Archives for posts with tag: identity

I’m not a huge fan of identity politics. My reasons are the common ones: they’re unnecessarily divisive, and they tend to ignore practicality. I’m not against the idea of identity politics; every identity has a right to celebrate themselves in an empowering fashion, but when that mental process is expanded to the grander scale of actual politics is when things fall apart. Luckily, I found a brilliant video that disagrees with me, and it puts forward the best case for identity politics I’ve ever seen:

Here’s a summary for those who opt out of watching this almost 12 minute video:

Identity politics is based on arbitrary distinctions between two groups, and those distinctions don’t necessarily even need to be defined all that well. Politics on the whole, as defined by Carl Schmitt, is the distribution of power along those hazy boundaries. Consider the One-Drop rule that governed the ‘blackness’ of individuals during the 20th century: insane nonsense, but still firmly embedded in the cultural psyche and accepted by the whole as a means of dividing power. To quote, “True political conflict isn’t about facts – it’s about the fight against other identities, however arbitrarily we might point them out.”

Politics therefore isn’t about policies, government programs, or their austere lack, but about “who is allowed to have power over themselves, and who is not.” The arguments over any other issue is what Olly, the presenter, calls, “management disagreements.” Those who focus on these management disagreements as the basis for their political identity are less zealous than those who adhere to Politics as defined by Schmitt. The zealotry behind a dogmatic identity can literally kill while milquetoast liberalism could never achieve such an extreme. Because of this, a government that runs on the ideologically weaker managerial proceduralism platform will be dangerously vulnerable against any group fueled by identity-based fanaticism that is big enough to threaten it. This means that anyone who doesn’t take into account power and identity when they are discussing politics will be doomed to lose every time.

Olly then goes on to say that when one considers the identity politics of the Left and compares it to those on the Right, there is a crucial distinction to make because they are not mirror images of one another. In this Us vs. Them mentality, the opposition to the Left is less rigid than the opposition to the Right. For example, when the Left defines itself as against the rich, a rich person could simply redistribute their wealth and they would be accepted by the Left, whereas gay people, transgendered people, Muslims, etc. who are the dichotomous Other to the Right, cannot change who they are because their identity is not a choice. He concludes by saying that the centrists who focus on liberal democracy and forget, or purposefully ignore, the role that power and identity inherently play within politics are essentially condoning the violence that those two factors play in every day lives.

Like I said: good stuff. I myself have written about the perilous implications of a possibly universal Us vs. Them mentality, and given that that would encompass politics as well, then Schmitt’s Identity Politics are truly the only type that need to be addressed. However, if that’s the case, then Olly’s argument fails on one critical point. Consider Vladimir Lenin. Or Mao Zedong. Or Pol Pot. These were identity politicians on the Left who engineered a violent, inflexible attack against their identity-based opposites: the bourgeoisie. There was no talk about allowing the rich into the loving warmth of their Leftist ideology. There were massacres. The same could be said for Malcolm X who did not want white people to end their racist ways, he simply wanted them gone in a black-people-only utopia. The Left can be just as ideologically vicious as the Right when they are inflamed by their identity-based righteousness. If politics is only Identity Politics, and both sides at their extremes work only to eliminate their opposites, then ultimately we’re just fucked.

In a glimmer of hope, let’s consider this excellent Al Jazeera article that has a similar theme to Olly’s lovely video. It mentions a similar distinction between the populism on the Right and the populism on the Left, but uses an example of Bernie Sanders demonstrating left-wing populism by wishing to break up the big banks as the contrast to the Right’s anti-pluralism. Olly hints at this as well when he says that the rich and powerful can give up their oppressive ways to become a friend of the Left. It is not the identity that is at issue in these examples, but the practices of those who possess that identity. In order for Schmitt’s Politics to have a happy ending, the Other needs the capacity to change.

It could be argued that this is simple: give up racism, or sexism, or homophobia, and people will be welcomed into that loving embrace of the Left I was fantasizing about earlier, but unfortunately this is too simplistic. Consider the arguments of Anne Bishop, who declares that everyone possessing oppressor traits (straight, white, male, able-bodied, etc.) will always be oppressors because regardless of their deeds, they will always benefit from the privileges that those identity markers bestow upon them. In addition, they will have grown up under conditions that reinforce their superiority, and undermining that conditioning is an infinite process that can never successfully be accomplished. Bishop claims that the person who believes that they have finally rid themselves of their oppressor qualities becomes more oppressive for holding these impossible beliefs. What Bishop is essentially saying is that the dichotomous Other of the Left cannot shed their incompatible identity any more than the Other of the Right. Are we just fucked then?

