The flattening of identity
Keep the steamrollers away
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I was nestling down with my eight year old son for our usual bedtime story but noticed his beady eyes staring at me rather quizzically, surveying my countenance as if he was seeing me for the first time. “Oh no, this can’t be good”, I thought. I knew, from previous encounters, that a question would soon follow, probably one that would leave me frantically, but surreptitiously, googling for an answer on my phone to salvage my reputation of being a “knowledge machine” - his words not mine.
To my surprise his question was specifically around identity; “why do governments like grouping people into labels?”. After a bit of delicate probing, I realised that his question was motivated by him seeing a population census form on my office desk which asked for details around ethnicity, religion and income. At that moment, it took me a while to fully appreciate the profundity of the question at hand and whilst I can’t quite remember the answer I cobbled together, it has rather serendipitously inspired today’s scribblings on identity.
As a political scientist, one would assume I’ve got more than a passing interest in identity politics. Whilst this is a fair assumption even amidst my increasing disillusionment with political theory (that’s for another essay), my intellectual thirst for the subject was first ignited from an ethnography I read by Paul Willis’, titled, “Learning to labour - How working class kids get working class jobs”.
The book explores the deep-seated antagonism felt by working class children in the UK towards the dominant teaching paradigm and the school as an institution. There was a fully rationalised disdain for institutional learning and a desire to seek practical knowledge as a way of navigating the mazy pathway towards skills/trades based employment. The splendour of Willis’ work lies in the narrative; a narrative exemplified by the acutely heightened sense of observation, of cultural identity and the admirable resistance by some to it being flattened. Such observational impeccability is not only a derivative of an extremely hungry eye but also of a consistently evaluating mind. Willis doesn’t simply paint a picture for the reader to see, comment and leave; he renders the picture a voice.
A voice that is ever so pertinent in today’s context where we’ve perfected the art of steamrolling the complexity of identity in favour of inflexible identity moulds; demolishing context and dispossessing expression of intention. Most people, me included, fall into a neatly manufactured template replete with a pre-packaged backstory that isn’t theirs. Because that’s what generates the clicks and sells the magazines. There are a panoply of ready made labels, some more creative than others but no less limiting.
There also exists a certain hierarchy of desirable identities based on the social hierarchy of privilege. Based from my past work experiences in working with various semi-remote international communities, the calculous of privilege extends in the most granular fashion right down to the clothes people wear and their cigarette brand preferences.
For example, I once had the opportunity to visit a rural Tongan village-island and learnt that Marlboros are the most highly prized marker of Western privilege rendering those who consume it as people of greater privilege, and thus worthy of a peculiar blend of reverence and begrudging envy. A classic case of identity contoured by imported cultural perceptions.
From a policy perspective, it is no secret that identity is easier managed as a static fixture as opposed to an assemblage of responsive parts that reorganize relative to cultural context. From my experience in working with international policymakers over the years, cultural fluidity is often a burdensome distraction to policy planning - an elephant in the room that just won’t go away, so it is, rather ironically, completely ignored.
So, where does this leave us?
Well, for a start, we must remind ourselves that identity is something we, through purposeful reflection and toil, claim for ourselves. It is something we must assert wilfully to the world. You’ve got to educate the world on how to treat you despite the presiding cultural and political influences that suggests otherwise.
We have to celebrate the gloriously complex multitudes in each of us and welcome the wonder from discovering it in others. The fragments of identity we are assigned, either by choice or circumstance, should never be an epitaph to our existence, or even worse, used as artillery to injure.
There is an obligation in each of us to grasp the sheer absurdity of accepting an assigned identity with the certitude and self-righteousness undergirding identity politics. To reclaim our individual messy uniqueness and the shades of grey that make us, we must break free of the prison of our fragments and meet one another as whole persons full of wonder untainted by expectation. We must keep the steamrollers away.