“It is not our difference that divides us.
It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences”
We live in an era in which our individual and collective identities appear to have taken on an increased importance in their presumed ability to establish who we are—and who we believe we are not. But who are we really? Whomever we decide to be, we tend to construct such stories in terms of what we have come to call identity politics. Take a look at these “food for thought” articles related to this issue. Then consider some of the ramifications of such methods of self-recognition and, indeed, self-creation.
The first article by Tim Wise suggests that the existence of so-called “identity politics” is not the real issue, but rather, that such politics used to oppress others represents the true problem. The second by Tomasz Pierscionek suggests that identity politics” is indeed the issue in that participation in this manner of self-identification creates divisions within us that keep us apart, leaving us vulnerable to oppression at the hands of those in control, those who represent the true oppressors.
Tomasz Pierscionek: How Identity Politics Makes the Left Lose Its Collective Identity
At first, the above mentioned articles might appear contradictory. However, on further observation, you will notice that each presents different facets of our current identity crisis. Each in its own way describes what could eventually consume us. A true foreshadowing of our demise might not rest in the presence of enemies lurking at the gate, not in disease nor pestilence, and perhaps not even in what appears to be the slow but steady deterioration of the planet. Rather, the downfall of humanity as a whole could as easily appear as the oppression that eventually leads to the destruction of the human spirit. Unfortunately, in large measure, that oppression is self-inflicted.
…and Reduction for All
Tim Wise suggests that the differences we often call “identity politics” are a ‘natural” expression of uniqueness. He proposes, perhaps correctly, that “they [diversity-based identity categories] are often central to people’s lives”—that “appreciating how racial, gender, sexual, and other identities help shape our experiences and perspectives can be critical to productive political discourse.” He implies that we naturally attach ourselves to sociocultural specificity. Such represents the “normal” ways we relate to human culture and society. However, according to Mr. Wise, error arises when we consider those societal idiosyncrasies as weapons with which to exclude and otherwise demean the value of others who do not match our chosen criterion of worth. According to Mr. Wise, oppression—the fact that we too often use those differences to put others down or otherwise exclude them from our in-group self- identifications—not the divisions themselves are the real problem.
“Stereotyping based on race, gender or any other factor only leads to alienation and animosity. How can there be unity…if we are only loyal to ourselves and those most like us?” ~Stuart Bramhall, author of The Most Revolutionary Act
Consider for a moment the standard paradigm around which we routinely fashion our self-identifying affiliations. In general, we come to see ourselves as this, not that, fundamentally a part of this group and definitely not that one. Consider this idea from your own perspective. Without thinking about it, what are you? Typical answers (American/European, at least) tend to fall within a fairly standard set of general categories—gender, race, ethnicity, religion, profession and the like. Few of us think of ourselves as primarily human. But the problem here is not merely that we use these categories of specificity as weapons of oppression as Mr. Wise suggests. When we take those incidental differences as fundamental to our identities, we reduce both ourselves and those “others” who fill the negative space of “not-us” to only those categories. Furthermore, we too often tend to funnel our routine behaviors into those specific channels of sociopolitical choice.
Is a person’s gender or race really more important than the fact of that person’s humanness? If you identify with what might be called (perhaps erroneously) a more “continental philosophy” framing of humanity, you might propose that we humans represent a biological tabula rasa—a blank slate onto which culture scribes the details that make us who we are. Maybe. However, in principle, most of us common folk would not agree with such an idea. Yet our sociopolitical views and behaviors too often betray such conclusions. The apparent divisions within our societies inevitably divide us along seemingly insurmountable lines of separation despite their origins within incidental specifics. We do not tend to treat these characteristics as “incidental” at all. Rather, we treat them and each other as insurmountable borders we dare not cross (or certainly do not do so without significant discomfort). As we continued to perpetuate the prominence of such specificity as fundamental, we effectively blurs the distinction between humanity and sociocultural idiosyncrasy.