Since identity is inescapable from either side, then we must look elsewhere for solutions. The key lies in the example I used from the Al Jazeera article where Sanders wants to break up the big banks. Breaking up the big banks has absolutely nothing to do with identity. In fact, it is closer to what Olly might call a management proposal. This management proposal, however, is the mechanism for change that would allow the rich to absolve themselves of their oppressive identity to something more acceptable to the Left. Or consider the Black Lives Matter campaign demanding an end to the shooting of black men by police. This is Schmittian Politics because so long as police are trained to use deadly force, and crimes are still committed by black people, even if racism is taken out of the equation, this will always produce the use of deadly force against black people. It is an impossible demand for change. Further evidence is the call to defund the NYPD and expel the police department from Pride Parades; clear indications of inflexible dogmatism. This isn’t allowing capacity for change, it’s demanding the elimination of police from within the Leftist fold: an explicit Us vs. Them mentality. Instead of an overarching ban on police, or calls to defund and therefore ultimately abolish the institution of policing, why not look at mechanisms for change? In the UK (save Northern Ireland), cops do not carry firearms, and if this system were imported into the United States, it would certainly eliminate the police killings of black men. While I am by no means saying this is the panacea for the shootings of black men by police, and other, better solutions are certainly available, it is one example of a mechanism for change that does not call for vindictive polarization.

If we are to accept the implications of Schmittian Politics, then the passionate zeal that drives us must be directed against the management disagreements that Olly insists are not involved in that type of Politics at all. Creating a Them out of an identity marker, no matter which direction it is coming from, will only ever be destructive. My initial critique was right: we must avoid divisiveness and focus on practical, real-world solutions. Identity must be dismissed in favour of these mechanisms for change, as they are the only way to bridge the friend and enemy divide. I mean sure, maybe that is an impossible request, and we are hardwired to pursue an Other based on arbitrary identity markers. If that’s the case, then, as I’ve been saying, we’d just be fucked.

There has been an enormous backlash against Rachel Dolezal ever since she came out and identified as a black woman. Both as a condemnation towards her for having the audacity to don a modern day blackface in order to appropriate black culture, as well as a harsh denial that identifying as a different race is the same as identifying as a different gender.

I’m going to be using the adopted “transracial” term throughout this blog post because despite its original meaning of crossing racial boundaries, it’s really the best we’ve got. Plus, it gives me a good opportunity to address the first critique of Rachel Dolezal’s identifying as a black woman: people claim that because there is no word for “transracial”, Rachel Dolezal must be lying. This of course would mean that before the early 1970s when transgender was added to the English lexicon, it was impossible for people to identify as a different gender. Not having an English word for something does not automatically discard it as impossible.

Rachel Dolezal must also be lying because you can’t feel a race, whereas you can feel a gender. Those who are transgendered typically are aware of the ‘wrongness’ of their body in relation to their identity as early as childhood. What does it mean to feel a gender though? It seems just as ludicrous as feeling a race. As a cis-man, I feel I should be adequately qualified to say what it feels like to be a man, and I am 100% certain that a trans-male would not feel their gender the same as I do. I am told, time and again, that there is no way for me to understand what it’s like to be trans, and that is fair, there’s not. I don’t claim to. But that lack of understanding works both ways. Being a man is not just the hormonal urges and biological make-up; chromosomes dictate gender just as much as genetics dictate race, and both have physiological effects on our selves, but any transgendered person will tell you there’s more to gender identity than your chromosomes. Why can’t it be the same with genetics? Yes, there’s also the social conditioning and cultural attitudes that affect gender as well, and this is precisely why gender is considered a social construct, much like, hey you guessed it, race!

