Guest Post: Identity politics insults all of us

A guest post by Gavan O’Farrell:

“This is who I am”
 
I recently read an article about what it’s like being deaf in New Zealand.  One woman interviewed recalled a camp she attended when she was young.  The experience made a big impression on her, so much so that she came to realise that being deaf was “who I am”. 
 
This got me thinking about other times I’ve heard someone say that such-and-such is “who I am”.  One hears of people saying it about their race, their gender, their sexual orientation, or some other characteristic they consider to be vital to the point of being definitive.
 
I expect many who say this are very deeply affected by the significance of the characteristic they are describing and this is articulated, with some poetic licence, as “This is who I am”.  In some cases (perhaps many), this poetic licence may be energised by the fact that the person has been made to feel like a social outlier because of the characteristic.  In these cases, the “poetry” becomes quite poignant and very powerful.
 
However, some proclaim “who I am” with a polemical purpose which, if spelled out, goes something like this: “This characteristic is who I am.  For that reason, your disapproval of it, or disagreement with it, is a rejection of me as a person, a denial of my humanity”.  What seems to follow, in the mind of the speaker, is that the disapproval or disagreement must therefore not be permitted and may even be reasonably described as hate speech and condemned as such.  We see this happening all around us.
 
No matter how the declaration “This is who I am” is used, I suggest that it isn’t actually true.  I cannot interfere with a person’s view of themselves – I’m just an onlooker with no authority – but I can have an opinion about this kind of thought process.  When the woman declared that her deafness is “who I am”, it occurred to me to ask, “What about your ethnicity and gender, are they just peripheral?”
 
When a person identifies a characteristic and says, “This is who I am”, they are doing themselves a great injustice and selling themselves way short. 
 
Each person consists of an enormous number of characteristics, some innate and others formed by experience and context.  I’ll call each of these a “what” as distinct from the “who”.  There are all sorts of whats – sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender presentation, age, height,  body shape and weight, strength, IQ, EQ, disposition, beauty, physical prowess, physical health, mental health, attitude to heights, enclosed spaces and spiders, place on various spectrums (eg introvert/extrovert, optimist/pessimist, sweetness of tooth, sensitivity to heat and cold), opinions and world-view, life experience, experience of oppression (from one side or another), skills, self-esteem, memory, facility with languages ………..  I’m not sure the list has an end.
 
I suggest that “who” a person is must be, at the very least, the aggregate of the enormous number of whats that characterise the person.  To be honest, I would go further and suggest that this aggregate is simply “what” the person is, while the “who” of that person is something even more profound and utterly unique. 
 
Who we really are
 
Because I’m a Christian (just mainstream, nothing fancy), I believe each human being is made “in the image and likeness” of the creator God.  This is rather grand and gives each person fabulous significance and value, which is the other reason I find limited self-identification so irksome.
 
But even if the imago Dei is notionally set aside, it is apparent that an individual human being is an unfathomably deep and complex unit.  So, when a person focuses on a single characteristic and says “This is who I am”, they are saying something that is wildly inaccurate. 
 
It is good to be prepared to go to some trouble to understand why a person identifies themselves in this way, especially if there is real hurt underlying what they say.  However, it doesn’t follow that a poetic understatement, no matter how poignant or tragic, should be taken literally – because then it’s false.
 

 
I don’t intend this to be of merely passing interest:  it’s relevant to identity politics. 
 
I’m not quite sure just who is “in charge” of identity politics – I only know they’ve been operating behind the scenes and that no-one voted for them.  They seem to have decided that each person has only a handful of characteristics – or, at least, only a handful of characteristics that matter. 
 
I cannot interfere when a person entertains a false and limiting belief about themselves.  I must feel a little sad and leave them be.  However, I object to being told that I must treat their paltry self-identification as a fact.
 
It is even more objectionable when someone applies this shabby branding to someone else.
 
This happens, for example, when I am identified as “just” a pale, stale male or “just” a phobia-laden Christian bigot or “just” a beneficiary of racist colonialism etc.  Once one of these damning labels is attached to me, no interest is taken in my other characteristics, much less in my actual opinions, decisions and actions. 
 
It also happens when a person is encouraged to self-identify in this paltry manner – to see themselves as a person of very few parts.  The perverse thing is, this encouragement comes from people who claim to advocate for that person!
 
This has been going on for a while, but I continue to be astonished by the new elite (academics, media, educators, much of government) who arrogantly presume to define everyone, especially when that definition is insultingly incomplete.  This displays utter contempt for every member of the community – not only those the elite intends to punish for past sins but also those it claims to champion. 
 
Identity politics insults everyone by underestimating them.  That’s just the start, of course:  after rebranding us all and diving us into herds, the elite –
·         decides which herds are good and bad (regardless of what people actually say and do);
·         stage-manage a war between them (women against men, Pakehā against Māori, and so on).
 
The complexity and uniqueness of every human being is not the only vital truth ignored – also ignored is a person’s accountability for what they do, not for what they are – but that’s where it starts.

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