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Identity and the Incentivization of Weakness

I started writing about the idea of identity and its unintended trap but, as often happens, my writing was overtaken by real world events that necessitated considering those events in the writing. It is obvious why writing about identity should consider the implications of the implosion of the Ibram X. Kendi led Center for Antiracism Research at Boston University. I have struggled in the past to read Kendi because I find his writing nonsensical, but have addressed his underlying premise that MLK is wrong, the color of a man's skin matters more than his character. The predictable immolation of a center based on his ideals of an antiracism that reifies racial identity provides a clear example of the true strength of identity. Although it is counterintuitive, the strongest identity is that which is most ephemeral. The connection to the other event may seem less immediately obvious. However, in a nutshell, the terrorist attack on Israeli civilians by Hamas and Israel's military response truly epitomize the potential danger of concretizing identity. 

This would be a good place to offer my understanding of identity. When we talk about a person's identity we are talking about his self concept. In an episode of the podcast The Mess We're In, Arty Morty referred to identity as the story of the person one tells oneself. Extending this idea, it may also be the story that one wants others to tell about him. This story of self or self concept is usually based on an immutable quality, such as race, or an accident of birth, such as the parents' culture or religion. Often, on the basis of these immutable or persistent aspects, we ascribe behaviors or interests to a person. We will often assume a black person a dancer, a tall person a basketball player, or a gay man effeminate because of stereotypes based on those ascriptive qualities. The problem with stereotypes is that they are not always true. There is nothing essential about race, sexuality, or other attributes. These elements are descriptive, not determinative. Two brothers raised in the same household may develop interests, beliefs, and desires that seem completely foreign to each other.

In recent years we have experienced an inversion of the essentialism of identity. Now, on the basis of an interest or behavior, no matter how limited, one may be thrust into an identity category. For example, a girl who likes her brother's trucks or a boy who likes the color pink or imitating an older sister may now be assumed to be transgender. This identity is assumed counter to all immutable aspects, such that a person born into an immutably male body may be considered female on the basis of behavior, superficial aesthetic presentation, or interests. As a transgender person, a child may expect to change her name, have her puberty chemically stopped, take cross sex hormones, and remove healthy body parts to concretize the identity. Whereas an identity is typically based on immutable attributes of the body, it is the only self concept that requires bringing the body into alignment with the identity. It is also the only identity that requires external validation. The danger is that it is a self concept used to explain or as a strategy for managing psychological distress. This makes a temporally limited or experimental self concept permanent while normalizing the psychological distress it is used to frame. Few other concepts of identity could be more harmful to psychologically vulnerable individuals. 

The more one shares the presentation, beliefs, interests, and culture of the majority of people around him the less likely he is to be conscious of those as discrete elements rather than constituent parts of his whole. The ways in which one differs from those in his surroundings creates the possibility for dissonance around that difference. The stronger that dissonance the stronger the need to name that difference, especially when rights have been historically denied on the basis of the difference, as with racial, religious, and sexual minorities in the US. Where rights have been denied, identity offered a focus for political organization to address the denial. Currently, in the US, at least, that is no longer how identity works. No one is denied rights on the basis of immutable qualities.

It seems that the more an individual feels discord with his surroundings the more he emphasizes identity around that discord as a stable and permanent attribute. If he fails or achieves less than peers, identity might be the assumed reason; not the actions of the individual, but how he presumes others feel about him based on an ascriptive attribute. Increasingly, it seems that identity exists to project responsibility for one's assumed shortcomings and limitations externally. I have never met Kendi and am in no position to psychoanalyze him. Still, my sense is that he feels that he is an intellectual fraud. The predictable failure of his Center for Antiracism Research is less the direct result of a sense of inadequacy than it is the just so thinking meant to justify the feeling of inadequacy which is the foundation of the center. The justification for people like Kendi not reaching the heights they believe they should is racism. The irony is that the idea of racism, rather than being a hinderance, has created unprecedented opportunity for Kendi.

For people like Kendi ascriptive attributes, such as race, work like a sort of magic transforming the world through their existence. Race is the reason for the wealth disparity between black and white Americans. Race is the reason for police shooting the unarmed. Race is the reason for a higher rate of black maternal mortality. It is the framing of history of the New York Time's 1619 Project, which places anti-black racism at the heart of the founding of the United States. In their anthology of the same name, sociologist Karen Fields and historian Barbara J. Fields call this Racecraft. In Racecraft: the Soul of Inequality in American Life they posit that people like Kendi and the creators of the 1619 Project are mistaking race, a social construct, with racism, a set of social practices. Essentially, race is created by racism. This view is supported by important historical facts that completely undermine the narrative of the 1619 Project.

The Africans who were first brought to what would become the United States did not arrive as slaves, but mostly as indentured servants, similar to poor Europeans. Like those Europeans, many Africans were able to earn their freedom through their labor. As with the Africans, the life of poor Europeans was brutal. Rather than being caused by race, hereditary slavery was born out of a set of complex circumstances which essentially created race. A primary circumstance creating hereditary slavery was Bacon's Rebellion. It represented the first rebellion in the colonies of a coalition of armed indentured European and African servants, free blacks, and slaves. Slave codes were created following Bacon's Rebellion which made Africans hereditary slaves constrained by a stringent set of legal and cultural practices. Race became the explanation for those cultural practices, rather than the reason for their existence. The contrived difference between black and white explained the contradiction between an enslaved people in a nation where all men are created equal.

