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Defining Identities, the First Problem of Identity

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Over the last forty or fifty years, the driving question of philosophy has become: “Who are we, and what are we?”

Society has become obsessed with identity. How can I talk with somebody I can’t even identify? The whole world seems to demand an answer to the intimately personal question of “who are you?” — a question we ourselves often cannot answer. This leads to a mountain of different problems. People call each other the wrong thing: trans people are referred to by their deadname, a cisgender person is misgendered by a person that can’t tell what pronouns to use, and so on. Because I have longer hair, I am often referred to as ma’am, a situation that quickly becomes awkward, as I have facial hair and masculine physical appearance. Others cannot even identify themselves: a person struggles with transition from one gender to another, transgender people doubt their very identity as transgender, and so on.

This brings us to three major problems:

  1. The Definition of the Identity
  2. Identifying People
  3. The Limits of Identity

This list is not exhaustive. There are many other problems in the current way we identify others and ourselves. These three frame a general outline for many other problems, however. It’s preferable to give general accounts before delving into the mess of details that surround the concept of identity in society. For the moment, I’ll limit myself to the first problem.

The Definition of the Identity

All identities are defined by people in different social groups and in different times, all with different priorities and perspectives. The labels we use to identify one another are affected by the concerns of different parts of society, all of which are struggling with very specific problems. Identities are not born into people, a point best illustrated by the creation of race in the United States. I will try to be brief, summarizing whole books on the subject.

Race and Biology

The history of racial identity in the United States began as a result of the import of slaves from Africa to Jamestown Colony in 1619. Originally, the development of slavery was primarily justified by the need for labor in the southern colonies, but the import of slaves led to irreversible social changes that would quickly end that. Numerous slave revolts during the 1600’s and 1700’s jeopardized the future of slave labor in the United States [1]. By 1780, the leading arguments against slavery were economic, many inspired by Adam Smith’s Lectures on Jurisprudence. Using the colonies in the Caribbean as his example, Smith argued in 1763:

Some of the West India islands have indeed been cultivated by slaves, and have been greatly improven, but they might have been cultivated by freemen at less expense; and had not the profits of sugar been very great, the planters could not have supported the expense of slaves, but their profits have been so enormous, that all the extraordinary expense of slave cultivation has vanished before it. [2]

According to Adam Smith, freeholders were more productive because they had a personal motive to cultivate the fields. This would result in higher yields and a workforce of small competing landowners, rather than what occurred in most American states, where large landowners owned the vast majority of plantations and slaves. [3]

Later, arguments revolved around moral arguments for and against the practice. The Quakers in the North and the Southern Baptists in the South exemplify these arguments. The Quakers were intimately aware of the terrible conditions of slavery and the cruelty that the practice entailed, and weaponized these to advocate for abolition. A Quaker abolitionist, John Parrish, wrote against the practice of slavery from a moral argument in 1805 in a book entitled Notes on Abolition:

to shew from a well authenticated account of the miseries of these unhappy people a man that had purchased 13 on his way home locked them up one night in an out house for security and in the morning they were found every one with their throats cut … thus we see the retchedness of these people situation who rather chuse death then to be deprived of liberty, (which is not uncommon) witness the various fortifications and Vessels blown up rather than been captivated by an Enemy, & rather than to suffer in a state of Captivity, shurely their condition is deplorable. [page 6]

At the same time, churches with large northern and southern congregations were forced to confront the problem of African slaves. The Baptists split on the issue during their convention in 1845, where a young Rev. Basil Manly Sr. adopted the position “that slavery was not an unfortunate necessity but part of the divinely ordained hierarchical order of Christian society.” [4] Slaves were identified by different groups as objects and as people, with whites holding the power of determining which.

By The Manly family; an account of the descendants of Captain Basil Manly of the revolution, and related families, compiled by Louise Manly , page 70–71 Public domain.

After the end of the Civil War, scientists who assumed the supremacy of whites etched this philosophy into the field of biology through a field known as eugenics. Briefly stated, the Eugenics Movement was an attempt to attach race and nationality to inherited biological characteristics. Now considered scientific racism, Eugenics was discredited during the 1950’s and early 1960’s in the scientific community.

