2.1 Identity politics insults everyone
I recently read an article about what it’s like being deaf in New Zealand. One woman interviewed recalled a camp she’d attended when she was young. The experience made a big impression on her, so much so that she came to realise that being deaf was “who I am”.
“This is who I am”
This got me thinking about other times I’ve heard someone say that such-and-such is “who I am”. One hears of people saying it about their race, their gender, their sexual orientation, or some other characteristic they consider to be essential to the point of being definitive.
I expect many who say this are very deeply affected by the significance of the characteristic they are describing and articulate this, with some poetic licence, as “This is who I am”. In some cases (perhaps many), this poetic licence may be energised by the fact that the person has been made to feel like a social outlier because of the characteristic. In these cases, the “poetry” becomes quite poignant and very powerful.
However, some proclaim “who I am” with a polemical purpose which, if spelled out, goes something like this: “This characteristic is who I am. For that reason, your disapproval of it, or disagreement with it, is a rejection of me as a person, a denial of my humanity”. What seems to follow, in the mind of the speaker, is that the disapproval or disagreement must therefore not be permitted and may even be reasonably described as hate speech and condemned as such. We see this happening all around us.
No matter how the declaration “This is who I am” is used, I suggest that it isn’t actually true. I cannot interfere with a person’s view of themselves – I’m just an onlooker with no authority – but I can have an opinion about this kind of thought process. When the woman declared that her deafness is “who I am”, it occurred to me to ask, “What about your ethnicity and gender, are they just peripheral?”
When a person identifies a characteristic and says, “This is who I am”, they are doing themselves a great injustice and selling themselves way short.
Each person consists of an enormous number of characteristics, some innate and others formed by experience and context. I’ll call each of these a “what” as distinct from the “who”. There are all sorts of whats – sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender presentation, age, height, body shape and weight, strength, IQ, EQ, disposition, beauty, physical prowess, physical health, mental health, attitude to heights, enclosed spaces and spiders, place on various spectrums (for example, introvert/extrovert, optimist/pessimist, sweetness of tooth, sensitivity to heat and cold), opinions and world-view, life experience, experience of oppression (from one side or another), skills, self-esteem, memory, facility with languages ……….. I’m not sure the list has an end.
I suggest that “who” a person is must be, at the very least, the aggregate of the enormous number of whats that characterise the person. To be honest, I would go further and suggest that this aggregate is simply “what” the person is, while the “who” of that person is something even more profound and utterly unique.
Who we really are
Because I’m a Christian, I believe each human being is made “in the image and likeness” of the creator God. This (if true) is rather grand and gives each person fabulous significance and value, which is the other reason I find limited self-identification so irksome.
But even if the imago Dei is notionally set aside, it is apparent that an individual human being is an unfathomably deep and complex unit. So, when a person focuses on a single characteristic and says “This is who I am”, they are saying something that is wildly inaccurate.
It is good to be prepared to go to some trouble to understand why a person identifies themselves in this way, especially if there is real hurt underlying it. However, it doesn’t follow that a poetic understatement, no matter how poignant or tragic, should be taken literally – because then it’s false. Their hurt and my sympathy don’t change the facts.
I don’t intend this to be of merely passing interest: it’s relevant to identity politics.
I’m not quite sure just who is “in charge” of identity politics – I only know they’ve been operating behind the scenes for some time now and that no-one voted for them. They seem to have decided that each person has only a handful of characteristics – or, at least, only a handful of characteristics that matter.
I cannot interfere when a person entertains a false and limiting belief about themselves. I must feel a little sad about it and leave them be. However, I object to being told that I must treat their paltry self-identification as a fact.
It is even more objectionable when someone applies this shabby branding to someone else.
This happens, for example, when I am identified as “just” a pale, stale, straight male or “just” a phobia-laden Christian bigot or “just” a beneficiary of racist colonialism etc. Once one of these damning labels is attached to me, no interest is taken in my other characteristics, much less in my actual opinions, decisions and actions.
