On identity and oppression

The word identity entails a mathematical formula of one thing being identical to another, as in x = y.

Jump over to the conception of human identity and you have something different though. In describing our ‘personal identity’, we might come up with any number of things that define ourselves: from our basic physical characteristics to social identifiers like the religious and political groups we belong to, class (middle class/working class?), ethnicity, maybe profession...

Hence I may say I ‘am’ a middle class, white, male, agnostic journalist, a member of the Labour Party, with a critical view of mainstream liberal-left politics. This probably does about as good a job at describing me as you can do in a sentence, but of course it misses out so much that it is nowhere near reaching ‘identity’ with me. That sentence and me are nowhere near that x and y relationship which an actual identity would entail. But then I could go on for years detailing different aspects of myself without reaching identity.

So, you may say, that’s all very well, but what’s the point?

There are a few points. First is the one that, taken literally, personal ‘identity’ is an illusion, because we cannot possibly put up an identity that is complete. Secondly, because we can’t put up a complete identity, we might see that identity is a basically a free space - infinitely malleable and flexible, with which we can do pretty much what we want.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we may be able to see that a strong personal identity, for example with one’s skin colour, gender or religious grouping, is a choice. That identity may be enforced socially in quite a strong way, but we can break out of it. Identity can sometimes be a prison, but it’s one that requires us to maintain the walls and keep the roof on.

This argument is opposed to those theories which claim that such things as skin colour, gender and religious grouping are fundamental categories, set in relationships of oppression and privilege (or perpetrator and victim) within society. These theories depend on identities being intrinsic to people – that skin colour, gender or religious group forms a literal identity, and a fundamental identity, that is universal and universally acknowledged.

In such a way we can see that these theories of oppression are pretty oppressive themselves. They lock people up in their identities and won’t let them out until the ‘system’ has been destroyed or overthrown – even though nobody has an idea how to demarcate what is the system and what isn’t, let alone how to overthrow it.

These categories to which the ideologues attach fundamental importance are forms, or phenomena. In themselves, stripped of the meanings that we give to them, they have little meaning. My skin colour and gender are what they are. I didn’t choose them. There is no possible moral judgement to be made on them, or on me for having them.

It is only when we identify them with other things, about which we make judgements of good and bad for example, that they take on significant meaning. But that meaning isn’t inevitable. We have the power to form and shape it, or indeed not to.


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