Avoiding the quagmire of the nature-nurture debate for now, for the reasons mentioned, we should disagree with Mr. Wise’s assessment regarding the true problem presented by so-called “identity politics”. However, in his focus on the presence of oppression, he has hit on something important. Mr. Wise accurately notes that the use of identity politics too often serves as a facade for oppression. Established as “normal” interaction, such choices reinforce the likelihood of oppression in society as a whole by perpetuating the paradigm of hierarchy. When we—whomever we think we are—assume we are “better than” (higher than) others, we reinforce a pattern of hierarchy as valuable in the society. Such a paradigm becomes highly pertinent when we consider the focus of the second article by Mr. Pierscionek.
Divide To Be Conquered
Addressing the issue of oppression, Tomasz Pierscionek, a contributor to the London Progressive Journal, takes Mr. Wise’s idea a bit further.
“The identity politics phenomenon sweeping across the Western world is a divide and conquer strategy that prevents the emergence of genuine resistance to the elites.”
Mr. Pierscionek proposes that staunch adherence to some polity-based notion of identity fractures our solidarity. Ignoring his rather stiltedly polemical reference to “elites”, most instances of behavioral focus toward an ideology tend to separate us one from another—regardless of the nature and definition of The Oppressor. Such an orientation represents a self-inflicted vulnerability we could avoid. Hyper-partisanship leaves us vulnerable to those who rise above such squabbles in favor of oppressing us all. Divide and conquer represents an age-old tactic of those in power, a tactic to which the general populace seems particularly vulnerable.
Taken further and seen through the lens of the Wise article, we should see that our vying for political dominance (thus identifying with those who are, in some deluded way “better” than others) automatically frames (that is, identifies) us as purveyors of the same systemic oppression most of us abhor (at least when we feel the weight of such oppression). Often we associate right-leaning folks with a penchant for authoritarianism. However, many on the left who seek to dominate the political arena—regardless of the “wholesomeness” of the intent—participate in the same oppressive system we say we want to avoid. When we forge our identities around such desires, we effectively preserve the hierarchical thinking on which oppression of all types depends. In such a case, does not the egalitarian outcome many folks left of center seek disappear in the wake of such ideological zeal?
This is not to suggest error in the strident proposals of someone like Ms. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose infectious enthusiasm and apparent commitment to the betterment of society appears laudable. Intensity of purpose is not the problem; personal identification with the details of that purpose might be as a vehicle for elevated personal worth. Too often our passionate quest for sociopolitical satisfaction causes us to become our cause, to identify with its purpose and assume that, in some fashion, our position makes us superior to others. (Such “becoming” presents an ever present danger when that cause is based on biological specificity such as race or gender). Aligning ourselves in such a manner, we become not only divided and vulnerable, but co-creators and sustainers of the hierarchical thinking that inevitably leads to cultural and interpersonal systems of oppression. Every attempt to dominate legitimizes and ultimately advocates for oppression.
Who are the real oppressors? Do we really want to align ourselves with those we say we resist? Do we not destroy the freedom we say we love when we deny that same freedom to others? Do we, as Mr. Wise suggests, merely oppress one another or do we go further. Consider again, as noted above, that as we identify (not merely align ourselves) with the rubrics of sociocultural division are we not perpetuating our own systematically orchestrated demise? To the extent to which we seek to win over the “other” side, we willingly participate in a system of hierarchy. In so doing, are we not, as willing participants, equally guilty of the enforced limitations this hierarchical system produces? When we look to seek who is doing “this” to us, do we not, if we are honest, see our own faces?
Finding the Village
Identity politics represents a serious issue if we see ourselves primarily in the light of these “less than fully human” categories. We are human first and foremost and should behave as such. When we do not, when we opt to taut a subcategory of our humanness. Regardless how formative this more narrow experience might appear within any given culture, we limit our own ability to learn from the distinctions of others. We both demean who we truly are as well as open ourselves to a fractured solidarity, rendering ourselves vulnerable at the hands of those who could “conquer” us because of such division. We should recognize ourselves as a people seeking ways to get along rather than looking for opportunities to get away (from each other).
