Against Seeing Everything as an Identity
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Categories: Modern, Not an expert

Against Seeing Everything as an Identity

A chart of the frequency of the word "identity," "nationality," "ethnicity," "race," and "performativity" over time ... "identity" becomes fashionable after 1960 and especially 1985
Google ngrams is a fun toy as long as you dont take its dates too seriously! (They refuse to work with librarians to clean up their data or with paleographers to OCR old books more accurately).

Some kinds of academics like to talk about “identities.” Literally, that means the things which you point to and say “I am.” But many academics use it to mean other groups that people get sorted in to. In chapter 2 of a book I recently reviewed, Guy Halsall calls class, gender, age, nationality (“ethnic identity”), and free or servile status “identities”. My friend James Baillie (who is absolutely not responsible for this essay) uses the term in the same way to describe different kinds of people in the UK today. The blogger and medical doctor Geeky Humanist wrote the following paragraph on “gender identity”

What do I mean by woman? Short(ish) answer: Any adult whose gender identity is female. For purposes of anti-misogyny endeavours such as International Women’s Day, I would also include a) girls (children whose gender identity is female), and b) anyone who is affected by misogyny as a result of having been determined on the basis of genital configuration to be female, even if their actual gender identity isn’t female. … Transgenderism (and cisgenderism, for that matter) isn’t about ‘choosing’ to identify as a particular gender. It’s about the inescapable fact that nearly all of us do identify as particular genders – not because we choose to, but because it’s a key part of us – and that sometimes a person’s gender identity doesn’t match the gender of their body.

Geeky Humanist has some ideas which are strange to me and which I don’t understand as well as I would like to. I don’t think she is saying that a man is anyone who says he is a man, and she definitely does not think it is any person of the male sex, she seems to understand “gender identity” as something more like sexual orientation. I think that calling gender and class and nationality “identities” and just identities confuses people about how power and societies work.

Properly, identities ought to be things which exist because someone says they are them: “I am a Syndicalist, a Little Endian, a fan of Ruritanian zither music.” I do not know of any other name for things like this. These things can be important for people, especially in atomized post-industrial societies. But if we step back from our friend who is hurting to a mass of strangers, we have to admit that it does not matter if one person calls themself a fan of a musical genre. What matters is what they do, and claiming a shared identity is one of the ways human beings can do things together. Another way is coming together to impose a label and a social position on other people. When people say, we are all Syndicalists like her, so we will go help her build her barn, that is powerful. When they say, he is a Little Endian so we will not share food or drink with him, that is powerful. When one person tells himself that he is something, that is powerless except over his own mind.

Becoming part of a community requires building relationships to its members, contributing to its work, and distancing yourself from its rivals. Speech (whether chanting slogans or wearing the right clothing) can be part of this process, but just one part. Everyone disrespects people whose words are not aligned with their deeds. What defines membership in the community is usually disputed, and it always changes, but as a new member you have limited power to shape those disputes or direct those changes. Sometimes, especially when a community is young or some of its leaders have died or distanced themselves, the terms of membership are redefined and some people discover that they can no longer be part of that community or use that label without giving up other things which are important to them. It does not matter how sincerely the people who are squeezed out identify with the community if the people who now have the most power in it define it as something which does not include them. Nobody calls themself a heretic. Other times, several different groups both claim a label, and as one becomes the largest or most famous, the other groups have to give it up because outsiders start to expect the wrong things when they hear the name.

Being assigned to a group happens regardless of someone’s identity. When I visit the United States, I get assigned a white race or “ethnicity”, even though I call myself a British Columbian, a Canadian, an Anglo, an immigrant to Austria, a scholar, of Irish descent, but not white. When I apply to jobs or universities in the United States, I am even required to identify with one of a list of “ethnicities,” none of which I say “I am” to outside of application forms (and which sound a lot like a list of races). When a Babylonian wanted to take a temple office, and a committee of learned Babylonians inquired about his parentage and inspected his body for flaws like they inspected a prospective sacrifice, what mattered was their decision not his words. He could identify as the legitimate son of two Babylonians with a ritually pure body, but it was the temple community which decided whether he was in or out. People have some power to reinvent themselves, but the people who want to push others into groups make that as hard as they can.

