Identifying with Difference

I thought that old age was supposed to bring us wisdom. But in my case it seems to bring more confusion.

I must confess that I am dumbfounded by some of the social trends that I witness.

Those of you that have followed my meanderings in my blog essays over the years would be aware that I have an underpinning belief that we all are as one, and that many of our social evils come from the denial of that principle.

Many seem compelled to challenge my belief of “oneness” by championing their separateness.

This seems to me to be the basis of what we have come to call identity politics. The proponents of this dysfunctional belief system would have us believe that our individual identity as defined by our race, nationality, religion, gender or whatever, is more important than our common humanity.

As I have previously written, to try to pin our sense of self on a dependence on such things reflects a rather fragile sense of self-esteem. The essential essence of anyone’s humanity is not linked to such peripheral issues. Indeed if you think about it, most of these identifiers are largely unchosen and are an accidental outcome of genetics and circumstances. It is surprising that so many profess to be proud of, and want to be identified with characteristics over which they had no control whatsoever.

Writing in the Weekend Australian recently, former Labor minister, Peter Baldwin quoted an article on identity politics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describing the phenomena:

….. It is qua women, qua blacks, qua lesbians that groups demand recognition. The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of ‘universal human kind’ on the basis of shared human attributes, nor is it for respect in spite of one’s differences. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different.

In this way, those promoting the ethos of identity politics want to find something that differentiates themselves and therefore make them feel “special”. But the good Dr Phil points out to me that nobody is special. Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together. Those that seek to promote their “specialness” are misguided. As we saw above, those features that they desperately promote as defining their “specialness” are merely accidents of fate which it would be folly to promote as our defining characteristics.

It is interesting that in the West social justice activists are using identity as the platform for the development of a sense of self, whereas the wisdom traditions of the world have counselled that we should eschew a sense of self. Neuroscientists are also telling us that a sense of self is an artificial construct with little evidence that there is any enduring basis for a sense of self beyond our self-awareness.

Indeed Tibetan Buddhism has always promoted the notion of anatta (no self) and suggested that its attainment led to contentment. The Tibetan Buddhist teacher and writer Anam Thubten wonderfully titled one of his books No Self:No Problem.

Now, when I have a fragile sense of self that is dependent on such a contrived and unreliable foundation, I must desperately defend it!

Perhaps the most prevalent technique used by such people is to not permit debate regarding the ideas underpinning the rationale behind the selection of their preferred mechanism for attaining specialness. They try to shut down opposing ideas, not by contesting them but by denigrating those that hold such ideas. Witness the debate about legalising same sex marriage, where the opponents are discounted because they are “homophobic”, or the debate about indigenous disadvantage where those suggesting that indigenous people should take more responsibility for their own lives are branded “racist”.

Journalist, Janet Albrechtson, in a recent article on free speech , writes that the defence tactics of the demagogues of the Left consist of denigration rather than argument.

If you disagree with me on race matters you are racist.

If you disagree with me over lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex politics, you are a homophobe.

Disagree with my position on Islam and you are an Islamophobe.

If you disagree with me on immigration, you are a xenophobe.

Rather than engaging in debate, too many on the Left would rather portray disagreement on totemic issues as grounds for a mental disorder with the sole aim of shutting down any challenge to Leftist orthodoxy.

One of the more ridiculous manifestations of identity politics was manifested in the response to a speech given by Lionel Shriver, the American journalist and author who now lives in the UK, at the recent Brisbane Writers Festival. In her speech, Shriver took issue with the fact that the identity politics activists were curtailing her freedom to write as an author. Their convoluted logic was suggesting that no one had the right to develop characters in their work that were of a different gender or ethnic background to themselves.

More alarmingly, some argued that such an act was appropriating another’s culture. It was portrayed as an act of theft, where the writer was somehow stealing the culture of these “special” minorities to their detriment.

But surely a fiction writer’s role is to imagine characters and scenarios they have never experienced. And in line with my opening statements the greatest fiction writers stand out because they understand the human condition, not because they cloister themselves in the backwaters of race, gender, nationality or religion. As Shriver pointed out, an inability to manufacture such characters would restrict her to writing memoirs!

And then, of course, each of these categories of “identity” brings with them their own particular baggage of victimhood. If you identify with one of these categories of identity, it is almost mandatory that in pursuit of the manufactured narrative of that group you also take on its confected victimhood status. This again is another layer of armour designed to ward off any necessity to have to intellectually defend their self-anointed specialness.

Many of the tragedies of human history have occurred not because we haven’t recognised the specialness of such identity groups, but because of their differences from others in the mainstream we have not given them due recognition as human beings.

