Identity politics seems to raise its ugly head everywhere these days.
It took me a while to digest the good Dr Phil’s admonition that “nobody is special”. But then it occurred to me that I had come to believe many years ago that we all are as one. And surely this amounts to the same thing.
Or consider again Dr Phil’s recipe for psychological maturity, to “know yourself, accept yourself and then forget yourself”. Identity politics seems to advance a philosophy of finding a way, through identification with a particular cohort, of exalting the self rather than the more helpful strategy of putting it aside.
It is easy to see those things that we think that define us, our gender, nationality, race, social standing, intelligence, athletic prowess, religion and so on are largely accidents of birth, built on our particular genetic platform and moulded by our particular socialisation and environmental circumstances. So how does that make us special? We might give thanks to our good fortune or not, but it is hard to deny that the things most people believe define us we had little choice about. This, I think, is the strong argument to say we should accept ourselves because, with regard to most such characteristics we could hardly have chosen to be otherwise.
Who we are, as conventionally defined, in most respects, has been chosen for us. However our fragile egos then are called into play to try to rationalise how special we are.
Let us look at a few of these defining characteristics that we hold so important.
Consider, for example, religion. Very few people make a choice about religion. They normally adopt the religion of their families, peers or geographical regions. If I am born in Scotland I am most likely to be a protestant. If I am born in Bolivia I will more than likely be a Catholic. If I come from Cambodia than more than likely I will be Buddhist. If I am Egyptian then probably I will be a Muslim. So for many of us religion is just an accidental outcome.
But when it comes to defending our religious beliefs we go to great lengths to assert our particular variety is paramount! Why is that? Well if we believe that our religion somehow defines us, we have a vested interest in promoting its supposed unique virtues.
We see those leaning on nationality, ethnicity and gender, for example, taking a similar stance. And this of course exaggerates our separation from others, except for that privileged cohort we choose to identify with.
Associated with this trend for exaggerating our identity differences, comes the unfortunate tendency to take on victim status as well. If your particular choice of identity marker doesn’t provide you with sufficient special status it is no doubt because people like you are especially denigrated or demeaned by society!
Now this issue of bolstering our sense of identity, by aligning with a group we believe increases our significance, is as old as history. In recent times however there have been new variants on the groups we select for this purpose. Perhaps the most recent such strategy is alignment with others whose differentiation is gender based. This strategy is just as futile as the others I have mentioned.
I will return to that theme a little later. But before I do so, let me examine with you the nature of “selfhood”.
As I pointed out above, many of the things we seem to turn to define our sense of self are mere accidents of birth. Surely there can be little justification in aligning our concept of self with such arbitrary characteristic as ethnicity, nationality or even beauty or intelligence.
(It is helpful to recall a story by the incomparable children’s author, Dr Seuss. Dr Seuss taught us many useful lessons through his marvellous little parables. The one I have in mind was titled The Sneetches.
The story began like this:
Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches-
Had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches-Had none upon thars.
Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.
But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!”
And whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
They’d hike right on past them without even talking.
It was a wonderful parody on identity politics!)
When life dealt us our cards some were certainly more fortunate than others. But our sense of self is determined more by how we play those cards than the cards themselves.
We don’t have many options about the cards we are dealt with. This is something as the good Dr Phil wisely advised above, we just have to accept. So what in fact are the variables we actually control in living a life where the starting point is seemingly arbitrarily determined for us?
The quality of our lives seems to me to be more determined by how we interpret and respond to the world than anything else. The people I admire most are those who can engage productively with the world whatever their circumstances. They are the ones least likely to resort to victimhood and most likely to manifest love. When we know who we are and accept who we are, we can then engage the world with little fear because we have transcended the need to promote ourselves.
Let us return again to the gender debate. Despite what the gender warriors might want to believe, our gender is genetically determined (and I don’t necessarily mean male or female but I suspect those classifications adequately describe 99% of us). So why should our gender be such a defining aspect of who we are? It seems to me to have no more weight than nationality or ethnicity. It is probably an indication of our confusion in that regard that I recently read an article which purported Facebook (which is admittedly a dubious source) has defined at least 71 gender options! Thankfully it still included in its options “man” and “woman”!
It seems now that our options have soared from the basic options of male, female or homosexual to a myriad of other manufactured choices.
I am obviously male and (dare I tell my wife) heterosexual. But I would be loath to say that in any way that defines me. But I would ask those standing behind their various definitions of sexual orientation, “Who cares?” Do your thing, whatever it is, and leave the rest of us out of it.
It surprises me that those who seem disappointed with their gender allocation and who wish to change it will often say, “All my life I have felt like I was really a man/woman – and therefore I needed to do something about it.” This seems to me to be a very surprising statement. In my day to day life, I give no thought to what it feels like to be a man. I have no idea what it must feel like to be a woman.
It is a source of some disappointment to me and considerable bewilderment that after many decades of our society pursuing the equality of the sexes we seem now to be reverting more and more to gender characteristics to define ourselves – and what’s more those characteristics that are most stridently forced upon us are the more bizarre manifestations of gender. It would seem that the gay and lesbian gender variations have now become so passé that we have to dig up more exotic varieties such a transgender to excite public interest.
If you have male genitalia and you feel compelled to wear dresses, go for it – but don’t try to pretend this strange behaviour somehow marks you out as someone special or someone deprived or victimised. If you need to rely on such things to define yourself (or perhaps more accurately your “self”) then I am sure you are destined to find little fulfilment in your life!
Extending the argument I made above, does “feeling like” a woman mean that you feel like putting on high heels, wearing makeup and stockings? Well I would have to ask my women readers, but that would seem a very shallow interpretation of womanhood in my estimation.
I could without much effort, pursue this line of argument further. But let me cut to the chase.
The question I would pose to you is this: “Does the self have a gender?”
I could just as easily have asked: Does the self have:
- Religious alignment?
And so on.
Well I believe not.
Most people believe their sense of “self” is embedded in a biological organism that of course has its own biological history and physical circumstances and that the “self” is somehow determined by its biological host. The principal characteristics of this biological host are all things beyond your control. So either you can take responsibility for your own “self” or not. When you identify with these characteristics that are beyond your capacity to influence, you lose the only real freedom you have –how to interpret and relate to the world. We have learnt through previous essays that we have the capacity to stand apart from this biological host and objectively observe how it interacts with the world. We have variously called this capacity the “watcher” or the “witness”.
Our real identity or sense of “self” transcends gender, nationality, religion, politics and so on because it is determined by the orientation of the “witness”.(If you want to learn more about this concept go into my archives and read A Tripartite Model of Humanity).
Those who think otherwise have put a huge unnecessary burden on themselves. If I spend my waking hours reminding myself and continually trying to reinforce the fact that I am transgender, Buddhist, Lithuanian, indigenous, or whatever, not only have I constrained my life by focussing unduly on “self” but I have thwarted the opportunity to accept myself and others as we are, thus impeding my ability to live a more productive and meaningful life.