Essentialism, Identities, and History

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Categories: Modern, Not an expert

“Idiot! All you have to do is stop wearing that silly robe and get rid of that daft hat and no one will even know you’re a wizard! … Just get rid of them. It’s easy enough, isn’t it? Just drop them somewhere and then you could be a, a, well, whatever. Something that isn’t a wizard.” …

Rincewind nodded gloomily. “I don’t think you understand. A wizard isn’t what you do, it’s what you are. If I wasn’t a wizard, I wouldn’t be anything.” He took off his hat and twiddled nervously with the loose star on its point, causing a few more cheap sequins to part company.

Terry Pratchet, Sourcery (Corgi Books: London, 1988) pp. 147-148 the first visit to the tower of sourcery

A Haida filmmaker is pushing for new legislation in Canada to penalize people who pretend to be Indigenous in order to access grants, awards and jobs intended for Indigenous people. Tamara Bell said she wants those who misrepresent their identity to face fines and even prison time.

Angela Sterritt, “Indigenous filmmaker wants fines, jail time for ‘pretendians’ who misrepresent their identity” CBC News, 2021-Jan-19 (link)

If 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 “identity” is used in different ways, and they are even more reluctant to talk about why we started talking about the first kind of identity. I am not an intellectual historian, but as a military historian I will tell the bloody story as well as I can. This is a tale of genocide and oppression and the cycles between different ways of thinking about complicated areas of life.

At the beginning of the 20th century, European and settler thinking was dominated by essentialism. Men of science were busy cataloguing butterflies and minerals and pinning them down in tidy charts. Religious scholars took for granted that you could decide what was orthodox and what heretical by looking at learned writings by the side with the most tonsured bully-boys. And there were obsessive attempts to measure skulls, define the true national traits and ancient heritages of different nations, and alot each spot of land to one and precisely one nation (whether or not that nation had a state able to make those borders a reality). The learned of this ages were obsessed with defining the difference between Anglo-Saxons and Celts, between Japanese and Koreans, between different cults of the God of Israel, and between one nation and another; they loved biological metaphors. The goal was to find external criteria which anyone could learn to divide the thing studied into distinct groups in the same way anyone else with the same training would.

You see those little holes? We call them here ‘Wilson’s Points’. They have been made with machine guns; the big gaps have been made with hand grenades. We are now engaged in self-determination, and God knows what the end will be.

A Pole from Lvov on the Russo-Polish border to an American visitor, 1919, in Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919 p. 58

Between 1914 and 1948 between Lisbon and Vladivlostock occurred a series of unfortunate events. And as the sun rose and people crawled out of the blasted ruins of Eurasia, they began to ask themselves whether they had been so wise to teach their children that they had a proud warrior heritage and were engaged in an eternal conflict with their neighbors. To shove people into cattle cars and lock them behind barbed wire, you need clear bureaucratic rules to separate those on the outside and those on the inside, and the people doing the shoving need to believe that these rules correspond to real differences. Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen points became a million bullet-pockmarks and shell-holes because outside of the coastal fringes of Eurasia, there were too many communities which did not fit tidily into a single national group with contiguous and distinct territory. International Business Machines was a key partner in the Holocaust because without their punch-cards and automatic tabulators, it would have been impossible to turn those simple rules into a list of who should be murdered in the time available.

So sometime after 1948 (and I do not know when, and would welcome suggestions of where to learn), intellectuals started to loudly reject essentialism. This was not just about the practical problems, like how people in the Dominion of Canada were more likely to call themselves Scots or Dukhobors or Mohawks than “Canadians,” or which sect would get to decide who was and was not Christian. It was also because if the things that really matter about people are internal mental states, you can’t separate out a minority for abuse or elimination. It is much easier to hide what you think than to hide who your parents were, what language you speak, or how you worship. Most of the odd ideas about sex and gender today would not have an audience unless previous generations had cleared away the underbrush of biological theories of race and pointed out that ideas of what is masculine and what is feminine vary widely from culture to culture or century to century. By the end of the 20th century, most educated Europeans and settlers talked about internal subjective identities more than essences (even though if they stopped and listened, they could hear the rats “race” and “IQ” scrabbling in the walls). Movements that people are willing to talk about¸ like “the death of the author,” the revival of indigenous languages in Brittany or the Yukon, and the observation that the difference between theology and superstition is whether its written by a learned man, were just skirmishes as this new theory advanced.

This change had many advantages. But as it became dominant, its disadvantages became harder to ignore. Declaring that you are something is cheap, and life is about deeds not words. If anyone can claim membership in a group and access to its resources without contributing, that group will be strained. Every few years, a prominent person turns out to have been claiming to be indigenous without ever having been accepted by an indigenous community- this is not a hypothetical scenario dreamed up by rabble-rousers. Other people are vigorously trying to promote the racial theories of the early 20th century while loudly insisting that they are not racists or nazis (warning: RationalWiki, Nazi-punching). And most of us know someone who thinks of themself as a writer but won’t write, finish what they write, put it on the market, and keep it on the market until sold, or thinks of themself as a hockey player but has not put on ice skates for years. We also know people whose sexual orientation has a name in our culture, but who do not use that name, either because they are part of a different culture with different ways of talking, or they keep that part of their lives private, or because their orientation is against their culture’s taboos. Its a little counter-intuitive to be told that you can’t call anyone before the 20th century gay or lesbian (see her section on “terms”), even if there is overwhelming evidence that their closest intimate relationships were with people of the same sex. That careful scholarly position makes it hard to refute the bigots ranting that they didn’t hear about this nonsense when they were growing up so it must be new and the fault of whoever they are grumpy about this week.

