We tend to think of identity politics as merely another form of social control and mobilization. What most people forget: Anything referring to your identity tries to shape your very core, the person you are, wish to be and are perceived as.
A common question in times of crisis is: Who are we? Tailgating it are questions like, who are we not, what are we like, what are “they” like, and so on. These questions seem like important national issues; we discuss them on a regular basis. Yet, these questions themselves take some part of our very basic freedoms away – our notion of self.
From right to “self” to right to “idea of self”
Let me elaborate on my conception of “freedom”, or, if you want, “human rights”. Looking at the development of political theory, you find the earliest understandings of basic rights against the ruler to be limiting. Yes, the ruler will not be controlled and may do however he pleases; yet, in the private (Hobbes), in you own property (Locke), or even: in your own body (Habeas Corpus), you are your own lord. Intruding there necessitates laws, control, rules, and should be reasonable.
The right to your own body is philosophically and ethically extremely important. But from the beginning of “natural rights”, which would then become “human rights”, the right to your own body was extended – to freedoms and your property. Yet, the right to your self is seldom understood beyond physical properties; why is it that the house I own is more crucial to my self than my conscious self?
And here we have to talk about the role of your self conception. What makes us “us” is a very long, complex and contested story. However, I think most psychologists and social scientists alike would nowadays agree on there not being a fixed “self” (as Locke would have assumed, with the soul being central), but rather competing narrations of self. In other words: When asked who we are, we always have a slightly different story. These stories vary greatly, not only depending on the context, but they also change and develop over time. Thus, who an individual is, is constantly changing; with self narration changing, then, both self perception (i.e. the story about “us” we tell to ourself) and self projection (i.e. the story about “us” we tell to other people) change as well.
Narrating yourself is a fundamental right
Being able to do so, to create a narrative, a conception of self and proliferate it, is a basic freedom. It is a right to our own person, i.e. not just the body, but also the personality. And yet, this right is constantly contested; for any kind of group identity requires a narration of self from “outside”. In fact, group identities create a new “outside” and “inside” – its “them” versus “us”, out-group versus in-group. Defining who “we” are and who “they” are is the first step, and this step alone does not intrude much into our right to self-narrate; yet, it is usually followed by defining what makes us “us”.
And herein lies the one of the most hidden forms of power: Defining groups of people. Your can see it in international politics as well as domestic politics. The Austrian law that defines which imams should be reckognized and which ones should now meddles with that. Changing the citizenship law in Germany from ius sanguinis to ius solis meddled with that. And defining ethnicities in Rwanda definitely meddled with that.
Minorities vs Majorities
As I have already established, identity construction is, in many ways, externalized. Yes, we maintain our own narrations of self, with competing and overlapping identities; yet, which identities survive, is usually determined from the outside, moretheless by definition. This means that changing these identities is changing our conception of self.
A very common example would be the transformation from “immigrant”, “ethnic” identities in Western Europe to “Muslim” identities. This is a constant process: By being referred to as “Muslim”, rather than “Arab” or “Turkish”, these people refer to themselves more often as “Muslim”, and so on.
Finding a certain form of group identity is often interpreted as empowering. From Marx’s hope that a common class identity would allow for revolution to Black Consciousness in the US, we often see the hope of minorities banding together, to find new narratives and definitions of self in order to fight hegemonic interpretations, will empower them and make them free. To this I have three objections.
The hegemon is hegemonic because of his hegemony
First of all, they have simply failed in every way possible. Look at those interest groups and their leaflets for how their specific group should be framed by the media; apart from journalists already embedded in their networks, no one pays attention to them. Instead, the image of the “welfare queen”, the “pious or patriarchal mexican”, the “lazy poor” and the “flamboyant homosexual” persist. The few successes were mainly thanks to the cultural hegemons (now I am throwing words around liberally) changing their stance; with top tier politicians trying to change the discourse, talking and presenting new “types” of minorities. And sometimes admitting that the “foreigners” are not so “foreign”.
Second, by escaping from the outside definition of self, organizing in identity based groups captures you in new narratives. A Black Panther telling you what makes you “black” is not really different from a racist doing so; it is much less offensive and humiliating for you, but it is still another person trying to define who you are.
And finally, not buying into a discourse is not the same as escaping it. Wedeen (if you haven’t heard of her, I strongly recommend reading her work) shows that compliance is not dependent on belief. Expanding by some general constructivist concepts, we can say: As long as you live with those framings, as long as you discuss, engage them, you reproduce them and, in a way, are part of this narration. There is the sociologist’s bonmot of “I am not going to hurt you!” being the scariest thing one could randomly say, because why would you even think someone was going to hurt you? Similarly, saying “I am not criminal because I am a PoC” implies a shared “knowledge” of PoCs being criminals. Thus, you are not escaping it.
Let’s all despair
A careful reader might think at this point “tl;dr: collective identities work against individualism” and roll their eyes at me. Good point, imaginary strawman, but that’s not all I am trying to say – individual identities are comprised of overlapping, competing group identities and personal experiences. However, the existence of group identities gives those capable of shaping group identities more than merely political power; it gives them leverage to affect you understanding of self, exerting control over an area that you’d instinctively assume to be beyond influences from other people.
Fighting these identities by embracing group identities can be enticing. It is empowering in a social, political sense: You gain power by sumbitting to a group identity, especially as a minority that might be discriminated based on being assigned a group identity. Embracing this given identity as jewish, black or poor, you can then band together and gain power. However, it is a trade – you are also giving up a part of you self narration. If your sense of self is determined by the collective history of “your people”, well, then there is less room for you own personal history to determine your notion of self.
What I am trying to say is this: At any point in time, you not only have competing identities, but you have people and organizations competing for a hegemonic narrative of these labels, and thus, of your conception of self. And there is no real way out of it – gaining full control over your conception of self would be equivalent to either total social deprivation or total hegemony over these discourses, both of which are almost impossible to achieve. No form of empowerment can change that, only try to counterbalance it.
However, recknognizing this should make you more careful when dealing with identities. Virtually any conversation on identities is loaded. If you go on a date and ask someone what their favorite dish is, you are defining them, in a way, but usually without doing much harm, as the individual has a lot of control over this narration. If you, however, talk about “culture”, you are creating or reproducing powerful labels and narratives, that then determine interaction with people whose identities are based on theses labels. You are “speech-acting”, part of a process defining people, meddling with their most personal, intimate aspect: their conception of self. Remember that.