‘diachronic’ personal identity. In contrast, the body and mind, at any single moment in time, has been referred to as ‘synchronic’ personal identity. We remain aware of both states — continuous flow of change (aka time), and single moments of ‘nowness’ — in turns switching back and forth, depending on circumstances, experiences, and prompts.

Thomas Scarborough said...

Emile: Thank you. With regard to Prof. James Fearon’s definition of identity (relying on your description of it), I have two reservations:

Firstly, identity for Fearon is all positive. But identity may not be positive. Even if it is my own identity, I may not take pride in it.

Secondly, Fearon’s ‘characteristic attributes’ of identity seem to me to be too simple. My own definition, ‘Identity is ordinary’ allows for a few corollaries: that no one person’s identity is quite the same as the next (or that my own identity is the same as my own, over time) -- and that identity may change (presumably, while identity may change in Fearon’s view, it can only change where ‘characteristic attributes’ change).

Where it comes to applying penalties or benefits in cases where there is the obstruction or transgression of one’s identity, I am not convinced that this would be too complex (or, as you say, ‘cripplingly subjective’). There are various things which are immensely complex in their manifestations (say, defamation), yet fairly simple in principle.

Keith: I like the nuanced description of identity.

With regard to who this observer is, of my own identity, it seems hard to tell (I think of the various theories of mind, consciousness, attention). However, it would seem to be the same observer as at any other time in my life. Otherwise I would, I presume, be unable to tell that my identity changed?

Thomas Scarborough said...

A postscript on this post. I note in my post that we have pitched social pluralism against absolute rights. An obvious question would be, 'Is there an alternative to absolute rights?' Simon Blackburn notes that 'rights are frequently held to "trump" other practical considerations'.

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