Which leads me to my next point: Rachel Dolezal is merely a white woman appropriating black culture because that’s what white people do. White people wear Native American tribal feathers like party hats, and are shocked when they learn that trivializing sacred traditions for the sake of looking exotic at a rave is considered offensive. But by all accounts, Rachel Dolezal was not trivializing black culture, but was embracing it, thriving within it, and helping progress it. If becoming an embodiment of a member of a culture is by definition appropriation, why is it not appropriation when a man becomes a woman or vice versa? There are gender cultures. We each have our separate hairstyles and modes of dress; we have our own belief sets (for example with regards to sexuality); we have our own rituals, etc. Yes, not all men and women fall into those cultural boundaries, just as not all black and white people fit into their own respective cultural stereotypes. I say again, THEY ARE BOTH EQUALLY SOCIAL CONSTRUCTS. If Rachel Dolezal was indeed trivializing black culture, rather than fully immersing herself into it, then it would be appropriation. However, since she clearly is not, then there is no more appropriating than when someone identifies as a separate gender.

But of course, black culture has a long, sordid history of oppression by white people, so that makes it worse. Black people weren’t given the vote in America until 1965, and the Jim Crow One-Drop law forced even those with the most minute of black ancestry to face terrible oppression. The argument is that when black people are treated like white people, then white people can identify as black. But women only got the vote 45 years earlier in 1920, and if I want to get catty about it, women weren’t allowed to wear pants in school until 1972, and now men want to wear skirts? Women still receive a fraction of the pay that men make for the same amount of work, and there are still disturbing amounts of incidents of violence against women. So if we have to wait until black people have equality for a white person to be able to identify as one, why was gender allowed to jump the gun?

My favourite argument that I’ve come across thus far was that Rachel Dolezal was seeking to gain socially by becoming a black woman. Which is hilarious to me because since when has a BLACK WOMAN been the top of the social totem pole? White privilege and male privilege are no longer the accepted norm? Black women have taken the top spot? Please. And even if Rachel Dolezal benefited from identifying as a black woman, this trans-man wrote an entire article about how sweet being recognized as a dude is, and no one is asking him to hand back his penis card:

Speaking of privilege, Rachel Dolezal is also condemned because she can just remove her shoe polish or whatever and do her hair like a proper white woman whenever she gets tired of playing dress up, and she can reclaim her white privilege; no harm, no foul. Just like a trans-woman could take off her dress and wig any time she wanted to get back that sweet male privilege, right?

A lot of transgendered people have been interviewed, as well as black people, as well as trans-black people, who all claim that Rachel Dolezal can’t be associated with them for a variety of reasons. So she must be lying, because intersectional identity politics teaches us that those from one group get to dictate how those from another group identify themselves. That was sarcasm. If you don’t get it, look up intersectionality. It’ll be good for you. I’m sure being transracial is quite different from being transgendered, or cisracial, but that doesn’t mean those groups have the right to denounce her identity just because it’s different from their own.

The final argument is, of course, she’s just lying. There’s no such thing as being transracial, so she can’t be one. She’s a big fat liar. Except, there’s kinda precedent. Given the fact that race is a social construct, it shouldn’t be that difficult to identify as a race separate from the one you were born with. We actually have names for those kinds of people, and given the seemingly natural transphobic nature of most people, they’re all slurs: Wiggers, for instance, or an Uncle Tom for the opposite. We have Bananas, and those white guys who are super into Japanese culture. I don’t know if they have a name, but most people just call them creeps. In Asia, there is that whole eye-widening craze. Hell, the one instance that I’m surprised NOBODY has mentioned in this clusterfuck of a media shitstorm is Michael God damn Jackson. You could argue that he had his skin disease and that’s why he bleached his skin, but his skin disease didn’t cause him to get facial reconstruction surgery to thin out his nose and lips, or straighten his hair, effectively erasing any remaining “blackness” he once possessed. Michael Jackson never openly identified as being white, but it is not a far stretch of the imagination to envision it as a distinct possibility.

It is possible Rachel Dolezal is lying. Sure. But people are arguing so vehemently about the strictest impossibility of anything similar ever even taking place that you have to question why transracial is different from transgender. Why is a white person identifying as being black so offensive while a man identifying as a woman is accepted (among progressives, anyway)?

My first guess was that white people are simply greater villains than men, but I don’t think that’s true. Slavery, the biggest divide between whites and blacks, didn’t occur just in America. Africa had its own share of slavery, and when white slavers came to the African continent to buy slaves, it was African tribesmen who sold them. I’m not trying to justify or condone anything, but I would like to point out that I can assume with almost 100% certainty that both individuals in every instance of those slave exchanges, for both races, were men. White people have done terrible things, but so have black people, so has every single race in existence, and again, in almost every instance, it was likely being perpetrated by a man.

