Identity is That Which is Given

Kenan Malik has a truly excellent essay up about identity and culture and race that’s worth reading slowly and carefully. Identity fascinates me. Growing up, I often explained friends’ behavior (and my own) as attempts to construct and project a coherent identity to the world. Childhood doesn’t usually afford self-understanding, so we lunge toward establishments like religion (I’m a Christian) or ethnic heritage (I’m an Irish-American) to help understand who we are and what we stand for. While there are potentially many different identity pillars upon which we could draw, convention limits us:

According to the modern idea of identity…each person’s sense of who they truly are is intimately linked to only a few special categories – collectives defined by people’s gender, sexuality, religion, race and, in particular, culture.

[W]hat [these] collectives…have in common is that each is defined by a set of attributes that, whether rooted in biology, faith or history, is fixed in a certain sense and compels people to act in particular ways. Identity is that which is given, whether by nature, God or one’s ancestors.

He discusses culture in depth. Whereas race is undoubtedly fixed, it’s not clear culture should be in the same boat.

An individual’s cultural background frames their identity and helps define who they are. If we want to treat individuals with dignity and respect, many multiculturalists argue, we must also treat with dignity and respect the groups that furnish them with their sense of personal being….

Multiculturalists, on the other hand, exhibit a self-conscious desire to preserve cultures…In the modern view, traditions are to be preserved not for pragmatic reasons but because such preservation is a social, political and moral good. Maintaining the integrity of a culture binds societies together, lessens social dislocation and allows the individuals who belong to that culture to flourish. Such individuals can thrive only if they stay true to their culture – in other words, only if both the individual and the culture remains authentic. Modern multiculturalism seeks self-consciously to yoke people to their identity for their own good, the good of that culture and the good of society.

If you’re born a Quebecian, you are supposed to enact the elements of that culture, a culture which multiculturalists celebrate for its differences and indeed work to ensure those differences persist. A problem, then:

An identity is supposed to be an expression of an individual’s authentic self. But it can too often seem like the denial of individual agency in the name of cultural authenticity.

Just because we’re born into a certain culture, this shouldn’t mean we must bear the weight of that culture over our lifetime, particularly when the obligation is to prevent “cultural decay” which can only happen if we are not doing what our ancestors did:

Cultures certainly change and develop. But what does it mean for a culture to decay? Or for an identity to be lost? Will Kymlicka draws a distinction between the ‘existence of a culture’ and ‘its “character” at any given moment’. The character of culture can change but such changes are only acceptable if the existence of that culture is not threatened. But how can a culture exist if that existence is not embodied in its character? By ‘character’ Kymlicka seems to mean the actuality of a culture: what people do, how they live their lives, the rules and regulations and institutions that frame their existence. So, in making the distinction between character and existence, Kymlicka seems to be suggesting that Jewish, Navajo or French culture is not defined by what Jewish, Navajo or French people are actually doing. For if Jewish culture is simply that which Jewish people do or French culture is simply that which French people do, then cultures could never decay or perish – they would always exist in the activities of people.

So, if a culture is not defined by what its members are doing, what does define it? The only answer can be that it is defined by what its members should be doing.

If we should be doing what our ancestors are doing, then culture, according to Malik, has become defined “biological decent.” Biological decent is race. As the cultural critic Walter Benn Michaels puts it, “In order for a culture to be lost… it must be separable from one’s actual behaviour, and in order for it to be separable from one’s actual behaviour it must be anchorable in race.” To wit, the close:

The logic of the preservationist argument is that every culture has a pristine form, its original state. It decays when it is not longer in that form. Like racial scientists with their idea of racial type, some modern multiculturalists appear to hold a belief in cultural type. For racial scientists, a ‘type’ was a group of human beings linked by a set of fundamental characteristics which were unique to it. Each type was separated from others by a sharp discontinuity; there was rarely any doubt as to which type an individual belonged. Each type remained constant through time. There were severe limits to how much any member of a type could drift away from the fundamental ground plan by which the type was constituted. These, of course, are the very characteristics that constitute a culture in much of today’s multiculturalism talk. Many multiculturalists, like racial scientists, have come to think of human types as fixed, unchanging entities, each defined by its special essence.

Which should be alarming to anyone who believes in an individual’s right to construct his own identity separate and apart from ancestry or the expectations of being part of a cultural group.

To bring this back on a more personal level, it reminds me of Paul Graham’s essay called Lies We Tell Our Children in which he said:

Telling a child they have a particular ethnic or religious identity is one of the stickiest things you can tell them. Almost anything else you tell a kid, they can change their mind about later when they start to think for themselves. But if you tell a kid they’re a member of a certain group, that seems nearly impossible to shake.

