Is my Identity Inherited or Created?
The other day I took my kids to see the latest kids film, The Smurfs: The Lost Village, which has the same delightful mix of adventure and slapstick as the previous Smurf films. The plot centers on Smurfette, the only female smurf of the village, who does not have an identity. She’s not clumsy, hefty, nosey, or, well, anything, she’s just an “ette,” and needs to figure out what that means. The plot of the film is how Smurfette discovers that she “can be whatever she wants to be.” Note, it is not just that she can do anything, she can be anything.
I could not think of a better summary of modern accounts of the human self: you have no inherited identity; it is something you either discover or simply create from scratch.
As I look around the cultural landscape, these notions of self-creation are ubiquitous. In the hit musical Hamilton there is a point where Aaron Burr suddenly bursts into a postmodern soliloquy and he exclaims, for no apparent reason, “I am the one thing in life I can control, I am inimitable, I am an original.” And that casts my mind back to another famous musical, La Cage aux Folles, where the most famous song in the show – “I am what I am” – includes the line “I am my own special creation.”
The old philosophical adage, “Know thyself,” has been replaced by the new motto, “Discover thyself.”
This quest to stake a claim to one’s identity has obvious value for people who identify as a sexual minority like being gay or lesbian, and is even more pertinent to people who are transgender, and wish to identify as something other than they appear to be. The debate about identities reveals a deep desire for acceptance and validation from one’s peers.
Our cultural fixation on identity has spawned a plethora of sub-identities that seek to break down social binaries and perceived cultural norms, especially in relation to gender and sexuality. Hence the multiplicity of gender types being sanctioned by sociologists and the increasing number of letters added to LGBTIQA+ with the “+” standing for a miscellany of diverse sexual orientations and genders, a bit like “the unknown god” of the Athenians. But it is not just sexuality and gender that is extending the number of identities in our sociological catalogue. It is also in the areas of race and abled-ness that new identities are appearing, producing new categories like trans-racial or trans-abled. Some identity labels can even verge on the absurd like “trans-autistic pangender asexual demiromantic trans-Asian cat otherkin.”
The operating premise behind all this is that every person is a homo novus, a new type of human being. You can, with a kind of will-to-power mentality, create your own identity. Identity is neither inherited, nor determined, but rests entirely in the will of the individual. As a result, protagonists declare: “I am free to be whoever I want to be. I have received nothing, I am determined by nothing, I am defined by no-one, and I cannot be put into any category. I am self-creating and self-actualizing. I am the sole lexicographer who defines the plane of my own existence and I alone grasp the truth of my identity.” In practice it means that you can define or even invent yourself with any eclectic set of ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, or abilities that you wish.
We have to remember that this notion of self-creating-identity is a protest against the idea that there is any kind of normal. If nothing is normal then no pattern is authoritative. There is no right way of being human and no right way of raising a family. There is only difference, no design. This explains why the media has heaped praise after praise upon Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner as the ultimate homo novus, one who has undertaken the most radical act of self-re-creation there is, transforming into another gender. The documentary about Jenner is unsurprisingly called I am Cait: I’m the New Normal.
How Identity Politics Created Political Chaos
Yet there is a problem. If one’s identity is not tangible or empirical, then it is socially fictitious, and resultantly its reality depends entirely on public recognition. But if my identity is not affirmed, then I am less-than-human, I am nothing, I am a non-entity, I am a victim. It becomes a matter of justice then that all identities be affirmed. Here we see the switch from sociology to politics and law. As a result, if identify is the set of descriptors that a person chooses to own and uses to describe themselves –encompassing elements of race, sexuality, gender, and any myriad of sub-cultural types – then identity politics pertains to the rights and interests of these various identities and their struggle for equality. Thus, a philosophy of the human self generates a particular manifesto for political action.
The activism and legal prescription for identity politics has become increasingly authoritarian and heavy handed. It has morphed from no discrimination, to affirmative action, to equity justifications for any hiring, to punitive actions against anyone who questions identity legislation like letting men use women’s bathrooms, and even no platforming speakers who question the legitimacy of some forms of identity politics. I regard much of this as legitimate and appropriate – a fair go for everyone! But sadly much of identity politics has been deployed in a condescending rhetoric that vilifies anyone who is not part of a minority group. In the culture of political progressivism the single greatest insult is to call someone a “cis, white, male.” I think one reason the Democrats lost the presidential election was because of their near obsession with identity politics, and the casting white working class nuclear families as the villains in the various victimologies being recycled in the media. It was not merely a resistance to political correctness itself, but the smug self-righteousness of activists and the totalizing agenda of their political patrons that left the rural plebs scandalized by the whole progressivist project. Feminist author Camille Paglia told The Weekly Standard:
Today’s liberalism has become grotesquely mechanistic and authoritarian: It’s all about reducing individuals to a group identity, defining that group in permanent victim terms, and denying others their democratic right to challenge that group and its ideology. Political correctness represents the fossilized institutionalization of once-vital revolutionary ideas, which have become mere rote formulas. It is repressively Stalinist, dependent on a labyrinthine, parasitic bureaucracy to enforce its empty dictates.