Simone de Beauvoir in her book The Second Sex points out that it is much more difficult for woman to combat against men because gender pervades all the other divisions. Whites and blacks have a clear distinction, as do the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Most combative groups have distinct dividing lines between them. Men and women, however, permeate all those groups. It is almost impossible for men and women to strictly work against one another because of this, and also because quite frequently men and women love each other deeply. The biological connection that men and women share makes it much more difficult for us to hate one another, whereas there is no such courtesy among any other groups.

It’s also possible that people identify more with their race than they do with their gender, and that is why people are getting more anxious over someone identifying as transracial than transgender.

For the group that claims to be the critical thinkers of the modern world, I really feel like progressives have dropped the ball. If you want to argue with me that transracial isn’t a thing, go for it. I’m not married to the idea. I just need to see a better argument that can’t just be put up against transgendered people with just a few words switched out, like I’m going to do here with this Huffington Post article:

Gender divisions may ultimately be a construct, Moore notes, but “sex is determined by your chromosomes.” And it’s secondary sex characteristics that primarily determines gender privilege, and the way others in the world interact with your gender identity.

Transgender identity is a concept that allows men to indulge in femininity as a commodity, without having to actually engage with every facet of what being a woman entails — discrimination, marginalization, oppression, and so on. It plays into gender stereotypes, and perpetuates the false idea that it is possible to “feel” a gender. As a man, Jenner retains his privilege; he can take off the wig and the nylons and navigate the world without the stigma tied to actually being a woman. His connection to gender oppression is something he has complete control over, a costume he can put on — and take off — as he pleases.

It’s unclear what Jenner believes his authentic gender identity to be — he has yet to comment publicly, and actively dodged the question when a reporter asked him what genitals he had under his skirt on June 10. “I don’t understand the question,” he answered, ending the interview abruptly.

Jenner’s delusion and commitment to living as a woman is profound. And it’s inherently wrong. The implications of a man, donning femininity and then using that femininity in order to navigate women’s washrooms is offensive. 

I won’t do the whole article because a lot of it is too specific to Dolezal’s case, and frankly it’s annoying to bold all those words, but you get the idea. If you want to call me transphobic for making the comparison between transgender and transracial, then I will call you transphobic for automatically assuming that someone who identifies as something they weren’t born as is a liar and a pretender, or worse, mentally ill.

One of the common philosophical tropes is asking what makes us who we are. We all have a sense of Self; we all have a sense of Others, but what actually makes up that essence of Self? There are usually two answers that are given: either the body or the mind.

Let’s start by looking at the body because a lot of people who are trying really hard not to be superficial want to say the mind. The body actually has a great importance when it comes to identity. It’s how we recognize people. I look at you, and I see the way your eyes crinkle when you smile your crooked smile, I hear the sound of your voice, etc. If I see you walking down the street, it is because of the physical make-up of your body that I am able to say, “That is you.” The Christian tradition says that when we are resurrected after God finally gets bored letting us play around, it is our physical body that we inhabit within the heavenly realm. 2000 years of tradition is not easy to dismiss. Lastly, the absolute worst “Would you rather?” question makes us really ponder the essence of a person, be it body or mind, by asking us, “Would you rather have sex with your girlfriend’s body inhabited by the consciousness of your mother, or your mother’s body inhabited by the consciousness of your girlfriend?” If you prefer boyfriends or others, make whatever substitutions you need to until you realize that it’s gross either way. If body was unimportant towards identity, this question would be significantly easier to answer.

So, if body is important to identity, what happens if someone loses a leg and requires a prosthetic? And then an eye and needs a glass one? And then an arm and gets a chainsaw, Evil Dead-style? If the body represents identity, and the body is replaced, (keep in mind that the body has completely new cells every seven years), how can we say that it is still the same person? If I am A, and then later I am B, how is that consistent since A ≠ B? It doesn’t seem logically sound. When we see two clones fighting to the death in a movie, one is typically the normal version, and the other is usually evil. We accept them to be different despite their identical bodies, and it is their minds that separate them.

To those reading this, you know my identity through my mind. My body does not register for this one-sided conversation. If my body was destroyed through a lab experiment gone wrong, and my mind was transferred into a machine that could transmit my thoughts into text, those who know me best would likely be able to ascertain that it is in fact my mind within that machine. They would get my jokes, recognize my allegories, and know enough about my patterns of speech that they might eventually accept that this machine was now me. And of course everyone knows that it’s not what’s on the outside that counts, but what’s on the inside!

