A Fair and Necessary Approach to Identity

This is the first part of an essay-series surrounding the concept of identity. The reader is not required to read the series in any particular order, given that each essay (three in total) will include the necessary definitions regarding new concepts.

Second part

Third part

Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

Emphasizing both distinctions and similarities between people has been a part of our daily discourses for a considerable amount of time. However, in the course of sifting through these differences that people identify with, we arguably lost track of their origin, as well as the reasons for justifying their current relevance. Meaning, we collectively elevated the importance of identities to such a degree, consequently resulting in the demise of the individual. Whether this, what could be argued, faulty substitution can be rectified depends on the willingness of people to reconsider the actual relevance of identity. Bear in mind that this willingness has, as of late, reached an all-time low as a result of various identity-driven events associated across the political spectrum.

Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that, naturally, belonging to a certain collective identity is in and of itself nothing to be afraid, ashamed or, — most importantly — proud of. (The latter emotion will be discussed further in part three of this essay series). The fact of the matter is however that some collective or shared identities are obtained on the sole basis of luck. Among these are various identities, including, but not limited to skin colour or nationality. Since these identities can be considered products of chance, one could make a case for treating these types of identities as irrelevant for our personal identity — irrelevant for characterizing the individual.

This qualitative judgement of our identity that characterizes this essay advocates for the following: what I would call, “identity blindness” — presuming any part of someone’s (collective) identity to be trivial and therefore excluded from reasoning on the condition that the obtainment of its membership is based on chance. In other words, we can’t, possibly, ground our rationale, for instance, on simply being a part of a particular religion or nationality, for the sole reason that these identities are generally not a result of a personal conscious decision.

Coincidental Identity: “I happen to be X.”

It should come as no surprise that people put an immense amount of time and energy in defending their identities. What is surprising, though, are the type of identities we prefer to protect over others. Rather than putting our valuable resources towards a form of identity that defines us who we are, many prefer to direct these resources towards identities that generalize into what we are. The unfortunate fact is that people obtained membership from these shared identities by simply the accident of birth. People, for instance, put as much effort in obtaining their skin colour, as they have done in obtaining their eye colour. Yet many people go through life by intensely associating themselves to the former immutable characteristic and the people who equally identify as such, and disregarding the latter.

Which brings me to, what I call, coincidental identity. I define this concept as the following: any form of collective identity that has been acquired indirectly, without any conscious agent deciding to obtain membership. Despite these accidental occurrences, we commonly value these memberships to the extent that we regard them to be part of our personal identity.

Rather than personally identifying with these coincidental identities, we ought to view them as what they are — coincidences. So instead of presenting ourselves as “being X”, we might frame it as “happening to be X”. We, therefore (implicitly) take away the conscious identification with a certain collective identity. The happen-to-be argument can by no means be considered novel. In a 1988 essay titled, When Victims Happen To Be Black, the Yale law professor Stephen Carter already advocated for the precondition where the awareness of race ought not to play a role in identifying victims and their transgressors concerning a criminal act since the individuals involved happen to be a certain colour.

A few years after Carter’s essay was published, the leading critical race scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw, criticized the happen-to-be argument by arguing in favour of conscious identification with one’s race. In her essay, Crenshaw claims that explicitly stating our race (i.e. “I am X-race”) “takes the socially imposed identity and empowers it as an anchor of subjectivity. “I am Black” becomes not simply a statement of resistance, but also a positive discourse of self-identification, intimately linked to celebratory statements like the Black nationalist “Black is beautiful.” And even though Crenshaw deems both ways of identification — being X and happening to be X — to be accurate, she advocates for recognizing identity groups as coalitions, or “at least potential coalitions waiting to be formed,” and hence prefers the former characterization of skin colour.

Identifying with, or simply acknowledging skin colour is seemingly much more important to critical theorists than transcending the identification with our race. The primary reason for this is because critical theorists consider race blindness (or colourblindness) to be the product of liberal white people, with the intent to preserve racial superiority compared to non-white people. On the contrary however are progressives who, as a result of examining the awful history of racial categorization, experiencing the essentialization of groups by race, and noticing that “[r]ace consciousness alienates the individual from his or her “true” self,” advocate for the progressive race blindness view. Among these theorists is historian, Paul Gilroy, who writes in his 2000 book, Against Race, that:

[Race] stands outside of, and in opposition to, most attempts to render it secondary to the overwhelming sameness that overdetermines social relationships between people and continually betrays the tragic predicaments of their common species life. The undervalued power of this crushingly obvious, almost banal human sameness, so close and basically invariant that it regularly passes unremarked upon, also confirms that the crisis of raciological reasoning presents an important opportunity where it points toward the possibility of leaving “race” behind, of setting aside its disabling use as we move out of the time in which it could have been expected to make sense.

Gilroy essentially views race as nothing more than a segregation tool that has in particular been used in the past on minorities, simply for happening to be a certain colour. Merely recognizing this feature should justify the notion to dispense with — or, at minimum adjust — the current approach to race identification.

Nullifying Identity Politics

Harvard professor of political philosophy, John Rawls (1921–2002), Harvard University, 29th May 1990. (Photo by Steve Pyke)

Despite the backlash that has been directed at the race-side of the happen-to-be argument, we should recognize that its reach is much wider than simply involving the colour of our skin. Which leads me to discuss John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance thought experiment, that Rawls lays out in his 1971 book, A Theory of Justice. This thought experiment consists of us imagining a hypothetical society, from scratch. The decisions we make concerning the laws we set up in this society should be impartial. Meaning that, as Rawls writes, “[0]ne excludes the knowledge of those contingencies which sets men at odds and allows them to be guided by their prejudices.” Hence, we are deprived of any personal characteristics or facts about economics, biology, and psychology.

