This article touches the fundamental problem with identity politics: the real Muslim (the real Christian, the real feminist, the real white man, etc.) does not actually exist. The identities we construct for ourselves are at some point uniquely personal, an expression of the particular self whose idiosyncrasy rejects (and breaks) every universal mould. Identity politics as an exercise require me to identify myself wrongly with people who look like me in some fashion, and then to go out and apply this mischaracterization to other people, as well. Identity politics, even when they are most factual (dealing practically with people who for whatever reason appear to act en masse), ask us to behave as pawns (the agents of some collective to which we must belong, to which we owe our identity). It is unfortunately true that I will owe many of my life’s goods to groups that include people and things I find immoral, but that seems to me like something to limit wherever possible, rather than to celebrate. I would not choose to enumerate at great length the ways in which I am and must be the helpless agent of some larger identity (religious, political, cultural) that controls me against my own better judgement. I would prefer to dwell on the ways I can break these moulds, can defeat the mandate that I pick a faceless tribe and then stand with them no matter what.
It seems to me that the best way to defeat identity politics (which I regard as evil) or the evils of identity politics (for those who think that identity politics are good) is to quietly refuse to conform to the agenda of your “tribes” (the groups who seek to claim you as their pawn because you practice a certain religion, dress a certain way, come from a certain ethnic background, etc.). My identity is a temporary thing, fraught with many limits such that it inevitably becomes evil, to me and to other people, at some point. In light of this reality, I seek to make that ego as little active as possible in the world around me. I don’t lend my weight to causes waged by “my tribes” against others merely because “everybody who looks like you is doing it.” I do not know what all academics, all males, all white people (etc.) are up to, as a group. I don’t want to put myself in a position where I have to know, where I make myself liable for some kind of gang activity that pretends (inevitably falsely) to speak for “our kind.” We have no kind: you are one self, and I am another. Superficial likeness might conceal vast oceans of difference, so vast in my experience that I always assume we are more unlike than like until I see you acting, until I know you–as a person, not a stereotype.
The tribe that I want around me is not a nation, not a race, not an ethnos, nor a worldwide religion. I want real family and friends, people I know personally from historical interaction. If I am to go to war, to make bets with my life, to take risks with uncertain causes and conditions in a troubled world, then I am going to do it not for an imaginary identity or camaraderie (nationalism, racism, chauvinism, capitalism, Christianity, etc.). I am going to do it for friends and family I love, because I see immediately how their survival demands it. I do not care that my friends and family look like me in some superficial way (i.e. that they have language like mine, skin like mine, ethnic background like mine, or religion like mine). I care that they show me moral integrity I can respect, especially where it differs from my own. The more I embrace this integrity, and the people who come with it into my life (from all kinds of odd places), the less I identify myself with the “tribes” that sociology textbooks want to put me in. My friends and family can come from any religious background (I am on intimate terms with many different kinds of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists). They can be any number of races (and they are). They can come from many different countries (and they do). I want to make my identity from them, from their small diversity, rather than take the large monotony of society’s tribes as my heritage. I want my ego to reflect the people I love and care about, more than the people who look like me superficially.
This post originally appeared on my personal blog. –JGM