There has long been popular and scientific fascination with feral children, reared and cared for by animals and with no contact with human society, that behave like the species that they live among and, we assume, identify themselves as. Such behaviour is not limited to humans; there are many examples, particularly of domesticated animals, that are adopted by another species that come to assume some of the characteristics of that species. This suggests that what we call identity is a universal of higher intelligence and that it is fairly plastic.
Humans, though, as is often the case, test this theory to destruction. An American woman, Rachel Dolezal, was recently denounced for identifying herself as black and living as a black woman, when her parents were both white, yet men who declare themselves to be women, dress as women and even undergo gender reassignment surgery are increasingly celebrated and accepted on their own terms, such as the much-publicised Caitlyn Jenner. Those who do not react viscerally to this conjunction and implied equivalence may be as puzzled as I am; but even those who do should reflect why these two cases should be considered so different.
Something I read a few years ago struck me then – as it still does – as so outrageous that I struggle to convince myself that it was not an imagined memory rather than an actual one. It was a brief article in some sort of educational magazine, a serious article, not a spoof to the best of my knowledge. It stated, as proof of commitment to the principle of inclusivity, that a particular school was being kept open at night because one of the students, a girl – let us call her Samantha – was a vampire, and could only work at night. Putting to one side the issues of the veracity of memory, journalistic objectivity and the wisdom of local education authorities (their respective dysfunctions are legendary), the central issue is not whether Samantha was a vampire, because clearly she was not, but why some assertions have assumed the power of fact, when the only fact is the fact of assertion.
Throughout history people have always sought to establish and assert their identity, but this process is complex and its focus has shifted over historical time among the kaleidoscope of possible markers such as region, religion, wealth and education. However, the fundamentals of identity are always the same: a playing out of our twin desires for individual freedom, particularly that of expressing our individual difference, and belonging, in which we find and sustain our similarity with others. This process can occur at several levels, as part of our individuality derives from belonging to a hierarchy of in-groups, such as our specific family, neighbourhood, city, region and country, in distinction to a series of out-groups characterised by otherness. Importantly, the precise definition of the other – as outcast, rebel, stranger, outlaw, scapegoat or victim – has a role in our self-definition as not-other.
On the other hand, sometimes our individuality is itself a form of self-imposed otherness, where we alienate ourselves from the mass to which we implicitly belong, in an act of self-exclusion that arouses, at the best, a sneaking reflexive admiration for the outsider saviour – oneself – or, at the worst, self-pity for the identification of oneself as victim. Paradoxically, this self identification can become the basis for delusional group identity, in which there is a curious but toxic admixture of feelings of inferiority and superiority.
On one level it is strange that race is such a sensitive issue. After all, the boundaries of race are rather fluid, and science has never managed to establish a consistent or agreed definition. There are genetically homogenous groups such as Icelanders, Ashkenazi Jews and Japanese, but this is due to geographic and cultural isolation, and these pools do not correspond to what we normally call race, but the more limited concept of ethnicity. Race and ethnicity are actually complex cultural artefacts, and this is no more so than when we talk about the labels ‘black’ and ‘white’. From an evolutionary perspective the terms are nonsense; the only people who perhaps have the right to a generic and widespread genetic distinction are aboriginal Africans, but not because they are black in colour – the !Kung bushmen of Namibia, for example, have a reddish skin – but because they do not have the 1-4% of Neanderthal genes that the rest of mankind has inherited from prehistoric interbreeding between the two human species. Mixing of peoples in the West, particularly in the Americas, means that genetic makeup and skin colour is on a spectrum of continuous variation; a surprising number of white Americans have some black ancestry.
Nonetheless, we can discern that the problematic nature of race does not reside in biology but in history, and that what we call black culture is really a shared history, a history that includes slavery, prejudice, apartheid, persecution, ridicule, drudgery and social deprivation, but also the enormous personal, communal and political forces that have forged great social and cultural gains from such a disadvantageous position. What we see, in fact, is a historically subjugated part of a heterogeneous population seeking common cause to overturn past injustices, rather than a distinct and homogenous entity. But in identity politics the narrative has assumed the status of a categorical assertion, wherein being ‘black’ is recognised as a necessary and sufficient condition for identifying oneself as part of a wronged community, which has become, perversely if understandably, a badge of honour. In its most radical form it assumes that dangerous polarisation of simultaneous inferiority and superiority referred to above, in which the mantle of the suffering victim and outsider can symbolically be asserted, not on the basis of experience necessarily (although many young black men can testify to being the subject of police harassment, known as ‘arrested for being black’), but simply on the basis of the colour of one’s skin. This was Rachel Dolezal’s perceived moral transgression: she assumed a badge of honour to which she was not entitled.
Interestingly, the older generation of radical feminists, such as Germaine Greer, apply much the same criterion of exception to transsexual women, as pretend women who have no right to assume the innate moral superiority of real women achieved through resistance to male domination. Now they find themselves sidelined and – in a recent neologism – ‘no-platformed’ by the younger generation of activists. This disparity in the reception of the trans-racial and the transsexual is hard to explain on the surface. It may be partly due to the great strides that have been made in women’s equality in the last generation, which have defanged the political radicalism of the earlier feminism, whereas racial equality lags behind, but I do not find this a persuasive answer.
I believe that underlying this phenomenon is something that we could call the intransigence of the absurd, that is the assertion of something for which there is no scientific evidence, but which must be uncompromisingly defended by rhetoric and the layering of myth, most forcefully, naturally, by those who seek political leverage. A prototypical example of this is the assumed historical destiny and moral superiority of nationhood by nationalists of all stripes. The notion of race is one such absurdity, including that of being ‘black’ or ‘white’ or ‘Asian’, which must be vociferously perpetuated by all those seeking to take advantage of individuals who need to ground their tenuous sense of self by ascribing identity or otherness to individuals who bear a passing similarity or difference to themselves, a notion, moreover that must then be imposed on those who wish to make no such distinctions.
The reception of transsexuals into the community of women is based on a different narrative logic. The status of male and female sexual identity is so firmly established in biological reality, that a man believing himself to be a woman (or vice-versa) and acting the part is a patent absurdity recognised as such by everyone. Therefore, the deception has a theatricality that is acknowledged on all sides, as it has been throughout history in many different cultures. There is a twist to this, however. There is no political leverage in mere acceptance of this theatre; therefore, human sexual differentiation has been mythologised in the notion of gender, a radicalised state of indifferance and a socio-political chimera that fuses two notions of moral transgression: that of non-acceptance of the myth; and that of the traditional boundaries of the sexes, which must be preserved in order to be wilfully flouted.
The exact sociological function of race and gender finally diverge. Race is about belonging and exclusion, while gender has become about inclusion and freedom, specifically the freedom to define one’s sexual identity. Both notions are part of the narrative of how we establish social identity in a complex world, and should be tolerated on that understanding. However, we should never lose sight of their fundamental absurdity in inverting reality. That absurdity correlates strongly with an intransigent defence of the absurd; having abandoned evidence, it is not too great a step to abandon reason, openness and a willingness to entertain alternative viewpoints.
Asserting identity should be – as the word implies – about seeking universality above all, as a basis for accepting diversity. Identity politics does precisely the opposite. By repeatedly invoking historical injustices and incubating the fragmentation of human experience to create new forms of victimhood, it promotes belligerence as the essence of the shared social space, inclusion as a tool of exclusion, and the eternal past as the future.
(Note: the term ‘indifferance’, a play on Derrida’s concept of ‘differance’, denotes the prescribed ignoring of difference, distinction or differentiation, leading to moral indifference, rather than toleration, which recognises both difference and moral boundaries.)