The Political Value of Debating Identity
A response to Umair Haque
You’ve hit upon a significant contemporary problem. Your words are moving, and capable of invigorating a vital debate. Some part of what you’re saying, though, loses the plot.
The meat you’re chewing on has been on the plate of feminist thinkers for some time. Who cares about “glass ceilings” in corporate London when global economic forces condemn Bangladeshi women to hunger and miserable drudgery, assembling goods on behalf on unconscionable conglomerates for the benefit of affluent consumers? If you pit one evil against the other, there’s no comparison. So the average person, faced with a choice of causes to devote their resources to, picks the global class struggle over the local feminist one, right?
But that’s a rhetorical trick of sorts. Are we really a global community? Does that invalidate the smaller communities in which most of us pass the majority of our time? Answers to the former question are complex, answers to the latter much less so. Not everyone is hooked into the relentless mill of global human suffering. What’s to stop them from trying to make a difference in their own small, bounded, community of peers?
The issue here is about feminism, about racism, and about LGBT rights. In many ways, the relevant movements are enjoying a heyday — a period of renewed political momentum. With that comes a lot of deep thinking, and a good deal of experimentation with the terms that have framed long-standing debates.
I remember a time when, if you asked what the worst word in the English language was, people would answer “fuck” (I grew up on the Western side of the Atlantic — still, today it’s laughable!). Now an unquestionable victory goes to the “N-word”. Is that progress? Quite possibly. It means that society — the people using the words in question— is processing. We’re making sense of the fact that, despite all the hopes of a well-educated liberal elite, the scars of racism (in America and worldwide) have yet to heal. It suggests that we’re trying to change the way we think about race, to understand that some of the systems of oppression we’d love to declare obsolete are, in fact, alive and well — sometimes more damaging than ever. It’s a note-to-self, a reminder that racism shouldn’t be allowed to drift to the back of our minds.
Feminist imperatives to re-work language are no different. English would benefit tremendously from a gender-neutral pronoun but, in terms of philology, it’s a particularly awkward gap to fill. “They/their” seems to be catching on — but it’s not going to happen on its own, so there are those who feel the need to “police” the usage.
Now what about people born in the wrong bodies? What about people who can’t participate in society honestly, openly, because of a lifelong fear that they will be rejected, even assaulted, if their peers understand who they really are?
I think the profusion of terms for people’s identities — baffling as it gets sometimes— is an indication of a very positive process. Some of those who have lived in agony, crippled by rifts between themselves and society that too often end in suicide, are poking their heads out of the bunker and searching for new words to describe themselves.
“What if”, some have begun to ask, “I don’t have to be a second class citizen? . . . then who would I be?”
The process is awkward, ungainly, and very beautiful in its way. It is also delicate and can easily be arrested by a few unkind words. And this is where the discussion goes beyond the rights of any particular group — to notions such as the “trigger warning”. A few days ago Tim Lott did a magnificent short piece about this in the Guardian. Words can do measurable, profound, damage to a person’s well-being. It might not be unfair to ask, for example, whether society should adapt to the trauma of the rape-survivor and not the other way around. In more abstract terms, it might be worth asking whether we need to be more sensitive to whatever scars or vulnerabilities our peers carry within them.
Many will fear that this approach jeopardizes the sweetest fruit of all in a liberal democracy: the right to open and unhindered debate. They’re right— I share the fear. In fact, it is this very spirit of free and open discussion which, paradoxically, is required before a million self-discovered kinds of people can start finding the words to auto-describe. The fact that no thought is off-the-table, no subject truly taboo, is indeed something worth fighting for.
I think there are two kinds of people on the “new left” — or, I should say, two different attitudes (after all, nothing stops the person from swinging back and fourth). There are those who want to defend the vulnerable (or to defend themselves!) and who therefore stand up for what they believe is right. On the other hand, there are those who relish the chance to win an argument — who need to fill a void, to assert a sense of dominance that was probably denied them somewhere along the winding path of their biography.
Language is power, and adjusting it can indeed be a means of settling accounts with the powerful in favour of those to whom history has been unkind. But, like any kind of power, it can just as easily serve as a tool of oppression and silencing in the hands of the power-hungry. There are many small kings of tiny little hills on the internet — and no issue is too minute to start a brushfire. Those looking for blood over the misuse of a few niche terms need to ask themselves if they’re fighting to make life better for people who have suffered, or to enjoy fleeting moments of personal satisfaction.
The rest of us need to think carefully before we dismiss even the most seemingly absurd kind of self-presentation. You can never know what another has suffered, or what their best route to thriving might be.
A lot of people are after the young to change the world, but it’s easy to forget the key ingredient that gives someone the strength to stand up and fight for a good cause: dignity.
Dignity has been denied to so many of us, whatever conditions we were raised in. The young have hardly been spared, and comparing kinds of suffering buys us nothing. We must all work to recover what our pains and traumas — as glancing as a misused pronoun or as gaping as a world at war — have taken from us. Only through compassion — for ourselves, for one another, for those we’ve never met— can we gain the political force necessary to transform our fraught planet. A strong individual has the capacity to help others, but when embedded in a healthy community, her capacity grows by orders of magnitude.
In this sense, the “new left” has a point: identity is part of individual dignity, but a wider discussion on the subject is required before it finds its place in a collective atmosphere of respect — the kind of atmosphere that lets a group accomplish truly great things.
We cannot ignore our own failings while crusading to help others abroad. If we do that, we really are crusaders: misguided combatants in lands that are not our own. A truly principled person fights for the dignity of those at home and abroad — for that of the transitioning teenager and that of the migrating family — all at the same time (while also coming to terms with, and trying to repair, the environmental degradation that affects us all). We’ll make mistakes along the way, we’ll find ourselves at the mercy of the trolls from time to time, but it’s all part of the process. With luck, a spirit of forgiveness, and hopefully a sense of humour, we might just get the balance right.