Identity, in one way or another, has been at the center (or at least, the shadowy background) of politics in recent years. In Germany, we have the ‘Identitäre Bewegung’ (identitary movement), a far-right extremist group; but identity is not just a right-wing topic, and some voices have argued that the left-wing divisivenes on issues of identity has aided the large-scale shift to the right by alienating the masses.
This isn’t what I want to discuss. Rather, my topic is, first, why there is such a current focus on issues of identity, and, second, how the way we construct our identities helps to explain some of the differences between left- and right-wing ideologies. That’s of course a rather large topic, and I won’t be able to do it justice in a single post, but I hope to put some ideas out there that might lead to fertile discussion.
So, first. Identity. I think the basic issue is that we never used to have to think about identity terribly much: who you were was, in the bad old times, largely determined by the circumstances of your birth—the farmer’s son would likely be a farmer himself, and so on. This was, of course, an egregiously unfair and oppressive system, so none of what I’m saying should be interpreted as advocating for a return to it (although I think that in our myths and stories, we often have an implicit longing for such a form of identity construction, with the hero being destined to be the chosen one, the savior, the one standing out from the rest of the rabble).
The thing is, identity was largely dealt with, for better or worse. However, with the (still far from complete) shift towards a more egalitarian society, with at least some upward (and sideward) mobility, these ways of identity construction have started losing relevance, yet, no readily available substitute has emerged. Options are great, but can be paralytic. In result, we’re increasingly confused about who we are, who we ought to be, and how to become that.
How, then, is identity constructed? I think the essential elements of identity construction are association and, perhaps more importantly, dissociation: by counting ourselves among the members of some group, we basically avow that we are like those in the group, and unlike those outside of it. Each group-membership then further constrains our own identity, until perhaps the sum total of groups we count ourselves to be members of uniquely single out that one sparkling individual that is you.
This isn’t new, of course. The new thing is that, rather than being born into the essential set of groups, we can now, to a certain extent, at least, self-select what groups we want to be part of. Different groups are then more or less effective at forging identity: a group that includes almost anyone (and hence, excludes almost noone) serves little to specify yourself as an individual; while a group that has few adherents—such as, perhaps, an extremist faction—provides a strong sense of identity.
Thus, a consequence of this idea is that those with a weak sense of identity are most vulnerable to falling into extremist views—something which, I think, seems largely born out by observation.
This theory, of course, can only be a first pass at identity construction. It has some immediate weak points: different groups provide different levels of identification, despite being exclusive of comparable numbers of people—your local congregation will feature more heavily into your conception of yourself than your knitting circle does, for example. I believe that this has to do with a valuation of the groups we’re considering ourselves members of: some groups are such that we want to be part of them, that being part of them constitutes what we think a ‘good person’ ought to do, so being part of these groups allows us to consider ourselves ‘good’ or ‘righteous’. Now, this introduces a certain complication: there’s a sort of nonlinearity that creeps into this issue, since what we think is ‘good’ or ‘righteous’ is influenced by what social groups we’re part of—hence, the picture of our identity just being essentially determined by the intersection of the groups we’re part of must fall short. But I think it’ll serve to at least provide some intuitions that will prove useful.
The first of these is that an attack on the legitimation of groups we consider to be the core constituents of our self-identity essentially forms an attack on our innermost self. Hence, when we debate somebody on something that we both feel strongly about, it’s never facts, figures and arguments that are on the line, but rather, our core conception of ourselves. This, I think, vividly illustrates how little facts, figures and arguments often do to change minds. Paradoxically, a good argument for the opposite site may serve to strengthen our convictions, as it necessarily widens the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’, making the non-members of a given group even more fundamentally ‘other’.
Furthermore, the greatest threat to an identity constructed in such a way is not those that are opposed to our core convictions, that are excluded by the groups we adhere to, but rather, the lax adherents: those who don’t follow the program with the necessary zeal. The reason for this is that such behavior serves to erode the barrier between self and other, between our allies and our opponents, introducing a sliding scale where the construction of our self-identity demands an impenetrable wall. The zealot is harsher on the doubter than on the atheist; the existence of the atheist simply serves to cement the zealot’s sense of self, while the doubter opens up the possibility that there might be merely a difference of degree, not of essence, between the zealot and the atheist.
This entails that certain forms of self-construction are inherently more vulnerable to in-fighting than others. A group that selects its members based on inherent characteristics, whether they are legitimately so or only perceived as such, will have less trouble with eroding boundaries than a group that self-selects, say, on similarities of behavior. The latter must thus introduce more internal policing than the former, to keep its adherents in line—because each apostate is a threat to the group as a whole, by questioning its legitimacy as a monolithic bloc.
This is, I think, what’s at the heart of left-wing infighting. Right-wing groups typically select along borders of characteristics such as race, heritage, gender, income and the like, while it’s precisely one of the main characteristics of the left that such distinctions are not valid. Thus, the left must keep its integrity by carefully keeping its members on the party line—hence, the sad irony of seeing the language developed to overcome the arbitrary distinctions between, say, different genders used as an identifier for dividing between the proper adherents and the apostates—utilizing that which was developed to unify as a marker along which to divide.
Thus, while the members of the right can stand unified by virtue of their overt characteristics, the left endlessly self-criticizes, ruptures and fractures, thus often hurting the (what I believe to be) worthy causes they are devoted to, ceding dialectical ground to those actually opposed to these causes—in the extreme, merely replacing arbitrary distinctions of race, gender etc. with arbitrary distinctions of who genders correctly, who is opposed to cultural appropriation in the right way, etc. Just to be clear, I think these are important issues, but we should strive to unify along them, rather than use them just as a convenient yardstick to tell ally from other.
This has some troublesome side-effects, as well. The right, perceiving the trend of the times to go against them, yearn back towards a time when their identity constructs hadn’t come under fire, when being white and male was still sufficient to be who you were; the left, on the other hand, becomes increasingly rarefied and utopian, opposed to every compromise and ‘realpolitik’ as ceding too much ground to the other. Its discourse, at least in my perception, has in large parts slid away from the factual towards the moralistic: you’re not either right or wrong—and thus, perhaps amenable to argument and being convinced—but a bad or good person. It’s hard to have a factual, balanced discussion on, say, the merits of organic farming versus genetic engineering, when supporting a certain side of the issue is seen as inherently morally wicked.
This isn’t intended as some form of argument for centrism, as some limp-wristed compromise; my values are, for the most part, pretty firmly planted on the left. But I think we do need to raise the question of what to replace the current form of identity construction (provided, of course, I’m right with my assessment) with. For one, I think it might be worth trying to raise awareness of the issue—that when you’re debating somebody, in their perception, you may come off as questioning their entire self-identity, rather than, as you presumably intend, offering up new facts, figures and arguments.
But what else could be done? Is it possible to dissociate our sense of identity from our opinions and values? Can we overcome the need of dividing the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’? Or am I just going about this the entirely wrong way?