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Home Uncategorized Mistaking Identity

Mistaking Identity

Tom Inglis

The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity, by Kwame Anthony Appiah, Profile Books, 256 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1781259238

Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition, by Francis Fukuyama, Profile Books, 240 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1781259801

Identity revolves around the labels that are put on us and that we put on ourselves. We are known by the families, groups, religions and nations to which we belong. We are known by our gender, social class, ethnicity, sexual orientation and the colour of our skin. Identities are part and parcel of naming the world, of creating order. From the beginning of time, humans divided themselves into clans and tribes. Very few people transcend the familial, tribal, religious and social class positions they inherit. There are, of course, personal differences. Individuals have always sought to mark themselves out as being in some way different in the way they dress, groom and mark themselves, in their different tastes and preferences. But in terms of the conditions of their existence, these personal differences do not amount to more than a hill of beans.

We can, then, divide identities into two broad categories. Social identities are those which we have inherited. In a globalised, mobile world, it is increasingly possible to change one’s family name, social class, religion, nationality and even gender, but for the vast majority of people around the world this does not happen. The other broad category comprises personal identities. These are identities we have acquired during our lives. They relate to education, occupation, marital status, place of residence, sexual orientation, interests and hobbies and the cultural choices we make, particularly within the consumer market.

An important dimension of identities, which Appiah emphasises, is that they have a physical dimension. They become ingrained in the way we present ourselves; they become part of our body language. Women and men present themselves differently, in the ways they walk and talk. Doctors, nurses, priests, nuns, farmers and labourers have different ways of presenting themselves. There are national distinctions: many Frenchmen, when they talk, pout their lips, hunch their shoulders and raise their hands.

Because they are inherited and embodied, we are inclined to think of social identities as physical traits that are common to all members, that a person cannot help acting like a “woman” or a “Frenchman”. However, identities are fluid and dynamic. People perform their identities. They play up, or down, their social roles and positions. Much depends on the social context. Men will often play up their maleness when they are out with “the lads”, and women when they are out with “the girls”, play up their femininity. The sense of being Irish is often strongest when we are abroad.

Humans are no different from dogs. When they meet strangers, they try to sniff them out. Like dogs, we rely first on intuition, sight and smell. But unlike dogs we also ask questions. What is the nature of this person presenting themselves to me? Tell me about yourself? Where do you come from? What is your family background? Where do you live? Are you married? What do you do? What are your hobbies and interests? These are added to what we already know about age, gender and race. Some identities are more difficult to discern; ethnicity, nationality, religion, marital status and social class. We use a variety of tools, an identity kit, to gather information which we then process into an overall image of the person.

Identity matters because we want to be able to categorise people when we meet them. We want to label them, to get some sense of who they are. There is an urge to put people into different boxes. We are a bit like zoologists and horticulturalists who, instead of embracing the diversity of nature, seek to put names on animals, trees and plants, to divide them into different genuses and species.

One of the consequences, then, of identities is that they essentialise. They lead us into thinking that members of a social category or group are all the same. We regularly talk of “women”, “men”, “priests”, “Muslims”, “Travellers”, the “Irish”, as though all members of each of these groups were the same. This labelling almost inevitably leads to prejudice and discrimination.

The labels we put on others and on ourselves could be seen as masks that prevent us from seeing and understanding the individual, the real person, the truth of the character that lies beneath the social surface. On the other hand, it could be argued that there is no such thing as “the real person”. It could be said that we have as many selves as the number of identities, roles and positions we have in life. There is the possibility that I am a collection of atoms flying through space and time, that there is no one Tom Inglis and that there are only the different ways I present myself to different people in different situations. We are chameleons, playing our identities up and down depending on who we are with. Identity then is not only multiple, it is fluid. The same identity is never portrayed twice.

This idea that there is no true self could be liberating, but it goes against the grain and the way we have been taught to think of ourselves. Fukuyama is a firm believer in the notion of there being “one true self”. He argues that behind all our identities and the ways in which they are presented, each of us has a core sense of self. He is happy to call this a soul, suggesting that the notion of soul is central to all religion and therefore to all human culture. He argues that we present our identities as part of the struggle to gain recognition and acceptance for who we really are. The danger of this way of thinking is that it somehow suggests that contemporary liberal individualism is the end of history. The cult of the individual, the notion of soul and of individual salvation is a belief, or rather a myth that developed within Judeo-Christian thought.