A British biologist named Francis Galton coined the term eugenics in his 1883 book, Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development. Darwin’s half-cousin, Galton referred constantly to his book on The Origin of Species, becoming a proponent of controlled human breeding. Acting upon limited evidence of studies he personally conducted, Galton came to the conclusion that certain skills were inherited from generation to generation. His discussion centered around the characteristics of races and the ranking of their skills and natural characteristics.

[This book’s] intention is to touch on various topics more or less connected with that of the cultivation of race, or, as we might call it, with “eugenic” questions, and to present the results of several of my own separate investigations. [pg. 24–25] … Energy is an attribute of the higher races…

Galton’s definition of the term Eugenics (footnote 1) and argument for its validity.

Galton was convinced that both “positive” and “negative” human traits were inherited from a person’s race. White supremacy was deemed an absolute scientific certainty, rather than an opinion. By controlling breeding, Galton’s followers presumed that races could be improved by segregation and pairing those with the best traits. In the United States, this led to activism by Harry Laughlin, Charles Davenport, and John Harvey Kellogg (the creator of Corn Flakes) demanding that the state take measures to improve breeding through selective sterilization.

Lutz Kaelber, a professor of sociology, has written extensively on the history of the eugenics movement, analyzing the groups targeted by sterilization laws as well as the process adopted. One of the most restrictive sterilization orders was that of California, passed in 1909, then amended in 1913 and 1917. Regarding these laws, Kaelber noted the following:

The 1909 law was aimed specifically at those in prisons and with mental disabilities that caused them to be institutionalized. Of those with mental disabilities, the law targeted patients in state hospitals and institutions of the feeble-minded. In terms of the prisoners, the law targeted those who were inmates for life, showing “sex or moral perversions”, or were certain repeat offenders (Gottshall and Laughlin, p. 7). The 1913 law expanded to target all inmates in state hospitals or homes for the feeble-minded (except voluntary patients in state hospitals), as well as all repeat offenders in state prisons (Laughlin, p.7). The 1917 amendments greatly expanded the groups targeted even further to include those who had hereditary mental diseases, “those suffering from perversion or marked departures from normal mentality”, and those with sexually-transmitted diseases (Laughlin, pp. 7–8). These two later laws expanded to include virtually any individual deemed unfit. About 70% of all sterilization were performed on people who were labeled mentally ill (see Paul, p. 261). [5]

The use of sterilization also disproportionately affected African American women. Because of racial constructs, black women were considered excessively licentious, so white eugenicists could easily justify sterilizing them as an attempt to limit “sex or moral perversions.” State involvement in the creation of race coincided with the rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan. Founded in 1915, the organization mirrored the rhetoric of eugenicists, arguing for the supremacy of the white race and the improvement of both white and black races by segregation and selective breeding and sterilization.

It is tempting for us to label these interpretations of race as ignorant relics of a time long past. It is very comforting to think that we have come very far from the ways people thought about race in the past. However, dismissing these as ignorant fail to address the very real problem this poses for our beliefs about race in the present. What do we know better?

The Shadow of Eugenics

Those studying society have come to a consensus that “race is a social construct, not a biological attribute.” [6] However, this has not done any favors to popular perceptions. The long shadow of the eugenics movement remain to be felt in the fact that biologists are still putting out studies refuting that there is a biological basis for race. If we are in a supposedly enlightened age that believes race is not biological, why do our scientists spend so much time attempting to disprove it? The fixation on race in biology speaks both to the states of the people who are studying biology and the society in which they live.

At the same time, our focus on using science to disprove scientific racism ignores another major problem. Why do we believe the scientific method as we understand it produces better results than those before? The eugenicists were performing experiments in a way that they deemed infallible, a process that guaranteed coming to the right conclusion. To proclaim that we know better now is a cheap excuse to skirt around the heart of the problem eugenics posed.

The very process of defining what a race is has taken up a vast amount of human energy. But this is only one of the different identities our society has manufactured. Eugenics alone defined certain people — notably criminals, homosexuals, and the poor — as genetically predisposed to their position. It was a way of manufacturing identities as complex as any we undergo today, merely with a different level of technology. This brings us to the social philosophy of identity, and now we must delve into another rabbit hole. To address the philosophy of identity as it stands currently, we will analyze race through the lens of recent philosophy.

Who Are We?

