April 3, 2012

Identity as Response to Social Pressure

The Archbishop of Canterbury made some interesting observations concerning what is commonly called identity politics, which leads me to a thought that has been brewing for a few weeks, since I gave a talk at the Church Club on the history and development of the marriage canons.

I have often observed that people are most concerned about other people's identities. So society insists it know if one is male or female: note the anxiety comically portrayed in SNL's "Pat" sketches. This is where identity actually becomes political -- when the polis demands that one retreat from the Christ-like mode of New Adam into the "male" or "female" or "French" or "Welsh" for that matter.

After the talk at the Church Club, one gentleman in the audience was adamant that "marriage" ought not be used for same-sex couples, not on the grounds that it is an innovation or an inaccuracy, but on the grounds that henceforth when someone tells him he or she is married, he will have to ask if they are married to a person of the same or different sex. It is this man's need to know and annoyance at not knowing that makes the identity of the other significant. And of course, why he needs to know is based on his need to treat different people differently.

This reminds me of a feature of the Japanese language and culture, in which it is very important to know the identity of the person to whom you speak, because your societal relationship determines the form of language used, unless one is to be considered boorish for treating social superiors informally or impolitely! This is an example of identity very much determined by society, based on a need to classify and categorize rather than to deal with each and every individual as a unique entity, even without getting into the theological arena that holds each person to be a precious gift of God.

So long as people push their own "need to know" on others -- or are pushed by their society to feel such a need -- a degree of "identity politics" will remain in place. If all people were simply treated as people -- images of God each and every one, male and female, Japanese and Welsh -- much of this would disappear.

I'm not holding my breath.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Erika Baker said...

Tobias, I had seen your comment on Thinking Anglicans first and I had replied that I first came across this need to allocated identity in Germany many decades ago when women insisted on no longer being called Fräulein or Frau but simply Frau.

Many men were extremely concerned that they would no longer be able to tell if a woman was married.
But after the change happened it soon became a complete non-issue.

Then I came over here and saw your "I'm not holding my breath" conclusion.

And I now think that needing to have and to allocate identity as a concept will not go away.
But that whenever people begin to question a particular identity and a row breaks out in society over it, we are well on the way of removing the debated identity from the list of those that matter.

While no-one in Japan questions the need for a linguistic difference between an older and a younger sister, the difference will remain important.

After people have questioned the need for Frau and Fräulein and have switched to Frau only, the difference becomes irrelevant.

Brother David said...

This brings up the question of what happens when the other is not who we expected or assumed them to be. This came up this past week regarding the movie the Hunger Games. Racism reared its ugly head on a number of social sites when some folks voiced their shock and disappointment that the character Rue was a light skinned African American.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Erika. I think we have had similar experience here in the US with "Ms." And I think you are completely correct about the categories that attract our attention tend to shift, and some become less relevant over time, and less discriminatory.

Bro David, yes, the assumptions are part of the issue. I'd heard about the H.G. flack, but also heard the author protest that she described the girl as she is portrayed --- people often project their own expectations in spite of what an author says!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

I made an additional comment at Thinking Anglicans:

I do not think Paul in Galatians was claiming that social status, nationality, or sex disappeared when one became a Christian, but that they cease to be significant. Part of what it means to be "clothed" in Christ is that we put on the "uniform" so to speak, and whatever our underlying differences Christians are called to treat each other as absolutely equal.

That Christians fail to do this is the sad truth. Some appear to be caught up in the argument about how "real" the differences are, which only serves to heighten their power over us.

So much of this, after all, is social. Under the prevailing view in the era, chattel slavery was in fact considered to be objective, and inherited. Children of slaves were slaves; Jewish law (Lev 25:44-46, bGittin 38b) forbade their emancipation. Later Christian theologians justified slavery on the basis of "natural law" and a divine mandate. That we would now find these arguments unpersuasive in no way gainsays the power they wielded over human souls for generations.

Thus, liberationist "Identity Politics" is often a response to oppressive "identity politics." And to wax Hegelian after the fashion of a certain Archbishop, that may from time to time be necessary. If there were no oppression, there would be no need for reaction.

G said...

The "need to know" is bang on. I'm painfully aware that it's trans* folk who bear the brunt of this obsession. In the recent controversy over the parents raising the "genderless baby" I was struck by how the sheer disproportionality of the reaction of many - like an addict thwarted in his "fix" - itself illustrated how astute the family was that we need to wean ourselves off these polarities. We have an incarnational faith, but it can too easily spill over into an idolatry of the design (whether sex, race, ablebodiedness) over the designer. The sabbath was made for man [sic]; I'd rather say the same of our bodies.

Daniel Weir said...

Another facet of this is the assumption that the life context of the majority and the privileged do not influence judgments while those of people in the minority do. We saw this in comments about the nomination of Justice Sotomayor, comments which ignored how the contexts of the privileged white men on the Court may influence their thinking.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Geoff, ambiguous or undefined sex is a big "stressor" for some people. And of course, it's only because they would treat a man differently from a woman.