It also happens when a person is encouraged to self-identify in this paltry manner – to see themselves as a person of very few parts. The perverse thing is, this encouragement comes from people who claim to advocate for that person!
This has been going on for a while, but I continue to be astonished by the new elite (academics, media, educators, much of government) who arrogantly presume to define everyone, especially when that definition is insultingly incomplete. This displays utter contempt for every member of the community – not only those the elite intends to punish for past sins but also those it claims to champion.
Identity politics insults everyone by underestimating them. That’s just the start, of course: after rebranding us all and dividing us into herds, the elite –
- decides which herds are good and bad (regardless of what people actually say and do);
- stage-manage a war between them (women against men, Pakehā against Māori, and so on).
The complexity and uniqueness of every human being is not the only vital truth ignored – also ignored is a person’s accountability for what they do, not for what they are – but that’s where it starts.
2.2 Oh, the emotion!
I recently read an interesting article in Stuff, about the way we often “medicalise” our emotions in the way we describe them: https://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/life/114754213/dont-be-ashamed-of-experiencing-emotions
For example, an increasing number of people say they’re “anxious” instead of “nervous”, “depressed” instead of “sad”. The writer says speaking about emotions is better than keeping them in a closet, but speaking about them in this way can have enduring adverse consequences. Instead of just feeling sad (for example), I consider myself to be ill, with sadness as my symptom. By their nature, symptoms must be eradicated or “managed” rather than lived with, which turns my attention away from everyday non-medical solutions like having fun with my friends.
The writer leaves it there, not exploring why we’re doing this. I’d like to briefly extend the consideration of this topic.
We seem to live in a time when, in public discourse, emotions are not simply over-emphasised but venerated. This is weakening us, by impeding our ability to think clearly and make decisions. I suggest that people who “medicalise” their emotions are not just exaggerating and drawing attention to themselves, but also abdicating from responsibility for self-management – as if to say “This emotion is so stupendous that it is beyond me to manage, I must see the emotion doctor”. When you rebrand something that isn’t a health issue into a health issue, you’re abdicating from responsibility for your decisions and actions. (Although it is not the present topic, abortion is a striking example of this.)
The sovereignty of emotion can be seen all around us. Besides medicalising emotion in the way described in the article, we also “emotionalise” all sorts of things. For example, the preamble “I feel” is now frequently followed by something other than an emotion – sad, annoyed, angry (much less pleased!). Instead, we have “I feel that ….”, most often “I feel that you …..”.
For me, the new language started ages ago, with Assertiveness training. The aim was to make difficult conversations possible and even productive by removing the combativeness that moral judgments can trigger. We were trained to avoid “you statements”; to begin with a neutral description of the subject situation and then say how “I feel” about it. This uncontentious start would inspire an open and non-combative discussion because, we were told, “Your feelings are just facts, not judgments”. A pretty theory.
I think we all know what happened, the expression of feelings became the new mode of judging:
- “I feel that you are wrong/unfair/bigoted/cruel …..”. “I feel that I’m not getting through to you because you’re not listening”.
- Online, approval is what “I like“.
- I’m offended by what you said.” And a lot follows from this: “So, you must acknowledge that it was wrong and that you’re a bad person for saying it. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t intend any harm, it only matters that you caused this harm (which I shall now “medicalise” into an illness). You may not ask what I mean by “offended” or openly wonder whether my being offended is reasonable or even genuine. No, you may not claim offence if I respond harshly to you – only I, and people on my side of the fence, get to do this – it’s our turn.”
- “I’m not comfortable with this conversation/speech/meeting/movie ….. Yes, you’re right, that means it has to stop, I thought you understood that”.
- “I need you to …” & “You need to …”. Not quite emotion, but akin to it and far from the language of obligation.
- Some describe another person’s disagreement with a popular action or attitude some as hatred. It’s very stupid.