Can a society, particularly as diverse as our world community in general and the United States in specific, a society that focuses on defining, reinforcing and even legislating separation survive? Can we as a people risk becoming enticed and ensnared by sociopolitical sloganism championed by those individuals, groups and even countries attempting to insure the perpetual agitation and instability of a people divided? Can we truly be so naïve as to repeatedly fall for the lure of spectacle that blares from news media outlets, for the lurid and salacious headlines, pointedly misleading and that inevitably demand we choose a side and eschew its opposite? Finally, are we willing to continue along the road of self-deception that, on the one hand frames “others” as lesser while on the other hand simultaneously complaining about a system which renders us just as wanting in value? Are we really so blinded by notions of an overarching identity politic that courts strife that we ignore that such a focus systematically supports our own inevitable loss? What do you think? Does any of this seem to be working, really working for you or your neighbor?
What if we were to step back a bit, appreciate the forest for a change–appreciate and celebrate our differences as a thing of beauty rather than using such categories as raw material for forging bludgeons to be used against presumed “others”? Individuals raised on the North Shore of Boston, in the San Fernando Valley, in the South Bronx, on a farm in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania or in the environs of the spacious fields of Iowa bring completely different sets of sensibilities to the table of our shared experience (not to mentions differences along gender, gender-preference, racial, religious or even professional lines). Such true diversity is a good thing, enriching us all—or it could be.
Consider Willie, a tall, handsome, powerfully built man who grew up in an impoverished South Bronx tenement. He loves sports, especially basketball, likes to draw and seems to have a special knack for understanding technology. He once hoped to become an electrical engineer. For various reasons, his life took a very different turn. He carries dim memories of a man he called “Daddy”. One day, Daddy was no longer around. Willie never knew why but still carries the pain of abandonment. Even if he knew a heart attack had taken his father from him, it would not have mattered.
Think a bit about Billy, the kind of guy you look past, seeing him only as someone else’s little brother. His scrawny frame never impressed the girls the way he would have liked. As a boy, growing up in a rural community in southwest corner of Pennsylvania (football country) just north of the West Virginia border, his slight build never brought him the kind of respect he craved as a boy, certainly not among his peers. Billy loves computers and books—particularly sci-fi. His father was an electrician (and a proud man whom everyone only called “Mr. Jackson” as if he had no first name). Mr. Jackson suffered an accident that left him unable to work, unable to provide for his family. Eventually, a shotgun found its way into his Mr. Jackson’s mouth. Little was said. He was just gone.
Sometimes bridges spontaneously appear grounded in seemingly trivial events and situations. Perhaps it began with the copy of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 lying on Willie’s bunk. It could have been an offhanded comment that shouted “this guy really knows tech” that caught Billy’s attention. It could have been Willie’s Steeler jersey or how that wimpy kid with the hint of a southern accent could talk smack about any football team, and how he could back up every statement with detailed minutia regarding individual player and team stats. And maybe it was the compassion each brought to the video games they came to enjoy together, when each could, in some subtle, unexplained way sense the others homesickness and need for a boost—and got it when one would underhanded let the other win.
Wearing different caps, they could see their difference. Yet beneath were two young men—the same fears, the same hopes. The caps were different—neither emblazoned with a raised black fist nor a rebel flag. Just different caps without the extra ideological icons to hide behind. These two guys chose the differences—and the similarities–that mattered to them.
Cute story, huh? But is it true? Is it real? To be sure, it represents a bit of creative non-fiction. Like most stories, it is as real and true as the meaning you decide to take from it—the meaning you take to heart and operationalize into the “normal” workings of your EveryDayLife. In fact, these two guys are real people. Bearing different names, they met on a Navy ship, both having enlisted out of desperation. They became great friends through the endurance of a gauntlet of uncertainty toward one another and the underlying human bond they chose not to discuss.
(All is a procession,
The universe is a procession with measured and perfect motion.)
Do you know so much yourself that you call the meanest ignorant?
Do you suppose you have a right to a good sight, and he or she has no right to a sight?
Do you think matter has cohered together from its diffuse float, and the soil is on the surface, and water runs and vegetation sprouts,
For you only, and not for him and her?
(~Walt Whitman, I Sing the Body Electric)
“Appreciating” our diversity could look like a 24/7 party—a celebration in which we collectively create a delicious mélange of human flavors that become the experience of EveryDayLife. Diversity represents a rich icing—an additive, not an essential constituent—that should sweeten our experience. When rather than savoring the delicious particularity we naturally express, instead of submerging who we are—who we can be—within the narrow definitions of counter-distinction, we create a bitter experience that needs to be overcome rather than enjoyed.
