Friday, November 26, 2010

More good reading from Phil Paine: "identity," slavery, and genocide

The misuse of identity:

...I tend to get most on my high horse when I feel that some stu­pid or wicked notion is being smug­gled into our sub­con­scious by a turn of phrase or an implied definition.

This is exactly the case with the cur­rently accepted use of the word iden­tity. You see this word used all the time, and phrases like “iden­tity pol­i­tics” are assumed to have an eas­ily rec­og­niz­able mean­ing. I’ve just been read­ing a spate of archae­o­log­i­cal papers which rou­tinely refer to “iden­tity” inter­change­ably with eth­nic­ity. These papers, from a vari­ety of aca­d­e­mics, con­stantly repeat phrases like “nego­ti­at­ing their iden­tity” — inane jar­gon which the field has bor­rowed from soci­ol­ogy, and which is now firmly entrenched. Archae­ol­ogy is impov­er­ished by this kind of rub­bish, and drifts away from sci­en­tific rigour.

When some­one casu­ally refers to reli­gious affil­i­a­tion, or to eth­nic­ity, or nation­al­ity, or gen­der, as being their “iden­tity,” there is an implicit assump­tion that mem­ber­ship in large, for­mally defined or orga­nized groups of peo­ple is the essen­tial char­ac­ter­is­tic of an “identity.”

Now, I find this a pro­foundly wrong, and extremely offen­sive assump­tion. Your iden­tity, as far as I’m con­cerned, and as I’ve believed through­out my life, is that which makes you uniquely your­self. My “iden­tity” is com­posed of those things which refer to me and only me, expe­ri­ences that occured to me alone, pas­sions and ambi­tions that are mine, pri­vate sym­bols that only I under­stand, inner expe­ri­ences that belong only to me. These unique, indi­vid­ual char­ac­ter­is­tics form, all together, my Iden­tity. No char­ac­ter­is­tic that I share with some arbi­trary group of other human beings, or that is demanded of me by some col­lec­tive mush, or imposed on me by some pro­claimed Author­ity, can con­sti­tute my iden­tity. Cer­tainly no group that I am merely asso­ci­ated with by acci­dent of birth can ever be my iden­tity. I find the idea that any­one would con­sider their iden­tity to be, say, Nor­we­gianess, or their skin colour, a pro­foundly dis­gust­ing notion. It is to aban­don indi­vid­u­al­ity entirely, to crush and erase iden­tity, not to describe it.

This is a par­tic­u­larly creepy kind of creep­ing col­lec­tivism. The mean­ing of the word iden­tity has been dis­torted, per­verted, inverted. I don’t believe such things are ran­dom acci­dents. There are always pow­er­ful forces that seek to oblit­er­ate respect for, and recog­ni­tion of, the indi­vid­ual human being. If you can pur­suade peo­ple that their “iden­tity” is noth­ing more than their mem­ber­ship in a col­lec­tive blob, that there is noth­ing specif­i­cally notable or sig­nif­i­cant about them­selves, then half the work of enslave­ment has been accom­plished.
Amartya Sen has made a similar point in a recent book Identity and Violence, but his point was that reducing people to a single group identity led not just to enslavement, but genocide.

Similarly, this, from Chimamanda Adichie:

Update: Guy Halsall, anxious to elbow his way into this august company of great minds, recommends that anyone interested in this topic read his book Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376 - 568, especially chapters 2 and 14; I would add that you might also want to be interested in barbarian migrations and "the fall of the Roman Empire." Seriously, though, I read Guy's book last month and it is quite fine, and the theme of multiple identities (as opposed to singular, essentialist ones) is surely there. This is not quite what Phil was talking about, but it is interesting and advances the historical debate on the "transformation" of Rome.

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