But what about someone who suffers brain trauma and whose whole personality changes? Or someone suffering from PTSD and whose mind has been altered because of it? Are we a totally different person when under the influence of narcotics? Or when suffering from Alzheimer’s and Dementia? We might think, “oh, the real them is in there somewhere!” We reject that this new mind cannot be the real them, but we maintain their identity because we accept that the body gives a person the consistency of identity even when we have no other evidence outside the body to suggest this. For example, we continue to love our elderly with Alzheimer’s because we recognize a sense of identity beyond the mind.

So is identity some combination of the two? An amalgamation of body and mind? The astute observer might notice that these problems of identity that I have been going over all take place from the perspective of an observer, not the person themselves. It is the understanding of the identity of the Other that has so many flaws in it, and here is why.

The identity of the Other is not any sort of combination of body and mind, it is based on memory. We remember what someone looks like, sounds like, smells and maybe even tastes like, and that is how we define their body. We also remember how they behave, and how they interact with us, and that is how we define their mind. The only dilemma in identity becomes apparent when the memory of a person does not coincide with how we presently perceive them.

If the identity of the Other transcended memory, everyone would know that Batman is Bruce Wayne. No matter how much he hid his body through costumes, or his mind through his billionaire playboy persona, his identity would transcend these memories people had of Bruce Wayne, and Batman would instantly become recognizable due to the connection of identity that he would necessarily possess with others.

If identity is memory, what does this mean? The most glaring consequence of this revelation is that one can only love the memory of a person, as that is the only way we can ever know them. Before you dismiss this, keep in mind that those who are adopted young enough, who form childhood memories with their adopted siblings, will never love them “in that way” based on those early, developmental memories. In contrast, genetically related siblings, meeting for the first time as adults, frequently have sexual attraction towards one another, as the memories required to counteract this superemely gross encounter are nonexistent. Those with Alzheimer’s are notorious for not recognizing their loved ones in the present, but will recall them fondly within their memories of the past.

Is the love of an abstract idea created from memory as powerful as the traditional sense of love that romantics poetically describe to us? I would argue that it is. Created values will always have the strength that we assign to them.

This does also mean that if you lose a loved one, literally everything that you love about them is still with you, so long as you remember them. I can’t tell if this is consoling or not, but… maybe?

Anyway, I feel that I should probably outline the identity of the Self as viewed by the Self. The identity of the Self should presumably go beyond simple memory. Descartes’s cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) concludes that there must at least be a receptacle for thinking, or a receptacle for memory, in order for a being to exist. If memories are lost, the identity of the Self is not lost, as the receptacle has just been emptied, it has not disappeared.

Are we just unique cogitos running around? A thinking beacon? We are not necessarily our consciousness, as the being of consciousness is the consciousness of being (which means that we can only be conscious of something. If we self-reflect, we are conscious of our self; if we reflect on anything else, we are conscious of that thing). However, there must be something projecting that consciousness. There is also a neuroscientist named Raymond Tallis who points out that we know all about the input of sight: light enters into our eyeballs, hits a bunch of eyeball parts, and this information is transferred into our brain, but that doesn’t explain the output: what is looking out. The thing that projects sight in theory would be the same thing that projects consciousness.

Whatever it is projecting these aspects of Self, if you were to ask me, is our identity. I don’t want to use the term Soul because that implies a holiness and an eternal nature which I don’t believe necessarily follows from this theory. I like the term cogito though just because it sounds fancy, or the Subject is another way you could put it. Is it a dualistic ghost in the machine, or a creation of the physical brain? It’s hard to say. The nature of consciousness is another blog for another day.

Finally, for those that think that we are our DNA mixed with cultural and environmental factors, then we would have no identity at all. That would be materialistic determinism, and we would only be cogs, no different from all the other cogs mindlessly plugging through our predetermined roles. You’ve obliterated all meaning, freedom, identity, and value from the world. I hope you’re happy with yourselves. Also, quantum probability and the observer paradox have thrown a few wrenches into those deterministic gears, so you’re probably also wrong, but this blog is already long enough.

Post-Script: we can never access the Other’s Subject/cogito, that is why the connection between beings is based on memory.