Perhaps a more useful path, in Walt Whitman parlance, might be to “sing the human electric”. Unity—the solidarity required to operate in a world that would oppressively dehumanize us necessitates self-identification that attaches to broader rather than narrower anchors of self-recognition. When we recognize ourselves as primarily representing these more narrow definitions, when they become our primary focus, we create a rift between the questions “Who am I?” and “Who are we?” But is that not the problem—that our ego-centered definitions of ourselves, regardless of the basis for such definitions, inevitably lead to divisiveness established along incidental rather than essential lines? Indeed, the fact that we wrongly consider these incidental categories “essential” trumps our fundamental unity and identity as human beings.
We can (should?) always choose to focus on who we are. One might even suggest that this ability to choose represents our true nature, that, so-called continental philosophical definition notwithstanding, we can choose even beyond cultural definition. In agreement with Mr. Wise, we certainly do not “normally” make such transcendent choices. This does not mean we cannot. We could choose not to focus on these categories as a means of self-recognition, instead understanding ourselves primarily or essentially as human rather than any given facet of humanness. We could; sadly, most often, we do not.
Returning to the question previously posed, “what are you?” When one forges self-definitions as primarily female, primarily black or white, primarily gay, Muslim, British or, yes, even primarily Christian, all such definitions overshadow our humanity. When we somehow manage to convince ourselves that these limits elevate us to superior positions relative to others, we drown in not only self-delusion but mutual self-destruction. Consider the paradigm of such a choice. Are not such over-indulgences the stuff inquisitions and lynchings are made of?
Let it go for a day. For just twenty four hours forget to clench so tightly to the story that casts you as this or that and let the world flow over you. Of course the world will try to force you to react (or so we tell ourselves). Doing so, we inevitably encounter one instance after another that prods, even demands, that we cram ourselves back into that sociocultural box that has come to feel so comfortable, that set of limitations that can easily mask who we truly are. But suppose, just for a day, we watch what happens when we let it all go. The world will not change. It will go on pretending it knows (and defines) us. But a change, if only briefly, could occur. Where do you think that might happen?
We choose who we are; we decide the manner in which we represent ourselves in the world. If we abdicate that supreme role as sovereign of our own lives, someone else will choose for us. (For the “true believers” among us, especially those who espouse an institutionalized faith, please think long and hard about how you actually define yourself before you dismiss the notion of our so-called “sovereignty”). When we relinquish the choice to identify ourselves, we become fodder for those looking to build a false consensus around some ideology, religion, political agenda or some manner of prescribed in-group identification (with its consequent out-group exclusions).
Beyond a Blank Slate…
The above reference to “incidental” characteristics of an individual does not completely dismiss the tabula rasa idea. Indeed, in a certain sense, it embraces such a notion. However, instead of framing ourselves as blank slates populated by sociocultural mores, consider that we might empower ourselves through a self-identification with a slate filled with an ability—real or imagined—to choose. Still, to confound this line of thought further, do we freely choose then express our selections? Do we ever truly express free will? Some of us believe free will does not exist—that our cultures mandate a path and a set of attitudes and beliefs that form the guard rails to keep us on this path. This idea does have some merit, some real life validation. Our biological make up as well as the cultural and geopolitical circumstances of our formative environments lead us into ways of conceiving ourselves which too often feel both automatic and fundamentally “true”. The problem, of course lies in illusions of certainty. As enticing as they appear, such axioms (“I am a women, therefore…”, “I am Black therefore…”, “I am a white male, therefore…”, “I am a Christian, so you…”, etc.) are still susceptible to defiance. We do not have to do anything. We do not have to act nor believe anything just because we think we are <fill in the blank>. Every time we individually plumb the depths of our genuine feelings, our deepest thoughts about ourselves, about any given subject, we shake our fists at the will to power atmosphere that sociocultural compliance dictates. Identity politics represents the uniform we don to hide, with others, within the faceless mass that would control those not like us. With Herculean courage, with determination, we can choose to be more, we can choose to be better, to seek Good, one moment at a time.
