Identity fetish #n+umpity-three: “I identify as”

Just under a decade ago, I had a kind of mental hiccup, then forgot about it and promptly moved on. This mild disturbance was brought on by an assertion that we in the Left don’t use identity labels to describe others that those others wouldn’t use to describe themselves. And while for example I don’t think institutions should author meaning – including identity – it doesn’t follow that individuals get to have their self-identification accepted as “valid” simply because that’s the way they see themselves.

For those of you that may be wondering, the identity label that was being applied against the wishes of the labelled was “teabagger”. If the Associated Press decided to apply “teabagger” as an objective label as part of its editorial policy, or a census used it as part of a leading question, don’t be mistaken, I’d have a problem with that. But individual, living, breathing, meaning-making interlocutors without the power to force their meanings onto others, simply rejecting “tea party activist” as inaccurate in lieu of “teabagger’’; I’ve no problem with that at all.

What entitles people to have their self-belief ratified by others? I can think of some examples, particularly in relation to pedagogy and child raising – nurturing the belief in your child that they’re worthy of their school is something you may reasonably be expected to do as a part of your responsibility for a child’s welfare.

But when adults, especially in political settings where there are conflicting interests at play, want to view themselves in grandiose or fantastic terms, what then? Maybe we let them continue with their fantasy, and opt to get on with other business. Maybe we have a clash of interests and therefore describe them and their politics in terms we find the most truthful, but afford them the respect of not pretending to edit their own copy.

But what do we do when they demand we ratify their self-view in our thoughts and words, simply because that’s the done thing?

“Teabagger”, with its inference of conspiracy theorizing, historical fantasy, scientific illiteracy and economic fetish, is a better fit for the reality of the Tea Party movement, than the grandiose way “Tea Party activists” self-describes. I’m not going to ratify their fantasy, and in their case I don’t care one dot if they’re upset about it.

***

A few years ago, during a period of unease I couldn’t quite describe at the time, there was a blog post published about Rationalist versus Empiricist identity. Now, sure, people call themselves “Rationalist” to self-describe in the here and now, with the inference that they value science and logic, and consider themselves generally sober-minded people, but this isn’t the “Rationalism” of Rationalism-contra-Empiricism.

For one, that Rationalism – the old one – fizzled out along with the debate that defined it. It’s hard to be a contra-Empiricist Rationalist, rather than just the more modern, sober-minded, generally reasonable Rationalist, in a world post-Kant. The modern “Rationalist” can even be – gasp! – a bit Empiricist.

It’s also a fact, that neither Empiricism nor Rationalism sat overly well with this thing called science. This is an important fact because the author of said blog post was a scientist, yet they self-identified as an Empiricist.

Further, the author identified Richard Dawkins as a Rationalist, in part on the basis that he wouldn’t object, and further, to position the author in opposition to Dawkins. But this is problematic.

Dawkins can’t be a Rationalist of the contra-Empiricist variety. You only need to read what he has to say about ontological proofs and the like in The God Delusion; he decries the lack of evidence feeding into the process, and comments that perhaps he just takes this position because he’s a scientist. Rationalists of the old school would not have sympathized with Dawkins, believing that arguing for or against God’s existence from pure logic was the best way, even going so far as to regard evidence as being a bit vulgar.

So maybe Dawkins is a Rationalist of the new variety? Probably. It’s also probably the definition he wouldn’t object to. But that’s not the “Rationalist” of the contra-Empiricist variety, so if your aim was to distinguish yourself from Dawkins along these lines, you’d have failed. There’s an equivocation here; when summarizing Dawkins’ actual views on the relevant points, he’s a Rationalist in the modern sense, but when trying to put him at a distance, the definition is bait-and-switched for the traditional, more exclusive one that doesn’t describe him.

While I can think of a few good reasons why people may want to separate themselves from Dawkins – “please attendant, can I be seated somewhere else so I don’t have to listen to this guy whine about his confiscated honey?” – this Rationalist contra Empiricist confection was pure self-regarding narcissism of the small differences variety.

The author anticipated some of these objections, and no doubt copped some uncharitable, even nasty contributions from some quarters. But the preemptive retort given was simply that “we’re talking about identity”, as if that made a jot of difference. I mean yes, language is malleable, but if meaning can be molded that easily on the fly you can’t have a meaningful conversation anymore; your views are so much wet pottery in your interlocutor’s hands.

Importantly, it was clear that the author expected that mentioning identity would be sufficient to quell criticism; that they expected their audience not to object.

Suffice to say, while I did keep my mouth closed in this case, owing to the harassment the author was probably copping from various forms of winged monkey at the time, I didn’t and don’t respect their “identity” as an Empiricist. If they actually are one, albeit one of the newer variety, they’ll need to articulate it better, explain why they can be that and a scientist at the same time, and quit with the spurious distancing.

Either that, or perhaps admit that the entire discussion was pure self-absorbed vanity to begin with.

***

So here’s my point; we Lefties don’t go around “respecting” people’s identities automatically and universally, so we shouldn’t pretend we do, nor allow ourselves to be gaslighted into doing so.

When MRAs affix “non-sexist” to their identity label, it doesn’t alter their politics or character one bit. When some douche preemptively asserts that he identifies as a non-racist, you’re not obliged to abstain from perceiving their attitudes, actions and arguments as racist. Indeed, you’d probably be more suspicious that they were racist.

Yes, there are situations where supporting someone’s self-image is morally salient – “you’re not a piece of shit”, “women are the equal of men”, “your skin isn’t dirty” – but there is no universal obligation to just up and validate identities. The Left has never as a bloc held this to be universal and it, perhaps more than its critics, needs to be reminded not to pretend otherwise.

Far from being self-evident, the simple observation that you didn’t validate an identity isn’t even sufficient as an objection. And yet some will gasp po-faced at precisely that – “Oh my gawd you didn’t validate their identity, I can’t even!”

Evidence contrary to the idea of the Left universally ratifying identity is all around, so I’ll not labour that point any further. But let me leave you with a line of questioning; what sort of character expects their own image to be reflected back at them by others as if those others were mirrors, and gets angry or manipulative when that reflection isn’t precisely flattering or fabulous enough? And what kind of person would take advantage of your over-obligating yourself in this regard?

~ Bruce

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