The process begins with a simple question. Freud believed that people formed their self-consciousness through a disconnection with the outside world, separating themselves from it by enduring pain from outside sources. [7] Freud assumed this was the case without supporting it, and it turns out the process is much more than an individual one, when we are talking about identity. Freud drew upon a very recent development in human relationships, namely the idea of an isolated individual in competition and constant strife with their environment. It stemmed from an argument Darwin made in his Origin of Species, where he noted that individuals are in constant striving with one another to compete for limited resources. If this sounds familiar, it is because Darwin is paraphrasing Thomas Malthus, a political economist famed for the assertion that resources were unable to keep up with increasing populations.

Thomas Malthus was a liberal who advocated for population controls on the poor and for society in general. Darwin adopted his argument directly, according to his autobiography:

I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it.

This later point of avoiding prejudice is interesting, since Darwin did not directly apply his idea of evolution to people. This was done by eugenicists, particularly Francis Galton, who we discussed earlier. Freud looked to eugenics, and particularly its appropriation of Darwin, to explain how people developed a self-identity, regardless of its misuse.

Freud as a philosopher influenced other philosophers between the First World War and the postmodern period. Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst, dissented from Freud’s assumptions about normality during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, and Lacan’s dissent led another French psychologist and philosopher, Michel Foucault, to write The History of Sexuality, a book written explicitly against Freud. To avoid getting bogged down in psychology jargon, we have to take a look at the very real social problems we encounter in the previous example.

All identities are made by social conditions; a person cannot address their identity without referring to social concepts like sexuality, race, or gender. Identities cannot be held individually, so they must be held socially — this realization was the main argument against Freud. But when a person identifies another, there is a curious consequence. Louis Althusser noted that people are “interpellated” into categories. This means that a person is obligated (both violently and non-) to follow the social expectations of that group’s behavior. When they fail to do this, they are imprisoned or corrected, so that they fit the social mold. [8]

The consequence is that people outside of the group, who act as teachers, soldiers, or other regulators, are allowed to determine the identity of the group. The eugenics movement was a prime example of this, as it identified black people primarily from the white perspective and forced them into certain expected behaviors. Because of the entrenchment of racism at the time, it created a social identity for African Americans that justified their oppression. Race was created by racists, and how it exists now is inseparable from that past. When black people took power over their race during the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, they seized the means of defining themselves. However, this was repressed severely. The movement fragmented and whites gradually absorbed a racist way of including African Americans.

A social expectation remains that determines African American culture as inferior to that of white culture. This manifests in the protests against hip hop and other aspects of black culture as being inherently violent or promoting violence, as a means of discrediting black cultural figures. Violence in black communities is abused by both liberal and conservative commentators in the United States to justify the harsh repression of these communities. [9]

Ultimately we should realize that the identity of a community is established by both those inside of and outside of the communities it represents. It interweaves with other identities and becomes a difficult mess to detangle. Often, the members of groups are incapable of determining what is a part of the identity itself, as American sociologist Howard S. Becker noted. [10] The process is much more mysterious than previous generations believed it to be, all to hide the social relations that helped make these labels. Previous generations also failed to realize that these labels were made to justify certain social conditions. The problem of defining identity has not been solved.

Although African American voices have been integrated into media, they are still relegated to acceptable opinions. Put frankly, a news organization will not hire a black person who they believe will make the news more controversial because it will put off viewers. Large media corporations are more in control of the very language and scope of debate that is now acceptable in the public sphere. We must resolve the problem of defining identities before corporations provide the sole means of doing so, and make it into a marketing ploy to manipulate our behaviors. Race is only one example of this.

[1] For more information, see Chapters 2–4 of Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States.

[2] Adam Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence.

[3] Nancy Isenberg, White Trash, chapters 2 & 3.

[4] Robert P. Jones, White too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020), 34.

[5] Kaelber et al, “California Eugenics.”

[6] Vivian Chou, “How Science and Genetics are Reshaping the Race Debate of the 21st Century”

[7] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, chapter 1.

[8] See Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”

[9] See Jason Hackworth’s book, Manufacturing Decline.

[10] Howard S. Becker, “Labelling Theory Reconsidered,” or Ch 10 of Studies in the Sociology of Deviance.




The Bridge is a publication focusing on social philosophy and how we relate to the society in which we live, providing a forum for discussion.

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Thomas Sebacher

Thomas Sebacher

BA, Philosophy & Religion, BS in History, also a part time editor and writer on my publication, The Bridge

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