But how did we reach this point? Where did this desire to become anything I want come from and why is it being enforced with such brutal resolve?
Recently the French philosopher Vincent Descombes in his book Puzzling Identities has summed up what is going on. He writes:
What distinguishes the modern man is not that he has ceased to owe his individuation to the fact of having been born, and therefore escaped having his actual genealogical and social position in the world as his identity in the literal sense. What distinguishes him is his refusal to invest his literal identity with a normative function. At this point he must replace the literal identity, which is for him a simple factual identity, with another self-definition that he will henceforth call his true identity.
We have arrived at a point where identity is something like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. It is an authoritative fiction, unmoored from any normative tradition, determined by neither religion, nor biology; imposed by neither ethnicity, nor geography. In fact nothing can determine one’s identity except the decision of the individual to be a type of person. What is more, identities are fluid rather than fixed; they can change and evolve as the subject discovers new add-on’s that it wishes to splice together, creating any number of hybrid identities. In many cases the fictions are absurd, like trans-racial and trans-abled, but every identity must be affirmed if the game self-creating identities is to be maintained.
However, this philosophy of self-creation and the multiplicity of identities it spawns will inevitably collapse under the weight of its own incredulity. Does anyone expect the Olympic Games to cease dividing athletes according to male and female and instead run events according to the 72 genders listed on Facebook? Can a twenty-year old man identify as octogenarian and ask for a senior’s discount? While a white woman can claim to identify as African-American, is that nothing more than a feature of white privilege? Because if a black man identified as Anglo-Saxon he still has zero chance of ever being treated as one!
Consequently, the game of identity politics is going to have to stop at some point. If not, then the word “identity” will become synonymous with “fantasy.” Otherwise any phrase that begins with “I identify as …” will have the same weight as “Abracadabra”. It will cease to be taken seriously. Hence the ridiculous send ups like “I identify as an Attack Tyronecopter.”
A Christian Response
How should Christians respond to this complex world of identity politics, choose-your-own-identity, and Smurfs trying to discover who they are?
First, we should recognize the complexity of human existence. We must acknowledge the intricate and not fully understood connection between psychology and biology, the impact of social environments in shaping gender and sexuality, the diversity of factors that impact our sense of who we are, and how people can identify themselves at a cross-section of designations like “Half-Irish Latina Bisexual Muslim Californian.” Once the diverse range of human experiences are recognized, we will be better placed to ensure that all people are treated with fairness and equality.
Second, we should warn that deconstructing the permanent structures of human existence, like marriage and family, rendering ethnicity and gender as purely social constructs, all these can have harmful consequences in the long term. If all definitions are destroyed and all paradigms purged, the resulting vacuum will not necessarily give us freer self-expression but rather create a deep sense of emptiness. If all identities are simply a convenient fiction, then there is no stability, no rootedness, and no moral compass to human life. We are simply adrift in a sea of different selves with no purpose, no destiny, no real sense of right and wrong, and no place of true belonging. While inventing new identities might be liberating for some, realizing that your sense of self and worth is sociological fiction, it’s not real, can lead to a certain despair at the meaninglessness of the whole game. In contrast, for a Christian, the desire to be known, to be understood, and to be loved, is not anchored in the morass of social media mores, but in the fact that they are known by God.
Third, we need to offer an alternative narrative to identity politics that affirms intrinsic human value. In the Christian narration of human existence, all humans have inherent value and worth, not because of a self-actualizing event, not because we are officially recognized by Google, but because they are created in the image of God, and they bear the mark of his likeness and majesty (see Genesis 1:26-28). What is more, the greatest and most prestigious identity there is – which transcends gender, ethnicity, age, sexuality, and social status – is to be “in Christ.” Union with Christ, symbolized by baptism, means being dipped and dyed into his death and resurrection, dying to self and becoming alive to God, entering the new creation (see Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:10-11). The defining node of my identity is not my sexual desire or what I sometimes do with my genitals, as if that could even be a sufficient measure of my personality and sense of purpose. Even ethnicity, occupation, and marital status are totally inadequate to account for my sense of self-understanding, self-worth, and self-belief. What defines me, what provides my identity with a sure foundation is that I have been crucified with Christ and I live in him and for him. If you want to know who I am, what defines me, it is not being Anglican, white, heterosexual, red-headed, an immigrant, Australian, or male. While those are all true, they are only relatively true, for at the core of my identity is one thing: I have been baptized into Christ, I participate in his suffering, so that I will one day rise to reign with him in glory.
Christians have an identity that is ancient, it encompasses every kind of diversity, it provides a sense of purpose, an ethical map, it is granite, rooted in something transcendent and not dependent on the transient world of political correctness.
My identity, my ethnicity, my gender, my religion are all one in the same: baptized!
Photo from feminist wire.