In addition, many of the new virtues that are replacing the old ones (without discussion) seem to be emotion-based:
- The broad-based practical principle of love-your-neighbour has been replaced by empathy. Empathy is about emotion, which is narrow. It actually isn’t necessary: it’s useful to feel another person’s pain (it gives insight) but you can decide to alleviate their pain without feeling it. Empathy is very selective, while love-your-neighbour covers everyone equally. Not everyone is equally empathic (even when they try), but everyone can be equally loving because it is about decisions.
- Compassion: an excellent virtue, but inadequate on its own.
- “Inclusiveness” is feelgood for what used to be called justice – as though Justice needed to feel good in order to be important.
- Being “passionate” is now a virtue!
Journalists are constantly asking people they interview, “How did you feel?” as though that’s the real story.
Emotions are not sovereign
I’m glad we men are becoming more conversant with emotions: our emotional constipation and illiteracy were unfortunate. On the other hand, I now think society is overdoing it.
Emotions are not sovereign: they do not rule or persuade or justify. They are not a trump card, they don’t replace either reason or judgment. They are a critical part of the landscape in which we make decisions. For example:
- a person’s emotional state may indicate harm done to that person
- or it may indicate the impact that certain decisions will have on that person
- my own emotions may cloud my judgment, so I must be mindful of them
Emotions are not less than that, but they’re not more either.
It’s alright for public discourse to include recognition of the emotional dimension of the topic being discussed. In fact, it’s good because then the discussion covers all bases. However, it’s only a dimension of the topic. If we allow our reasoning to be overwhelmed or replaced by emotion, we’re going to become very stupid and indecisive as a society. Very weak, in other words.
A warm, soft heart is a wonderful thing. A warm, soft brain is useless.
Medicalising “wrong” opinions
In addition to emotionalising opinions and judgments, we have also seen some people “medicalising” opinions they don’t like. This is what is happening when opinions are “diagnosed” as phobias. It’s wickedly effective.
In the same way that a person abdicates from responsibility when they medicalise their own emotions, the result of emotionalising and then medicalising opinions we don’t like is that we don’t have any responsibility to take those opinions seriously (by responding to them, for example). They are simply and automatically consigned to a kind of “ideas asylum”. And, as a bonus effect, the diagnosis injures those who hold those opinions.
Free speech is not defeated only by blockades and biased news editors: there’s far more to the totalitarian arsenal than that, such as the undermining of our ability to think.
2.3 Dodgy advocates
What you see vs. what you get
I first become aware of the current problem with advocates when Jordan Peterson, early in his public career (in 2016, I think), mentioned that he’d had a lot of letters from trans people saying they supported his stance against mandatory pronouns and disassociating themselves from trans activists who were calling him “transphobic”. Transitioning is difficult enough without commotion and the glare of publicity.
More recently, since the Christchurch shootings on 15 March, there has been a lot of talk in New Zealand about “white supremacism”. There is a great deal of alarm about it. What has occurred to me, though, is that I’ve never met a white supremacist and I don’t know anyone who has. I’m sure they exist, but I would have to search them out. Also, the word “supremacist” is being applied to movements that are defensive in posture – that believe that the “white race” (if that’s a meaningful expression) is not superior to any other but is nonetheless worth preserving. The controversy there is whether or not it is really at risk and the proposed methods of preservation. Benign or not, they are not supremacists and supremacists don’t speak for them.
Whatever actual “white supremacists” say, they don’t speak for me or, I imagine, the vast majority of white people. (Similarly, the Nation of Islam in the US, when it promotes black supremacism, does not speak for all black people or all Muslims.)
So Peterson made the reasonable point that not everyone who calls themselves an “advocate” is actually a representative of anyone at all: they are often self-appointed. Since hearing him say this, I’ve noticed the same phenomenon in a number of settings:
- Firebrand imams do not necessarily speak for all Muslims. Whether or not they speak for Islam itself is a more academic question, which I am not qualified to discuss, but they don’t speak for all Muslims and perhaps not even for most – in New Zealand, anyway.