Certainly we have discriminated against gays and lesbians. Historically many of our indigenous fellows were treated as less than human because of their race. We have treated some people badly because of their religious beliefs, a problem that Jews have experienced for a couple of millennia. But surely the resolution to this problem is to welcome all such people into the fold of humanity and treat them with dignity and respect irrespective of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual preference or whatever. Creating enclaves that on the basis of identity politics want to promote their specialness and highlight their differences seems counter-productive to me.

Science is showing us with its exploration of the human genome how little physical difference there is between us all. It seems to me to be a misguided strategy to seek to highlight such miniscule differences and in so doing lose sight of our common humanity.

Decades ago, when the good Dr Phil was tutoring me on the nature of humanity our discussions would sometimes turn to the nature of free will. Whilst Phil is not a determinist, he nonetheless believes that human beings have a limited choice to exercise in their daily lives. His belief that the one major decision we have to make is whether to live our lives driven by love or fear. Our little book The Myth of Nine to Five elaborated on this theme.

Love is a difficult subject to talk about. To begin with our language fails us because we have only one word to describe love whereas other languages have many.

C S Lewis, the great Christian allegorical writer wrote a book which he titled The Four Loves. He distinguished between Affection (the Greek Storge), Friendship (the Greek Philia), Eros (similar in Greek, referring to sexual attraction) and Caritas (the Greek Agape) which is the traditional Christian love of one’s neighbour.

In something I wrote in support of Phil’s thesis, I defined love as the dissolution of separateness which is a definition he seems to have approved of. In essence those of us who wish to emphasise their separateness are driven by fear. The future of the human race is dependent on those who can step outside the paradigm of fear and recognise our essential oneness.

It is time for those embedded in identity politics to put aside the minor differences that ethnicity, gender, religion and nationality create and reengage with us in the essential nature of our shared humanity.

It is true people have suffered because of their sexuality, ethnicity, race or religion. But we, in Australia, now live in a liberal society where these markers of identity are reasonably accepted by most people. It is a shame that many who have suffered from the barbs of the bigots in past history seem to want to perpetuate hatred by accentuating their differences rather than integrate into society.

I am not saying we should eschew our nationality, our religion, sexual preference or whatever, I am merely suggesting we cannot let these differences cut us off from humanity. And in our fear, we should not vilify or shout down those who may question the ideas behind our chosen identities. (As I said above the various platforms on which our identities depend are largely not chosen at all. However it is an act of choice to allow such things to predominantly identify who we are.)

It is fair to say the liberal left led the fight for the rights of such minorities to be recognised and they have largely been successful to the benefit of our society. But those embedded in identity politics, whose injustices seem to be largely resolved, are now leading the fight to prevent free speech when anyone dares question the dubious bases on which they build their much vaunted and bitterly defended identity. Much of the work done by previous generations to extend human freedoms by liberating minorities, now seems to be curtailing our freedoms by allowing those minorities to dictate what we think and what we say.

5 Replies to “Identifying with Difference”

  1. Good article. However, I don’t see the position described by Albrechtsen as Left in any particular sense since both extreme sides do the same thing. Name-calling is as common on what is called the Right as it is on what is called the Left. We need more time on middle ground, all of us.

  2. An excellent article. Thanks for putting it out there. According to one of the twentieth century’s outstanding theoretical physicists, David Bohm, much of the world’s problems came from the perception that people are separate from each, which results in us wanting to defend ourselves against perceived ‘others’ (Butler-Bowdon, 2013). Compare the ideas of a physicist with that of a social scientist Hugh Mackay (2013, p. 127) has stated: “The starting point [for a good life] is the recognition that we are all inseparably part of each other and that our human destiny is to accept and nurture our connection.” I don’t believe that the connections we have we have with others can ever be severed. However, people, to their own detriment, can act as if they are not connected with others.

  3. Clear as crystal. Reading your blog is like taking a drink from the refreshing water of an unpolluted mountain stream – refreshment for the soul. Thank you.

  4. Hi Ted
    This was another thought provoking article which has been very useful for me entering another chapter in my life as I try to mix, work and socialize with a new set of peers in an organization that promotes a strong ethos on accepting values and beliefs from all. Thank you.

  5. Thank you all for your comments.

    You do well to remind me Roslyn that not all the extremist comments and ideologically driven protests that are designed to curtail free speech come from the left side of politics. I am happy to decry such tactics from whatever side of politics they emanate from.

    Thank you Anthony for your erudite response. Hugh Mackay is a great Australian and I have drawn from his writings for many years.

    And Phil, you old charlatan! Why wouldn’t what i wrote be crystal clear to you when so much of it is a restatement of the many things you have taught me!

    Great to hear from you Brad. i am pleased that my article was helpful to you. I trust you you find your new role rewarding. Any organisation that hires you must profit from your basic decency which has been evident to me over many years.

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