The concept of identity, and the concern people have with identity, is only recent. It was in the 1960s that the issue came to the fore. What it meant, for example, to be a woman, gay, Irish and Catholic began to be questioned. This question is reflected in the level of academic debate. As Marie Moran has pointed out, prior to the 1950s, identity was rarely mentioned in the title or subject matter of academic books and articles. In 2007 alone, there were 533 such mentions. There are, as Moran points out, two readings of this. Either identity matters now more than it ever did, and its prominence in contemporary discourse reflects this, or identity has always mattered, but we are simply – for better or worse – paying it increased attention.

The centrality of identity in contemporary Western society is a good example of how culture matters. It undermines a simplistic materialistic analysis that suggests that class and state are the determining influences in social life and that belief is merely an ideological dressing on the economic and political structures. It reveals how sense of self, meaning, recognition and belonging are central to capitalist life and how emotional attachments can influence rationality. The importance of identity and culture helps us understand why so many people in Britain and America are willing to sacrifice economic well-being to try to create the ideal community in which they long to live. Identity is not just embodied, it is emotional. It can defy reason and logic.

Given the explosion of identity, particularly national identity, it is not a coincidence that two leading commentators on Western life would, in the same year, want to put their conceptual irons into an academic fire that is already blazing. Indeed Appiah has been focusing on identity for many years. The current book emerged from the Reith Lectures he gave in 2016. This may explain why this is less an in-depth analysis than a skinning of the identity cat. He concentrates on religion, nationality, colour, class and culture. What makes his examination refreshing is the way he draws examples from history, within literature and across cultures. He draws on personal experiences from his own family life – he grew up in Ghana where tribal identity is still very strong – and from his life as an academic. He gives little attention to gender and sexual orientation, which is peculiar as not only have they been at the centre of the identity debate over the last fifty years, but also because, as he tells us at the end of the book, he is gay.

Appiah argues that identities not only provide a sense of self, they also create expectations, rights and obligations. As an older man, I have rights and obligations that are different from a woman or child. There are also expectations as to how I should behave. Identities create a sense of meaning, of bonding and belonging. This “collective consciousness” is emotional as well as rational and is recreated through ritual engagements. The sense of bonding comes from the emotional effervescence created from being together with other group members. For families to stay together, it may not be necessary for them to believe in the same thing. What is important is that they come together to pray, eat, drink or play. This reinforces Appiah’s point about identity being embodied. It is the same for any group, from small gangs to nations. Indeed, it could be argued that it has been the ability of Americans to create a collective effervescence that makes America great and the collective attachment to Europe weak.

The downside to collective identity is that once people are divided into different groups, whether it is tribes, clans, families or nations, there is a tendency to see themselves not just as different but as superior. The characteristics and traits of members of other groups are essentialised and talked down, they are ridiculed and joked about, while members of one’s own group are praised and talked up. This is all part and parcel of prejudice and discrimination. It has very real consequences and can lead to a tendency to demean, demoralise and, in extreme circumstances, attack and destroy the other.

The notion of superiority is central to identity and it goes from the micro level of the individual, to the meso level of the status group, to the macro level of the nation. Fukuyama argues that while every human being has an inner self, a soul that seeks to be recognised and treated as an equal, there is also a demand that superiority in any area of social and cultural life is respected and rewarded. It is endemic in all walks of life. We are socialised into it through education. If someone is a better runner, singer, artist, priest or politician, it has to be recognised, respected and rewarded. Identity also comes from being a member of a status group. There are thousands of different status groups in Ireland across all social fields, within education, sports, politics, the arts and the media, and in groups at local level. But status groups are not equal: being a member of a local gang in a town brings an identity and some gang members attain more respect than others. Although much depends on the perceiver, in wider or “good” society, being a member of a gang does not attain the same respect as being a member of the parish council.

Collective identity can have deep roots and may not be visible in everyday life but can erupt in violence spontaneously and very quickly, as happened in Jedwabne in Poland in July 1941, when Christian townspeople began to massacre their Jewish neighbours, who formed three-quarters of the population of two thousand. But collective identity can also develop quickly. Appiah refers to the experiment in Oklahoma in 1953 in which, within four days, two groups of eleven-year-old boys who had come to a camp and who had been randomly divided into two groups, began to disparage, taunt and provoke each other.