- The same is true of firebrand Christians like Brian Tamaki.
- Feminists of the man-hating variety clearly don’t speak for many women. I say this because it is quite apparent that the vast majority of women are tenaciously pro-male – despite the propaganda (and the actual risks).
- I would not be surprised if the same is true of LGBTIQ folk. Some go out of their way to “out” tradition-minded people – for example, by ordering a wedding cake from a tradition-minded baker, and then doing their utmost to put the baker out of business. I’m not in the LGBTIQ loop, but I feel confident that the few LGBTIQ people I know would not be involved in this kind of self-righteous aggression: they have their lives to get on with and are simply better behaved than some of their advocates.
- NZ Humanists say of themselves, “We work on behalf of the millions of New Zealanders who are not religious to make sure their voices are heard in public policy and debate” (see https://humanist.nz/). Leaving aside the gigantic exaggeration in the use of “millions”, the claim to represent simply isn’t true but is entirely presumptuous: they speak for you if you’re a member (a rather smaller number). They might see themselves as working for the benefit of a larger group, but they are not their advocates – any more than an employee union speaks for non-members in the same line of work as members. In addition, NZ Humanists’ politics are quite specific: if you’re a non-theist who is not a card-carrying cultural leftie (pro-euthanasia, abortion etc), it seems you’re not a “humanist”.
No doubt some advocates really do speak for a group of people who want them to speak. Unfortunately, it is hard to tell whether an advocate is a genuine spokesperson or a presumptuously self-appointed attention-seeker and, too often, trouble-maker.
Presumptuous advocates misrepresent
Many self-appointed advocates are a danger to everyone. Including the people they presume to speak for:
- They speak as though the whole group has just one view about any given topic, which is insulting and almost always false. This lack of respect and integrity is very serious.
- The view they put forward is often the most extreme available, which gives the group a bad rep – which, in turn, adds to the trouble that’s brewing.
In any group, you will find a range of views and motivations. For example –
- A bunch of Christians might include a mixture of conservatives and “progressives”, dogmatic types and good listeners, raised Christian or recently converted, Kiwi-born or immigrant, from different denominations coming from different cultures …
- A bunch of feminists might be angry, hurt, both or neither, from one “wave” or another, anti-male, pro-, neutral or indifferent, covetous of power or focused on freedom, insistent on equal opportunity or equal opportunity and proportionate outcomes, supportive of women only or of everyone including women, out for revenge or content with justice …
- A bunch of white men might be misogynist or not, wealthy or poor, more or less educated, conservative or “progressive”, British, Celtic or continental European, atheist or Christian …
- Not all social conservatives are capitalists, not all capitalists are climate change deniers, not all “progressives” are socialists …
We human beings are more varied, and far more interesting, than many advocates would have us think. This should not need to be said, but noisy advocates have been very effective at giving the impression that, within the groupings they talk about, everyone is the same. This is false and extremely disrespectful of every member of the group (see article 2.1 “Identity politics insults everyone”).
Whether the falsehood arises from ignorance or dishonesty will vary: after all, not all advocates are the same either!
Advocacy is critical for the voiceless, just as lawyers are needed to represent those who cannot represent themselves. My concern is with the mischievous advocates, not the necessary and genuine ones.
Why do they do it?
Self-appointed advocates are not all the same, a range of motives is available to them:
- Advocacy pays the advocate – whether in cash, public profile or the exhilaration of boisterous self-righteousness.
- Some are pursuing a cause – the overturning and remaking of society – and are very pragmatic (ie ethics-free) in the way they go about it.
- There is a whole “conflict industry” they are a part of, that depends on them keeping the pot stirred: the media, university faculties that produce activists, the human rights apparatus (professionals, tribunals, bureaucracy).
Whatever their motivation, they’re making things worse. So, when someone says they speak for a group, it’s important to be sceptical – so you are not deceived and so you don’t misjudge the group.