If you’re a parent and want to play it safe, you tell you’re kid that he’s an X, and that Xes do things a certain way. You tell him that he was born into this group and that there’s no way around it.

Or, you tell your child nothing of the sort, and let him wander about and start building up his identity piece by piece by choice.

This is more or less what happened to me. My parents / genetics pressed upon me virtually no religious (“You are a Christian, go to Church”), ancestral (“Cherish your Slovak roots”), national (“You’re American god dammit!”), racial (“Celebrate your whiteness”), or gender (“Stand up and be proud to be a man”) claims on my identity. This doesn’t mean I was/am immune to these influences, but none of these institutional categories dominated how I conceived of myself growing up.

I suppose if I were born a woman, or black, or devoutly religious, or exceedingly aware of my roots, or ungodly rich or dirt poor, or traveled extensively overseas as a child (something which often reinforces national identity upon return home), any of these might have moved to the fore. Especially if I wasn’t a white male in multiculturalism-dominated schools. Multicultural exercises inevitably leads those Chosen Representatives of the Black People to overemphasize their blackness and making it more fundamental to their identity than it would otherwise be. If anything, the school system’s total lack of interest in the “white man’s experience” (compared to “what it’s like being Hispanic”) led to a stripping down (and occasionally even shame of) those un-chosen aspects of my identity — my race and gender — which meant I never turned to it as a conscious source of identity.

So, while my identity may be less coherent at this point than someone else’s, I’d like to think it is more true to my own values and own beliefs about how the world works. Philosophical beliefs like free will, value beliefs like a woman’s right to choose or the importance of humor, health, and happiness, everyday beliefs like crunchy peanut butter’s superiority to smooth. I am what I believe. And to a large extent, I have chosen what I believe, or at least I hope I have.

(thanks to Will Wilkinson for pointing out the essay)

3 Responses to Identity is That Which is Given

  1. Krishna says:

    You know what? Cultural agnosticism is the greatest delusion. By easing into that *laissez faire*, you’re breeding a culture that’s regimenting by itself amongst those others of your ilk! Why – you start by being a human!!!

    As you say, your parents let you unravel your traits, you’re fertilizing it and soon you’ll begin to disseminate (if not already). There are of course other wannabe agnostics that are already milling around you or vice versa, adhering to similar set of beliefs and forming a scattered society clinging to identical values. Technology strides will only bring them closer together. Call it what you will, they indeed are finite set of beliefs that look not much different from a concrete cultural construct!

    Then there are other sub-cultures of which you’re already a devoted subscriber – Blog culture, Twitter culture, Wiki culture, Sushi, McDonalds and so it goes. You think they are any weaker than race, religion or ethnicity? Perhaps they are limited only in context, yet they get you an identity that evokes an image. Just that Sushi or Mexican food aficionadoes haven’t yet sparred over which is better/superior – that has a latent potential to raise it to apartheidic proportions !

    To sum up, culture is a powerful human tool for survival, but it is a fragile phenomenon. So what’s wrong in holding out to any one culture so long as it doesn’t come in the harm’s way?

  2. Chris Yeh says:

    There’s a simple reason that the culture warriors want to reduce us to simple, neatly boxed identities: It makes us easier to control.

    It’s hard to push the hot buttons for unique individuals; it’s much easier to shout, “Roe. v. Wade” or “Gay Marriage.”

  3. To demand that individual persons must be seen as culture-bearing vessels filled at birth with the ‘content’ of their cultural inheritance, as a policy of state, is a kind of cultural imperialism in itself.

    How preposterous to treat cultures as static entities that don’t evolve. The human story is mostly the story of the movements of people, the appropriation of lands, and assimilation with the ‘natives’.

    It would seem self-evident that culture cannot be anchorable in race if race isn’t scientifically definable, even more so when what we designate a ‘race’ can express such a multitude of the behavior patterns that we call ‘cultures’.

    Believing that a ‘Black’ culture arose in the context of the ethnological diversity of Sub-Saharan Africa is as absurd as thinking that the much more genetically homogeneous aboriginal peoples of the Americas had one ‘Indian’ culture.

    We see cultures synthesized locally before our very eyes. So-called ‘urban’ culture in the US is hardly an expatriate African culture.

    If the teenagers in an aboriginal Amazonian tribe feel deprived of the ‘benefits’ of western civilization– clothes, cars, iPhones– should they be compelled to ‘preserve’ what for them is an anachronistic way of life that offers no hope of joining our material ‘party’?

    I doubt they would feel an obligation to maintain some abstract aesthetic ideal imposed on them by the State. Surely for them the yoke of multi-culturalism would be intolerable.

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