A significant conversation happening in public discourse across western culture is about identity. Identity politics. It can feel like you are either meant to be for it or vehemently opposed to it. But for most of us, it can’t be that simple, nor that binary. Its complex as hell.
We all have identities because we are each conscious human beings developing their personalities through experience. We are raised in family units surrounded by communities living in a society. At all levels, we interact with experiences and perceptions that develop our personalities and allow us to craft an identity. Not a single entity but multiple entities that make up the whole. We are a collection of labels that represent what we have learned, loved and hated through life. Labels are useful if chosen by us because we can define who we are and what we identify as. It gives us the power to understand and be aware of who we are and how we fit into our worlds.
Be under no illusion that everyone does this
No one is exempt. Religious people identify as their beliefs whether that be Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim and the rest. Those who are interested in politics identify by a party or by belief: socialist, communist, fascist, conservative, liberal, anarchist and so on. Then you have the innate identities that none of us can deny: sexual orientation, race, gender, sex, disability and mental conditions. And then there is the powerful monocle of nationality. We all have labels in our identity. They are simply words that give us and others a glimpse into who we are in different parts of our life. In a similar way to how emotions are summarised down into words like fear, love, hate, happiness gives a glimpse into how we are feeling.
Another part of identity is how it is developed through experience, both positive and negative. For example, I am gay. Through no choice of my own, I am sexually and romantically attracted to men. In a mostly straight society, the process of coming out as gay is an experience that no one who isn’t queer will ever experience. Therefore the identity of gay has unique experiences to it that straight people don’t have. Those differences in experiences are what creates an identity. They can go from massive issues like race down to the type of milk you drink. It is in those differences that you see the endless potential of the human condition. We are all similar and yet immensely unique.
Identity in politics
The issue appears to arise when labels turn into teams. And it happens to both sides of the spectrum. Ben Shapiro infers in an interview with Ezra Klein that chosen identities such as religion, and political beliefs are acceptable in public discourse. Still, inherent identities such as race, sexuality, sex and gender are not. So on the political Right, identity is permitted as long as it is the right sort of identity like religion, nationality or white (in western society).
On the other side of the aisle is the concept of groupthink. On the Left to be a part of the oppressed identity is to think and feel as a single homogenous group. The idea comes from the fact that identity groups have shared experiences, and therefore their responses should be united. Except it is forgotten that no identity is based on a singular experience and that each of us is individuals first. A black man’s experience in London might be similar and yet wildly different from another black man’s experience in Preston. It is that shared experiences that form the group, but it is our overall perceptions and experiences that make us unique individuals.
The group as a whole may have grievances
Still, not every individual in that group identity may agree with every aspect or tactic of the groups and individuals leading the group. The Left focuses too strongly on the group, and the Right concentrates so much on the individual. Both sides forget the nuance that comes with living as an individual who is part of a minority identity within society.
Each of us is individuals first. We exist first as crying, pooping babies. From there we grow, learn and mature. Our personality is developed through pain and laughter, hardship and joy. Through our collected experiences as we move through life. That includes internalising the values that our family, teachers, religious leaders and overall society introject into us. Those have ideas about sex, money, race, gender, power and justice. Those values affect how we, as individuals and society, react to one another.
Certain groups have advantages over others due to how society has been structured throughout history. I’ve talked about my coming out story enough, so let’s focus on slavery and both Britain and America’s relationship with it. If, as a nation, you choose to enslave a specific ethnic group on which you build a substantial amount of wealth, you are actively choosing to place members of that ethnic group at the very bottom of society. You decide not to see those people as people but instead property. They have little to no human rights nor a real chance to live a life of their choosing. That act places those individuals in a lesser role in the minds of others in society.
When they are eventually freed, a lot of damage has already been done. You may have granted them freedom, but you’ve instilled in the remaining populace that these people are beneath them, whilst you pat yourselves on the back for a job well done. Except you have created an equal society where the black freeman is on the same level as the white man who used to own him. They have been disadvantaged by decades and centuries of oppression. That takes time to recover from. Therefore you would hope those who committed the damage would work hard to level up their once former slaves. But no, instead those former slaves continued to face persecution, oppression and violence for decades following their freedom being granted. Over the recent half-century, much has been done to level up those who have been previously oppressed. However, the work is not yet complete.
It is clear to see some groups do have privilege. I am a white man who has never been stopped and searched or pulled over or faced openly racist groups on the street as black men have. I have had homophobic remarks tossed my way, unlike my straight friends. Certain groups certainly face specific challenges. The focus on allowing individuals to learn and grow to; therefore, better all of society is being drowned in torrents of abuse or demands for purity on both sides.
There is a nuanced middle ground where the hard work of educating and developing both people and society is being done. It is how the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement and the feminist movement moved progress forward. That is where our focus should be. And remember that the group should never overshadow the individual, but that the individual should be a helpful member of the group.