Identity is too much with us late and soon.
Identity is too much with us late and soon. It figures prominently in clashes over diversity, multiculturalism, political correctness, offensive speech, “deplorable” voters, and arrogant elites. In our overheated politics of recognition, “Check your privilege!” has become the rebuke of choice, aimed at silencing the opinions of those whose obliviousness to their entitlement is itself a giveaway of their advantaged status. Those so accused—cisgender white males being prime suspects—in turn accuse their critics of playing identity politics to curtail free speech.
Identities are multiform, of course. Some are given or imposed, and some are elected. Some are acquired, while some are discarded. Some have to do with skin color; others, with ethnicity or religion, region or nation, gender or age, class or profession, disability or differing ability. Identities usually come in packages, and no matter how we assemble them, or how they are assembled for us, we are all, to use the current term of art, intersectional. We assume and wear our identities—in sum or part—proudly or shamefully, arrogantly or modestly. For some, identity explains much of who they are; for others, it explains very little and may even obscure who they believe they are.
Permit me a personal reflection on my own identity, or at least the first one that I became aware of as a distinct group affiliation. The son of a career military officer, I was an army brat, and, to some degree, remain one to this day. Hardly the most flattering of tribal names, it seemingly relegated me and my kind to the status of barely tolerated nuisances, unwieldly appurtenances hauled from post to post as our fathers (in those days, they were mostly fathers) advanced through the stations of their careers. Bound up with the name was the invidious implication that we brats would likely bring shame upon our fathers by acting in the usual misbehaving ways of children and adolescents, particularly of the male variety.
Yet for all the negatives that identity implied, we came to wear it proudly, even a bit defiantly. For reasons that had something to do with the pride of the military in those first decades after World War II, we felt that being brats with a certain stoic solidarity was our way of supporting the mission, of doing what we could do for our country. If we had to uproot every year or two and make ourselves at home in another strange place, well, that was our job. If a friend’s father was killed in the line of duty, we drew even closer together. It could well have been any of our own fathers. Hanging tough and close was our way of being good, patriotic Americans.
Indeed, of being uber-Americans. When we brats left the forts to attend school or simply to play with civilian kids, we felt more American than those civilians, who had additional attachments to town or region. Living on various forts in the South, for example, we had little tolerance for those lovers of the Confederate Stars and Bars we encountered off-post. When the locals stood for the playing of “Dixie” at a high school football games, we brats remained seated and did our own looking away until it was time for the national anthem.
My American national identity—shaped largely by that narrower army brat identity—would face challenges through subsequent decades, during the storms surrounding the struggle for civil rights, an unpopular war in Southeast Asia, the shame of Watergate, and other national low points, but it would remain a deep constant. Naively or not, my faith in America at those times resonated with the closing lines of Lincoln’s first inaugural, in their expressed confidence that “the mystic chords of memory” would “yet swell the chorus of the Union” and we Americans would again be touched “by the better angels of our nature.”
Yet nothing unsettled my sense of American-ness more jarringly, I must confess, than the last presidential election. Almost more than by the unfitness of the candidate who prevailed, I was troubled by what the election revealed about the state of the American electorate—that the tribalized passions and loyalties of our overheated identity politics had made it possible for even a near-majority of Americans to cast their votes for a candidate so indifferent to the underlying civil norms of our democracy. As I said to a friend, “I never knew, until now, how fundamentally proud I once was of my country.” Yes, that “once” tolled heavily in my own ears. But my sentiments ran even deeper than hurt pride. I felt like a person dispossessed, a man without a country. That loss threw me into very personal reflections on the meaning of identity, and what it could be good, or bad, for.
Given its current importance, the struggle for recognition among our ever-proliferating identity groups might seem to be a peculiarly modern obsession. But even in the old regimes, with their static social hierarchies, the need for recognition was powerful. Recognition was pursued and attained largely on the field of honor, in daily efforts to fulfill the duties and obligations of one’s place in the divinely ordained social order.
As the old regimes were replaced by modern democratic states with growing social mobility, the concern with honor ceded to a new universalist politics that insisted upon dignity for all citizens, including equal rights and entitlements. But if the modern age did not give rise to the politics of recognition, it did give birth, as the philosopher Charles Taylor explains, to the “conditions in which the attempt to be recognized can fail.” It did so because, along with the new universalist politics there arose a related but sometimes conflicting politics of difference, concerned precisely with winning recognition for one or more particular groups against the neglect, exploitation, or assimilationist pressures of the dominant group. The recurring collisions between these two modes of politics have produced some of the sharpest—and even the most violent—civil struggles within modern democratic states.
But the longevity and occasional ferocity of struggles arising from demands for equal rights, on one hand, and the recognition of difference, on the other, has brought relatively little light to the phenomenon of identity itself. How do we judge the adequacy, efficacy, or value of various forms of identity in our struggle to secure not only equal rights and privileges but also meaning and community?
That is the question that animates the thematic essays of the present issue of The Hedgehog Review, and though the answers range widely, they collectively provide an entry-point for a deeper, possibly less fraught discussion of what separates humanity into tribes (defined by what are often extremely fine distinctions) and what may yet bring us together in a more capacious humanism that embraces universalist principles while respecting and protecting differences. As the historian Jackson Lears wrote not long ago in the London Review of Books, “Identity politics in America was a tragic necessity. No one can deny the legitimacy or urgency of the need felt by women and minorities to have equality on their own terms, to reject the assumption that full participation in society required acceptance of the norms set by straight white males. Yet even as the public sphere grew more inclusive, the boundaries of permissible debate were narrowing.”
While Lears writes from the left and is largely concerned with the way our current form of identity politics has displaced a concern with class and economic equality, voices of the right and center have joined him in criticizing this coercive narrowing of political debate. (See, for example, Walter Benn Michael’s The Trouble with Diversity, Mark Lilla’s Once and Future Liberal, Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity, and Francis Fukuyama’s forthcoming Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.) But escaping the grip of identity politics will first require an honest reckoning with the historical and contemporary realities that continue to fuel the politics of difference, whether in the emergence of a new racism visible in soaring rates of African American incarceration or in the ever-accumulating incidents of male aggression against women. And, yes, we must also heed the identity-based grievances of those “angry white males” (and quite a few females) who came together in surprisingly wide support of an uncivil anti-politician promising to make America great again.
Of one thing we can be certain: Identity politics begets more identity politics. Any hope of overcoming that politics must begin with a willingness to listen to those who cleave to identity for the very solidarity and confidence that may free them, ironically, from the more limiting, indeed punitive, aspects of an identity. Are there more commodious forms of identity, including a rekindled and truly civic nationalism, that can bring not just tolerance but a sense of mutuality across some of the most politically heated identity divides? It is an irony—perhaps even a tragic one—that the only way out of the identity trap is through it. How we negotiate that irony is one of the distinctive challenges of our modern condition.