Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    Thematic Essays

Identity Tethering in an Age of Symbolic Politics

How cultural behavior supplanted common action.

Mark Dunbar

Illustration by Eiko Ojala; used by permission of the artist.

Identities are dangerous and paradoxical things. They are the beginning and the end of the self. They are how we define ourselves and how we are defined by others. One is a “nerd” or a “jock” or a “know-it-all.” One is “liberal” or “conservative,” “religious” or “secular,” “white” or “black.” Identities are the means of escape and the ties that bind. They direct our thoughts. They are modes of being. They are an ingredient of the self—along with relationships, memories, and role models—and they can also destroy the self. Consume it. The Jungians are right when they say people don’t have identities, identities have people. And the Lacanians are righter still when they say that our very selves—our wishes, desires, thoughts—are constituted by other people’s wishes, desires, and thoughts. Yes, identities are dangerous and paradoxical things. They are expressions of inner selves, and a way the outside gets in.

Our contemporary politics is diseased—that much is widely acknowledged—and the problem of identity is often implicated in its pathology, mostly for the wrong reasons. When it comes to its role in our politics, identity is the chief means by which we substitute behavior for action, disposition for conviction. Everything is rendered political—from the cars we drive to the beer we drink—and this rendering lays bare a political order lacking in democratic vitality. There is an inverse relationship between the rise of identity signaling and the decline of democracy. The less power people have to influence political outcomes, the more emphasis they will put on signifying their political desires. The less politics effects change, the more politics will affect mood.

Dozens of books (and hundreds of articles and essays) have been written about the rising threat of tribalism and group thinking, identity politics, and the politics of resentment. These books vary in their levels of sophistication and concern, but all agree that we are in the midst of a crisis. That we are a divided nation. Brother is turned against brother. Neighbor against neighbor. And not even neighbor against neighbor, because we are now balkanized into “lifestyle enclaves.”

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