So as the language of identity became dominant, people continued to talk about groups which are defined by behavior, attributes, or membership in a community. Either someone is a “Hugo-award-winner” or they are not. A winner might be hiking in Nepal and have no idea that they have won, but they are still a Hugo Award winner. Someone might insist that they won one, but the only thing that matters is whether they are on the list. Somebody in Canada is an engineer if they have specific professional qualifications and memberships, and if they use the label without the qualifications they can be seriously punished. People with disabilities have to prove they have disabilities to claim rights to accommodations or government support. They may self-diagnose or refuse to admit that their ears don’t work as well as they used to, but generally speaking governments ignore this. As they go through life, people see many situations where internal subjective beliefs are not a good way to decide who is something. But because most people try to use language that other people in their community use even if they don’t fully understand it, and because essentialism is associated with shameful labels like bigotry or racism, people tend to use the language of identity to speak about all of these different things. “Social category” is not an everyday word.

In the same way, as people began to admit how destructive and foolish the racial thinking of a hundred years ago had been, some of them kept thinking and talking the same way but just substituted the word “ethnicity” for “race” and the word “gender” for “sex.” Every so often some concerned citizen demands that Canadian universities collect race-based data about their students and faculty. They don’t spell out who would define a list of APPROVED RACES that fits on a scantron sheet, or how they would handle one person writing “Hong Konger,” another “Cantonese,” a third “Asian,” and a fourth “Lebanese-British-Chinese (British Citizen).” They also don’t address the historical reasons why Jews or indigenous people might not be thrilled to be put on lists and counted and have the right number of them who should be in different spaces carefully debated. Canadian universities were some of the most reluctant to sponsor refugees from Europe during that series of unfortunate events (although that story is not so famous as the story of the MS St. Louis because it took place in closed faculty meetings). Yet the concerned citizens are right that without some clear definitions and systematic collection of data, it is hard to prove that outcomes for one kind of person tend to be different than outcomes for another. There are no easy answers to this dilemma.

As a military historian, I think that a good first step would be to admit that there is a conflict. These different ways of thinking all have advantages and disadvantages, and in any given situation using one will hurt some people and benefit others. If we rectify our names and distinguish between subjective identities, community memberships, and attributes, rather than calling all these different things “identities,” we can start to have conversations about which is best to use in a specific situation and how to balance different parties’ interests. Deciding what is best in a given situation does not have the glamour of creating a grand theory which can cover every case, but its a much more tractable problem. And maybe, if we talk about how the same word hides different ideas, we can find better ways to talk about this confusing topic.

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7 thoughts on “Essentialism, Identities, and History

  1. Andrew Hobley says:

    A very well written post with a lot of truth. Made me think – which these days is no bad thing.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      You’re welcome! I don’t know if there is any simple bureaucratic rule which will work for all these hard cases, but if people can’t talk about different rules and who they exclude, how are we ever going to find the least hurtful one? And I got to cite pterry!

      1. Andrew Hobley says:

        I suspect no ‘rule’ would work. Its something that requires thinking and respectful conversations with those who use particular terms to describe themselves and their tribes’. Just asking the question politely “What do you mean by calling yourself X?” should generate a dialogue. But it also exposes you to have in the same question asked about you and having to think about your own identify. Otherwise there is no dialogue, just ‘Side A’ questioning ‘Side B’s’ right to use that identity.

        1. Sean Manning says:

          Yes, I think this is another of those eternal struggles! If we read enough Roman tombstones we see a few group marriages and same-sex marriages which weren’t in Roman law but clearly were in the way people in that neighbourhood had figured out to live their lives (and many soldiers had domestic partnerships even if they were not able to call them marriages in Roman law). I’ve heard of an ethnographic account where a woman left her husband for a man in another community, the husband made a fuss and eventually his community decided that she could be married to two men but only she and she agreed to more or less come back. But then letting people sort things out for themselves can also lead to honour killings and partner and child abuse and de facto serfdom and police making people disappear one dark night, and the quickest way to stop those is to create rules against them and bring someone in from outside the community to enforce them. But the authority to go into other communities and tell them what to do attracts busybodies who want to interfere with people’s love lives and worship and want to make sure that people’s sex is the same as their gender … both the “let people sort it out for themselves” and “create one set of rules everyone has to follow” can go badly if the people are bad.

        2. Sean Manning says:

          One thing I try to watch out for is that in trying to understand another culture, its easy to declare that something was a “norm” when its really just what authoritarian busybodies were trying to foist on everyone else (and they talked about it so much because everyone was ignoring them). If the “orthodox’ position is the position of a handful of highly educated geeks, and nobody else both understands and agrees with it, is it really orthodox?

          But impostor syndrome and “you aren’t a real X” are awful, so I understand why people don’t want to have to prove themselves every time they enter a new community.

  2. russell1200 says:

    Your statement about IBM is odd. It is not that their equipment was used. It is that they, as a company (the people within the company) actively participated in the effort. Going so far as to set up a secret Dutch-based subsidiary in 1940 through which to direct the efforts. The only thing that is not clear to me is whether Watson, CEO of IBM, drank the Nazi Kool-Aid or whether he just like making a bunch of money.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      what’s odd about “IBM was a key partner in the Holocaust”?

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