This brings us back to the title of Appiah’s book. The ties that bind us to groups can be seen as cultural arbitraries. In the West, we create and emphasise difference when, in reality, there is great similarity in what people believe, think, do and say. In Ireland, differences are made between counties and parishes, often reproduced through sport, when there is little difference in the inhabitants’ beliefs and practices. When it comes to identity, the world is full of fine differences. But if differences are seen to be real, they can have real consequences. Many English people may believe that the English are significantly different from the Irish and other Europeans and yet, in terms of everyday life, the differences in lifestyles, beliefs and practices are very small. It is again a reminder of the power of culture. It is this belief in superiority that lies behind the lie of nationality.

The issue of national identity is central to Fukuyama. He recognises that identity politics has become a major feature of contemporary Western life and has been central to women, racial and ethnic minorities, gay people, religious groups and others obtaining recognition and equality. However, he argues that the concentration on identity politics has four main problems. It distracts attention from the class divide. It ignores the emergence of a large new underclass such as the white American working class. In seeking recognition and protection, identity groups can threaten free speech – things that are deemed offensive cannot be said – and this can undermine the importance of rational, deliberative discourse, which is at the heart of liberal democracy. Finally, he argues, that it was “political correctness” that led to a resentment among the underclass who were not able to give vent to their frustration and anger, to say what they really felt. Until, like a messiah, Donald Trump and his ilk arrived on the scene. Suddenly, that which was deemed obscene could not only be said but cheered on loudly and vehemently.

For Fukuyama the fragmentation of national identity into identification with racial, ethnic, gender, religious or other identities is a major threat to modern political order. Countries that do not have a strong sense of national belonging are inherently weak and vulnerable to civil war. National identity is central to good government. The common good trumps narrow sectional interests. National identity fosters economic development. It builds trust and fosters interdependence between groups who might tend to trade and do business only among themselves. National identity creates not just a common cause but a common concern for all members of society. National identity is then, he argues, at the core of liberal democracy.

National identity has become so important that if it does not exist, is has to be created and maintained. To help us understand how the state can forge a nation out of people with different ethnic, language and religious backgrounds, Appiah tells the story of Singapore. When it was founded in 1963, there were bitter racial divisions, particularly between the Chinese and Malays. To overcome this, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first leader, developed a multiracial, multi-religious, multicultural model in which ethnic, religious and language differences were recognised and respected. Such was the success of the project that when Yew died in 2015, there was a vast and genuine outpouring of grief in Singapore.

One of the successful policies he introduced was the Sedition Act. Under this act, it is a crime to promote feelings of ill will and hostility between different races or classes of the population, or for anyone to comment publicly in a negative way on the habits of their neighbours. What makes the law different is that it is citizens who enforce it, eagerly reporting transgressors to the authorities. It is a form of state-enforced political correctness.

It is this sense of common national culture which will prevent the emergence of any global sovereign order. Fukuyama further argues that we are stuck with nation states, and cooperation between nation states, as being the only viable global political order. And, as we have been seeing in America, Britain and across Europe, the biggest threat to this sense of common culture is immigration. But, as Fukuyama points out, it is not actual immigration but the fear of the other and a loss or a lack of recognition among the underclass that is the problem.

This is what makes Ireland that bit different. With the exception of Peter Casey’s interventions in the recent presidential election, there has been no consistent political voice pushing for the type of popular nationalism we have seen elsewhere in the West. There has certainly been no political party based on right-wing nationalist policies. This is remarkable for, as Fukuyama shows, Ireland has one of the highest percentages of foreign-born people in the total population. At seventeen per cent, it is higher than the USA, UK, Germany and Spain (all thirteen per cent), the Netherlands (twelve per cent), Italy (ten per cent) and Hungary (five per cent). It might be argued that it is early days yet and that there is plenty of time for popular nationalist sentiments to grow in Ireland. There is certainly plenty of evidence of prejudice and discrimination against recent immigrants.