Guided by our self-interest, we can, as Sam Harris puts it in The Moral Landscape, “design any society we like as long as we do not presume to know, in advance, whether we will be black or white, male or female, young or old, healthy or sick, of high or low intelligence, beautiful or ugly, etc.” Meaning, any established laws or regulations in this fictitious society would, in theory, work equally fair whether someone happens to be an Asian teenager who is intellectually impaired or a middle-aged white woman who happens to be physically disabled. Rawls’ theory can, accordingly, be applied to invalidate the concept of identity politics given its impartial nature.

The incompatible relationship between identity politics and Rawls’ veil of ignorance becomes clear during the infamous discussion between Harris and the co-founder of Vox, Ezra Klein, wherein Harris describes that applying identity politics basically consists of “reasoning on the basis of skin colour, or religion, or gender, or some particular trait which you have [obtained] by accident.” Harris quickly continues by adding that “to reason from that place as though, because you’re you — because you have the skin colour you have — certain things are true and, very likely, incommunicable to other people who don’t share your identity.”

And while I am sympathetic to the view that people differ — to a certain extent — from each other (e.g. here), we should nevertheless reconsider on what ground these differences are established, since the notion that people can make an a priori judgement based on skin colour completely overlooks our human universality. Not only do we disregard our commonalities, but by appealing to our (coincidental) identities we produce an environment that has no interest in seeking the truth.

Accidental Nationalities

By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly ­– and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. — George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism.

Basing our hate on superficial characteristics is by no means unique to the political Left. The act of ascribing a superior value to one’s nationality (relative to other nationalities), for instance, is primarily tied to the opposite side of the political spectrum. The fact that this kind of tribalism is much less spoken of nowadays does not lessen its stupidity. Not to mention that many people, both on the left and right, don’t consider their attachment to their nationality an issue — let alone a source of hate.

By now, we are well aware that our method of categorization can’t be as rigid as some would like it to be. We are constraint by our differences to put an absolute value on any item we engage with. Even so, for the sake of somehow mitigating our fuzzy nature, we are determined to label unfamiliarities, guessing it could give us a sense of certainty. However, we should arguably question the merit of this certainty — above all when we’re considering the nationalities we identify with.

The nationalities we are so eager to associate with are, as I mentioned previously, simply part of our coincidental identity. This means that people who proudly profess their affection they have for their nationality, are, more often than not, referring to their native country. The act of you being born in a certain country is entirely contingent on chance. Personally, we had no say in this decision. Hence, the superior value of our nationality can’t be self-evident when this judgement is partly based on an act of chance.

And how about foreigners or refugees that attribute and display a similar amount of affection as natives do to the nation they migrated to? This scenario, although relatively less common than native nationalists, seems to some extent be depicted by Orwell in his Notes on Nationalism as “more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, [and] more dishonest” — and thus possibly more nationalistic. That being said, there shouldn’t be an issue in being content with our current quality of life or living environment. However, our irrational devotion and attachment to this same environment can, on the other hand, be disputed. Concerning the fact that to do so is to impute the highest possible value on a particular nation, irrespective of its well-documented deficiencies.

Furthermore, such a value is in part affected by the perceived communal structure that is, so to speak, supported by a shared nationality. Nations are, according to Benedict Anderson’s 1983 book, an “imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. Anderson points out that nations are imagined due to the fact that “members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.”

Despite this arguably weak interpersonal connection, Anderson argues that nations and their citizens can create a strong sense of communion, or what he calls, “horizontal comradeship” — a community solely based on a single shared trait (nationality in this case). That, coupled with the notion of coincidental identity — that the obtainment of nationality is largely accidental — , I would argue that we ought not to forgo our honesty and valuable discourses as a result of our attachment to our nationality. It is conclusively for these reasons that nationalism — or any strong association with a nation, for that matter — seems myopic to me, to say the least.

Outgrowing Tribalism

Given the fact that both supporters who happen to be aligned with the political Left or Right have continuously been proponents of a one-size-fits-all narrative — either intentionally or unintentionally — makes me suspect that any form of tribalism that is based on coincidental identity won’t be transcended any time soon. This paints on the one hand a bleak picture of humanity and its progress as a species. However, on the other hand, we should keep in mind both the difficulty that this task represents and how we, as individuals, define the various inevitable identities that we happen to belong to.

Additionally, merely because identity has wrapped itself in political fabric, does not make it a binary decision on the approach we take on the concept of identity. That said, we must nevertheless be alert with regard to both political sides concerning this sensitive issue. Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay warn us in their book, Cynical Theories, from possibly running the risk of retaliation from, in this case, the political Right:

Social Justice [the Left] uses a simplistic identity politics approach which ascribes collective blame to dominant groups — white people are racist, men are sexist, and straight people are homophobic. This explicitly goes against the established liberal value of not judging people by their race, gender, or sexuality, and it is incredibly naive to expect it not to produce a counter-revival of old right-wing identity politics.

To prevent this from happening would mean for us to depreciate the concept of identity in its entirety by relying on a universalist approach to identity. That would require us to find common ground with both political sides on the most fundamental part of our coincidental identity — our human sameness. Until we figure this out, perceiving people with distinct looks, nationality, skin colour, gender, or religion, and therefore deeming them ineradicably different from us, is something we will hopefully outgrow as a species, at some point in the future. For now, we’ll have to cope with the various toxic forms of tribalism that infect our politics, relationships, universities, and — most importantly — our individuality.

A BA in general economics, studying psychology at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Previously written for Areo Magazine and Merion West

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