Identity and its discontents
I’ve been thinking about what we mean when we talk about identity and ‘identity politics’. It needs thinking about because it’s a muddled conversation: identity has more than one meaning yet the label ‘identity politics’ is treated as if everyone means the same thing by it.
I think generally “identity politics” is a name (sometimes epithet) for movements to resist subordination, oppression, and/or persecution of people who belong to a particular demographic category – sex, race, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, class, immigration status and the like.
But often when the label is used as an epithet it seems to signify more than that – an obsession or tender-minded infatuation with one’s own personal Identity. The first doesn’t necessarily imply the second, but it can slip into it. One of the steps toward resistance is moving from self-hatred to self-respect, aka pride or Pride. There’s a built-in risk there of becoming too entranced with one’s own precious Identity and Identity Group.
But the word “identity” can also mean that very thing – one’s own Precious Identity, and a settled habit of being far too interested in it. Sometimes that seems to be what people are grumbling about when they grumble about Identity Politics, but it’s hard to be sure, because the two meanings are hardly ever disambiguated. Maybe we just generally mean both at the same time, but that’s still unfortunate, because (to repeat myself) the first doesn’t have to include the second. Movements to fight sexism or racism aren’t necessarily self-indulgent and narcissistic, so it would be nice if we could stop using labels that assume they are.
To confuse the issue further, there’s a fashion at present to claim that anyone can “identify as” anything and demand agreement from all the world. There was a news item out of Nanaimo, British Columbia a couple of weeks ago for example:
Vancouver Island University is at the centre of a human rights complaint alleging that female staff were not protected from a student who brought a diaper-related sexual fetish to the B.C. school.
A 105-page complaint filed by the Nanaimo school’s former director, Human Rights and Respectful Workplace, Katrin Roth, said the man’s behaviour was treated as a disability when it should have been dealt with as a potential threat to female staff …
CBC is not identifying the man who was involved in the complaint. He responded to a request for comment saying he was unable to speak about the matter for legal reasons.
“I will say I am special needs and 3, so I am not in my 40s,” he wrote to CBC.
Well, if he were in fact 3, he would not be a student at a university, would he. He apparently “identifies as” 3, yet he also attends a university and pesters female instructors to change his nappy.
The student in his 40s asked to be treated as an infant, demanding children’s books be read to him, speaking in a baby voice, wearing a soother, and even submitting a selfie of himself in a diaper to one instructor, said Roth …
English professor and chair of VIU’s women’s studies program Janis Ledwell-Hunt describes the man who was her student in spring of 2015 as somebody who left her fearful.
He was one of only a handful of in-person students in the small intensive course. But his “odd” and incessant emails disturbed her, the document says.
Then he handed in an essay with a selfie of himself in a diaper with a baby bottle and a soiled diaper. When she refused to accept it he became belligerent and she turned to VIU authorities for protection, says the complaint.
“He’d show up in a Curious George outfit with a soother around his neck,” said Ledwell-Hunt.
A what outfit?
So anonymous man in his 40s “identifies as” a toddler in a Curious George costume, but at least he stays with homo sapiens. There are other people who “identify as” Otherkin.
Otherkin are people who identify as partially or entirely nonhuman. A dragon, a lion, a fox—you name it—there is probably someone out there who feels like they are more these things than they are human …
But what does it mean to truly believe you’re non-human? Do people genuinely wake up one day and think that they are a fox or is this just a bizarre form of escapism? Is it body dysmorphia or fantasy?
For some it is fantasy, play, a game, an online (and thus temporary and fictional) identity, but others take it more seriously.
People who identify as other than human have been described (and describe themselves as “animal-people”, “lycanthropes”, “therianthropes” and, most recently, “otherkin”. Together they have a history stretching back to antiquity: witness the fabulous beasts which embellish the margins of medieval manuscripts. It was in the course of researching the role of monsters and monstrosity in Renaissance Europe, and the “animalesque” affinities of 16th-century Portuguese witches, prosecuted by the Catholic Inquisition, that researcher Pedro Feijó (MPhil History and Philosophy of Science) decided to lean into the worlds of those who, half a millennium later, inhabit the borders of animality and the margins of humanness.
Feijó embarked on an exploration of people who are more, or other, than human – and how such people have been perceived and treated by those around them. “We have witnessed, in the last half a century, an explosion of politics grounded on new identities, and on their overcoming. People have been experimenting with and transgressing the limits of what it means to be a woman, of what it means to have a gender, a sex, or a sexual orientation,” Feijó says.
The phrase “people who identify as other than human” is interesting, because who (or what) other than a human could even do such a thing? Members of what other species known to us “identify as” anything at all, let alone another species? Whales don’t (I’m betting) identify as salmon or coral or container ships; chimpanzees don’t (I’m pretty sure) identify as gorillas or termites or Jane Goodall. Is “identifying as” X a kind of magic process that makes the identification true in the act of uttering or thinking it?
I don’t know, but now that identity has evolved in this direction, I think we need a new label for that project of resisting oppression based on identity-categories.