For Fukuyama the key issue in overcoming identity politics and popular nationalism is greater integration, not in terms of giving up distinctive forms of cultural identity but rather maintaining and developing “creedal national identities” through participation in the liberal democratic process. The problem, which he eschews, is how to do this when reasoned debate is overcome by emotions. One option might be to adopt strategies similar to those of the autocratic regime in Singapore and encourage citizens, backed up by law, to denounce any prejudicial talk of identity groups. Fukuyama argues that another strategy would be a “universal requirement of national service”. As well as creating a sense of virtue and public-spiritedness, it would create among young people a lived experience of working with those from different social classes, religions, races and ethnicities.

The great lie about nation states and nationality is that so many people have so quickly come to see them as unquestioned, taken-for-granted means of political organisation. Nations, like families, need to live the lie that there is more that binds them together than divides and separates them. We Irish are led to believe that “we” are a people bound by roots that go back to the Celts, Gaelic Ireland and St Patrick. “We” are led to believe, as if “we” were one big family, that “we” are all in this together, as when taoiseach Charles Haughey addressed the nation in 1980 and told us that “as a community, we are living way beyond our means”.

This myth of national belonging is central to the symbolic domination of the state. We believe that the state operates in all our interests when, of course, it operates primarily in its own interests – politicians and public servants – and the interests of the social classes from which its members are drawn. We are so blinded by nationality, by the rituals and lies that bind us together, that we cannot see the way the state lies.

Appiah touches on this when he refers to how the state reproduces identities and social divisions. People may label each other, but it is the labels of the state that have the greatest impact. It is the state that gives us our identity, that labels us as educated, that designates people as productive or unemployed, homeless and disabled, that reproduces gender inequality, that decides who is a criminal or an illegal immigrant, and that favours the able-bodied and mentally fit who get up early in the morning.

There are other institutions that play a key role in labelling that Appiah ignores. Not so long ago, the Catholic church played a significant role in creating and maintaining identities. Those who were docile and obedient were blessed and labelled as “good”. The names of those who were non-compliant were read from the altar. Women who were sexually transgressive were identified as “fallen” and incarcerated in Catholic homes, laundries and asylums.

More recently, the media has taken over from the Catholic church in terms of labelling the “good” and the “bad”. “Good” people are recognised and blessed by being honourably mentioned and photographed, while “bad” people are shamed and denounced for who they are and what they have done.

What has changed over the last few hundred years, particularly with the development of capitalism, the growth of cities, globalisation and increased migration is that individuals have had a greater opportunity to transcend and change their social identities and to develop stronger personal identities. This is central to liberal individualism and the market society.

Where Appiah and Fukuyama are weak is in their failure to describe and analyse the role of the market in creating and maintaining identities. We say of people, and of ourselves, that they are “big into” books, food, wine, clothes, fashion, sailing or skiing. People see themselves and are anxious to be recognised as vegetarian, vegan or gluten-intolerant. People are identified not just by what they consume, but the stores, shops and supermarkets in which they shop, by the bags in which they carry their shopping and, of course, by the labels. Everyday life is an identity parade. Everything we consume says something about us. As Fukuyama points out: “For many teenagers, identity forms around the specific subgenre of music they and their friends listen to.” However, this trait is not just confined to teenagers.

Marie Moran argues that the market does two things in capitalist society. Within the spirit of liberal individualism, of the individual being freed from the bonds that tied her to inherited social identities, the market creates and stimulates the need to discover one’s “true” self. It then, almost miraculously, provides the means to do this. The pursuit of personal identities, the constant desire and need to reinvent oneself is more than some hedonist pursuit of pleasure. It has become, in the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s terms, “a technology of the self”. Instead of Irish people realising themselves through the discourse and practices of Catholicism, they now predominantly realise themselves through the market.

Neither Appiah nor Fukuyama make reference to our identity as human beings. It might seem odd to suggest that all humans belong to the same group. However, in environmental terms we are a group in that we are a species. And, of course, the problem is that we consider ourselves as not just different from, but superior to, all other species. This sense of superiority has justified the mastery, control and manipulation of other animals and is leading not only to the elimination of many other species but the collapse of the existing ecosphere. The development of an identity and a sense of bonding and belonging among fellow human beings might be achieved not so much when we are invaded by aliens as when robots come to rule the world.


Tom Inglis is Professor Emeritus of Sociology in UCD. His most recent book was The Meanings of Life in Contemporary Ireland.



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