Beyond the ethnic reflex
The rumination of the African-American intellectual Glen Loury on the constraints of identity politics is salutary for Guyanese at this time: We are all familiar with what I will call the “identity reflex.” We all hear the call of some tribe or another. We humans are a variegated lot—differing by race, ethnicity, cultural heritage, religion, and political and sexual orientation. This is, of course, as it should be. Diversity is a good thing—really.
Still, there are times when the call of the tribe just might be a siren’s call and when an excessive focus on “identity” could lead one badly astray. What is more, I firmly believe that now is just such a time.
In On Liberty John Stuart Mill offers a radical, passionate defence of the norm of unencumbered public discussion. Mill’s profound argument holds that individual persons must be allowed to express themselves freely, except when harm results for discrete individuals. Mill’s point is cultural as well as political; he is concerned not only with oppressive laws, but also with an intolerant culture:
Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.
Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.
The most important challenges and opportunities that confront any of us derive not from our cultural or sexual identities, not from our ethnic or racial conditions, but from our common human condition. I am a husband, a father, a son, a teacher, an intellectual, a citizen. In none of these roles is my race irrelevant, but neither can identity alone provide much guidance for my quest to adequately discharge these responsibilities.
The particular features of one’s social condition, the external givens, merely set the stage of one’s life. They do not provide a script. That script must be internally generated; it must be a product of a reflective deliberation about the meaning of this existence for which no political program or ethnic category could ever substitute.
Or, to shift the metaphor slightly, the socially contingent features of one’s situation—one’s racial heritage, family background, or sexual orientation, for instance—and the prevailing views and attitudes about such identity tropes held by other people in society—these things are the building blocks, the raw materials, out of which one must yet construct the edifice of a life. The authentic expression of a person’s individuality is to be found in the blueprint that he or she employs to guide this project of self-authorship.
And the problem of devising such a plan for one’s life confronts all people, whatever their race, class, ethnicity, or other identifying category. By facing and solving this problem we grow as human beings and give meaning and substance to our lives. A personal program overly dependent on the contingencies of identity falls tragically short of its potential because it embraces too parochial a conception of what is humanly possible, and of what is humanly desirable.
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man James Joyce says this about Irish nationalism: When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by these nets. . . . Do you know what Ireland is? . . . Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.
But the trick, as Joyce knew, is to turn such nets into wings.