problems with identity

Essentialism, Identities, and History

“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.

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Identities Are Hard to Get At

Some stranded seaweed on a Salish Sea beach at about 1/3 of full tide

A few weeks ago, I talked about how an identity is something to which someone says “I am that.” After a series of unfortunate events between 1914 and 1948, educated people stopped talking about race, gender, and ethnicity as essences and started to talk about them as identities or social categories. This change was meant to reduce the amount of murder, enslavement, and forced migration in our world. But when we try to understand the ancient world, identities in the proper sense are not very helpful.

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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). https://books.google.com/ngrams/

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.
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