Thanks too, Daniel. The "normal" is a truly massive part of the problem. IN the discussion at TA there is, under the surface, the sense that only a same-sex sexual orientation has to be challenged or questioned as to etiology. Many times I've seen the shocked look on strait folks faces when asked if they were "born that way." It never came to mind that anything other than their own orientation might be a given, indeed, a gift, rather than a departure from the default.

Brother David said...

I saw that Suzanne Collins had defended the actor choice in the movie. But, having read the trilogy, I know that she never assigned races to her characters, just superficial descriptions of eye color, hair color and either light skinned or dark skinned. A white person, especially a white racist could have read the books and never once assumed anyone was other than some shade of caucasian.

It is similar to the situation of the Trayvon Martin murder. The gunman is latino, but racist leaning folks have commented on websites that it couldn't be viewed as a white on black murder because, "My God, Zimmerman is Latino!" They have no idea that we Latinos are a mixed bag lot, who come in a variety of races.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Indeed, Bro David; these are the results of the society determining what is the "default" based on habit and prejudice, and sometimes bigotry.

Christopher said...

While certainly we can make of the various constituencies that touch on our particular persons, and that reduces us as well as others, to deny that we each are of such many is actually docetic. For Christians, our identity is in Christ by Baptism, and that identity takes up all that constitutes our person and renews and redeems these--and may, yes, lead to socio-cultural changes in the process.

What I find so often interesting is that those who make identity polities the issue are oblivious to how their particular privileged identities are instantiated as the way of being human within their particular cultures and societies--including Churches. And it often is an unacknowledged call to those not considered the right sort to shut up and accept their place.

It is important that within our particularity, we have a name; a name points to our own irreducibility as human persons. And it is within this, that we can then deal with the complexity of our own particularity, for example, being a man who enjoys sewing, or a woman who climbs mountains. The desert elders and so many of the saints are so much more flexible on all of this because God's grace tends to do just that...

To use St Paul to throw out the complexity of real human beings misses the mark. HIs understanding of diversity and unity is far more complex as atheist French philosophers have had to show Christians all over again.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Christopher. I agree on all counts. In fact, I think the orthodox understanding of the Incarnation points the way to the delicate balance we are called to hold: between the radical particularity of individual personhood and the universality of being made in the divine image.

It is important to note, as you suggest, that those who are "of the norm" often use the "identity" of the other-who-is-different as a catch all that in fact masks their radical particularity: so-and-so can be dismissed because she is of such-and-such a group and can therefore be expected to take such a view. Ironically, this "ad hominem" is not actually directed to the person herself, but to a presumed character of her "category."

I think what Paul is calling us to is not to gainsay or do away with our individuality, but not to allow those group characteristics of the individual to become barriers to seeing the Christ-likeness that indwells each Christian. As I wrote in a poem many years ago, in imitation of Lewis Carroll:

Lord, look at the peoples divided by race,
by language, culture and clan.
Why not give us each the same color and face?
Please tell us, Lord, what was your plan?

My children, I gave you your races and clans
that in contrast you might find delight.
Instead you have chosen to counter my plans
using race as a reason to fight.

MarkBrunson said...

Unfortunately, human existence is such that, to communicate, we need an identity to start from. If we don't provide one, you can be certain it will be either asked for, or assumed.

"Identity Politics" is a red herring.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Yes, Mark; which is why it is so important to be clear about one's own identity, and not allow society to distort one's personhood by the reductive categorization process. The problem is that as "social beings" we often voluntarily suppress our individuality in order to feel more a part of a social group. I see this as part of human development out of adolescence into adulthood. "Society" in most places is do uncomfortable with pluralism exactly because it gets stuck in an adolescent stage of development; and this sets the stage for identity politics -- as I say, they become needful because the society isn't practicing or ready for appreciation of equality. Simply to deprecate "identity politics" without acknowledging their source is indeed to misrepresent the situation. It seems to me that this is in part what the Archbishop does; and in this misses the mark.

JCF said...

FWIW, "Rue" looked exactly as I pictured her from the book [which I knew would be devastating to me, personally, because---to paraphrase the President re Trayvon---"If I had a daughter (w/ my ex) she would look like Rue"]

Thanks, Geoff, for the acknowledgement (re Trans people). Of course, it's not *only* self-ID'd Trans people who have, as I have, faced "shocked faces in the bathroom". Oy vey, the cisgendered and their gender anxieties re those they can't easily label/compartmentalize!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, JCF. It seems to me that in our day gender/sexuality identity anxiety -- the "need to know" on the part of some and sense of entitlement to know -- is the canary in the coal mine of treating others as human first, and "role" second. Perhaps the "role" anxiety is the major factor, due to their need to relate not on the basis of humanity, but social position?