One of the reasons why gender is so powerful in human societies is that people get pushed to behave in certain ways because of their gender. This pressure comes from people with the same gender, and from people with other genders, because the two most common genders in any society (the ones we translate as “male” and “female” and which usually correspond to the two biological sexes) each define themselves as not like the other. As language: a feminist guide says, women are often told to speak and act in more stereotypically masculine ways to have more success in public life, but women who behave in those ways are punished while men are rewarded. It does not matter whether a particular man or woman thinks something is manly if enough people in the surrounding society, especially people with power, think it does. If gender were just a feeling inside people instead of something enforced by the surrounding society, it would not have all of these consequences. If you do not admit that these norms exist, that they are often vague and contradictory and differ from one country or decade to another, and that people use these norms to punish people they don’t like, it is hard to weaken or change them.

Geeky Humanist seems to see “gender identity” as something like sexual orientation, but sexual orientation is not just an identity either. It is a description of what people are in to, and people are in to what they are in to whether they admit it or not. Some people find it comforting to have a name for what they like, or enjoy being part of a community which is in to the same things, and others do not. So if you are a health worker, it can be better to focus on people’s behaviour than on the terms with which they identify. If you need to decide what risks someone faces, knowing about their behaviour is more important than knowing what label they identify with, and it does not lead to so many arguments about whether that label is correct. If we just talk about identity, we can’t get at the messy interaction between orientation, behaviour, performance, and identity which make up this complicated area of life.

Identities can be very important for lonely human beings trying to make sense of the world. But they are not so important in understanding groups of strangers. Claiming an identity is just a first step to becoming part of a community or being assigned into a group by outsiders. Because identities seem like something which people freely chose as individuals, talking about identities can be a way to not talk about power relationships, struggles over who is in a group and who is out, and the things about ourselves which are very difficult or impossible to change. I think that its better to keep the word “identities” for the things that people say “I am that,” and not to treat all these other things as identities and nothing more.

I have seen the term “social categories” used as a way of talking about the listable groups into which people can be placed, and I like it better because it stresses that these exist in a society.

In the next post in this series, I will talk about how even the best defined kind of “identities” are not very useful for my work as an ancient historian.

Writing this post took an embarrassing number of hours from March to June because it is such a confusing subject and one that many people find sensitive. Support my writing on things other than the fine details of ancient history with a donation on Patreon or or even liberapay

Alexiares has an excellent post on The Abused Verb ‘Identify’ (2018-04-02) which takes the OED as its starting point. I am also influenced by her essays on how settlers often define membership in indigenous communities based on blood, or claim membership in indigenous communities on very tenuous grounds, while most indigenous communities in Canada define being part of their community as being part of the community: working on communal projects, attending communal events, marrying members of the community. Joseph Heath’s Social Constructivism: The Basics (2018) has some sensible thoughts but begins by saying something kind about a famous University of Toronto psychology professor, so if you are not up for that today you might want to skip it.

Do you know of any good books or articles on the rise of language like ethnicity, construction, and identity after the Second World War (or how ideas like performativity seem to have suddenly been dropped in the memory hole)? Please suggest them.

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5 thoughts on “Against Seeing Everything as an Identity

  1. Prufrock says:

    Interesting post again thanks Sean.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      You’re welcome. When I can write again, I hope to talk about how thinking about constructed identities creates problems if you want to understand who people were and you just have names or pots or a lawsuit. The new way of thinking is better but it makes it hard to know some things. This was the last post in my queue from before July.

  2. Peter Thomson says:

    Interesting post. I tend to identity in the same sloppy sense: “what social categories are people in/put in”. Given the complexities, I am not sure another terminology will help – perhaps we just have to be as precise as possible in the context.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Because the postwar French philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir or Jacques Derrida are acquired tastes, I think we reached a point where a lot of people had learned the word “identities” but not the theories that they were part of. But the idea that being Ruritanian can be about whether a group of people all decide they are Ruritanian not some timeless essence from days of yore is powerful! And its important to keep that separate from things like being a Ruritanian citizen which is defined by an objective test.

  3. Essentialism, Identities, and History – Book and Sword says:

    […] you follow the news or corporate social media, you will see how often the gap between identities as internal self-belief and identities as external attributes leads to conflict. Most people are reluctant to explain what is at issue or how the word […]

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