…Toward Genuine Change
We live in an era in which we often feel forsaken by historically held transcendent ideas. As Nietzsche forewarned, God has died. We have ceased to believe our parents can and will protect us, that our homeland (mother or fatherland) will always be “great”, that the ideals with which we were indoctrinated as youths will reside with us always. Even those who profess to give themselves over to a “higher power” too often fashion their understanding of that presumed presence in accordance with a far less than transcendent agenda. However, when we become those ideals, when we strive to be that “Good” we seek for ourselves and allow others the courtesy of sharing in such seeking, we express a transformative will to meaning. When we turn away from the will to power that seeks domination over others and when we quell our cravings for the will to pleasure (for ourselves), we open ourselves to a myriad of life changing possibilities. Instead of looking to the Parent—regardless of the “parental” frame—to save us (from ourselves), perhaps we should take up the responsibility to grow into the people we want to be, in so doing becoming our own parents. First we create, then, as the joy of everyday living, continually recreate ourselves. Such recreation does not come through eschewing diversity of experience but instead through the embrace of our differences. Such an embrace affords to us growth through our attempts to meet the inevitable challenges spawned by difference and our internal and external adjustments to them. We are only forsaken when we renege on our belief in the beauty and potential of who we are and who we can be. When we seek possibility without limits and attempt in our own idiosyncratic ways, to infuse in others a desire to grasp and celebrate themselves as a valuable part of us all, in so doing we step beyond an executioners cross fashioned out of presumptuous labels and espoused falsehoods, we begin to transcend our sociocultural limits that would ensnare and devour the human spirit.
Differences can be opportunities, cross-cultural leaps into discovery. Recalling the Audre Lorde quote that introduced this article, we certainly recognize (that is, “re-cognize”) our differences. Acceptance of our difference from others too often must be dragged from us. And yet, our triumph—as individuals, as a collective and as one species—can only arise in the wake of moment to moment celebration of those many variation of humanity that make us so special. Have you recently tasted the unique flavor that person next to you offers?
Addendum: Song of Pollyanna
So does “singing the human electric” make a person too Pollyanna-like, too “excessively optimistic” to be taken seriously? What does “serious” mean? Worthy of consideration? Formal, frowning, stern, overtly sober? Can anyone actually believe that folks will ever get themselves together enough to stop fighting, squabbling about this or that, devaluing, abusing, raping and murdering and… (How is that? Is that serious enough? Feel better?) There are more than enough reasons to focus on the myriad of ways we fail much more often than we succeed. But to do so is to settle into a hard-edged bitterness expressed as a continual commentary dripping with cynicism and ultimately despair. Daily, several of us in the smaller seekingGood community are out here on the frontlines of sociocultural turmoil. Whether promoting voter registration, combating the dissolution of labor unions, insuring the health and welfare of the elderly, or enmeshed in the struggle of “slow” learners in city elementary schools, folks seeking Good remain on the frontline of our sociopolitical experience. We have enough misery to justify a glib dismissal of an optimistic point of view. But what is optimism? Is optimism a large pile of…pretense. Shall we pretend people will do this or that which they should? Why would we ever attempt to fool ourselves into thinking “people” will do anything they are not already doing? Suppose we stop focusing on “people” per say and start focusing on our individual selves. We seem to be quite good at that when we want to be. Rather than fretting about “people” doing this or failing to do that, we could choose a different focus. We could stand up and assume responsibility for ourselves by putting ourselves on the line and doing what we can wherever we find ourselves.
As a twist on a previously used political campaign slogan, try on the phrase “I can …” See how it fits. Say it and don’t stop saying it until you mean it. Maybe you will and maybe you won’t, but you can. We do not need to pretend to believe that “people will….”. That really is Pollyanna thinking. Rather, we can choose in the bold statement “I can…”. In so doing, you convey to yourself that you can make the kinds of decisions relative to yourself and others that you would want them to make relative to themselves and you. Does this mean you “will”? Certainly not. We all fail more than we succeed. We must continue to tell ourselves (and ultimate the entire world) that the possibility exists that someone, somewhere, at some time will make choices that, step by step, moment to moment, save all of us from ourselves. Living in the hope, walking in committed faith in our resolve, perhaps we can more fully become who we are…