While the history of slavery and the period of legal racial discrimination that followed are compelling arguments for any perceived current racial disparity, they are weak. What is called a racial disparity is typically a negative outcome which impacts a percent of blacks disproportionate to our proportion of the population but which impacts a far larger numer of whites. Maternal mortality is a great example. It is important to note that while the rate of maternal mortality is concerning it is still infinitessimal, and thus difficult to predict where it will occur. The focus on black maternal mortality is because of a higher risk presumed to be because of the racial bias of doctors. While there is a greater risk for individual black mothers many more white mothers die from childbirth. If the increased risk is due to racial bias, what is the cause for the higher number of white deaths? In this light, presuming that the cause of black maternal mortality is racial bias is unlikely to address black, or any maternal mortality by addressing racial bias. 

This highlights the danger of imbuing these concepts of identity with so much power. In the west, since there are no mechanisms for creating systemic harm on the basis of ascriptive or chosen identity, there is no mechanism for addressing harm on the basis of identity. One is likely to actually cause more harm by trying to do so. Simplifying a complex set of circumstances, in a very real sense, the current Gaza conflict is as an example of the potential danger of such strong group identity. While it can be framed as primarily over territory, the cultural/religious differences of the two sides adds a fire that makes the conflict self sustaining. While it is easy to say, resolution will be dependent on both sides either letting go of a group identity which incorporates an unchanging past or cultivating one that places more emphasis on their peaceful shared history of inter-religious cohabitation. Otherwise, their future will forever be held hostage to a desire to move forward by correcting a past on which neither side can agree. 

The conflict is a prime, if over-simplifying, example of the fundamental way in which we misunderstand and misuse identity. There is no singular or concrete Jewish, Muslim, Israeli, Palestinian, black, white, male, or female identity; even if an individual's association with one or more of those groups is central to the core of his being. Identity is not real. It is like a person's faith. To the degree that it is real, it is only individually real. It is real, if you believe it is real. It matters, if you believe it matters. The aspects of a person's background which he incorporates into his self concept may not be the traits others value.

An individual has his identity, his self concept, and everyone he meets has their own identity for him. Each person who meets an individual has his own way in which to identify and assess that individual from the combination of physical traits and behaviors he prefers to use for that purpose. One person may identify him by his race and sex, another by his disposition. The method may be different depending on the  circumstances of their meeting. A common theme of the moment is that refusing to substitute someone's self concept for your conception of them is a form of bigotry. So, if a man prefers to see himself as a woman, or a woman prefers to see herself as a man, it is wrong not to do the same. This compelled thinking is being written into law and being enforced in institutions absent law. Possibly more dangerous, emotionally vulnerable people are being told to expect this external recognition because they will probably kill themselves without it.

The reason that the strongest identity is the most ephemeral is that it is nigh impervious to external validation or condemnation. An ephemeral identity is an expression of ego security typically framed around strong values or community connections, a specific religious or moral code, or personal achievement. Many people with an ephemeral identity moderate their behavior, disposition, or expectation of others depending on the setting. Few of us behave the same with strangers as we do with family and friends, or in formal settings the same we do in informal settings. People with a more concrete identity tend to moderate their range of settings based on how they expect others to treat and see them in relation to their self conception.  Moving comfortably through diverse settings and communities requires a flexible self conception that is indifferent to external consideration, and thus, expects no external moderation. 

The transgender identity is the most celebrated across the US right now. Its importance is pushed by presidential executive order. Its preservation in an adolescent takes precedence in California law over preserving that child's relationship with her family. Unlike an identity based on race, family culture, or sexual orientation all it takes to be trans is to choose to call oneself trans. All of these people choosing to call themselves trans, each for an individual reason, are cast as a community. Many of those who later reject an adopted trans identity realize that it had been a stand in for issues that remained unaddressed. Those issues could range from stress over a divorce, to trauma from abuse, to autism, or obsessive compulsive disorder. Still, for many adolescents, the diagnosis will be gender dysphoria which is accompanied by the notion that the child was born in the wrong body, a problem which must be surgically and chemically corrected.

I started exploring the concept of transgenderism and gender identity after exploring the ways in which racial identity politics has harmed the people it was ostensibly engaged to help. One of the most fascinating contradictions of this form of identity politics is that according to the narrative, black voices like mine were meant to be centered, unless I spoke against identity politics. Whenever I would point to direct consequences of specific race based policy proposals, I was told that I suffered from internalized racism. The push to abolish the police is a great example of this phenomena. Despite massive protests to abolish or defund the police for their sake, 81% of black respondents polled want the current level of policing or more. Either the vast majority of black Americans suffer from internalized racism or defunding the police is not about the interests of black Americans.

The author Rob Henderson calls these luxury beliefs. A luxury belief is typically held by an elite, shared to virtue signal or as status symbol for the holder of the belief, which bestows harm on the subject of the belief. For example, in urban areas where police departments have decreased in size in response to the 2020 BLM protests, low income residents have experienced a major increase in violent crime since. In much the same way that a movement based on virtue signaling around race seems contrived, it is difficult to believe that the most important demands for the "most marginalized minorities" in the world are pronouns and bathrooms. There are many ways to describe what is found on looking more closely at the trans movement. Most of those ways of describing the movement make you sound like a paranoid conspiracist. It is, in part, a movement to sterilize adolescents, locking them in perpetually immature bodies, to validate the preferred self concept of adult men who wish to see their sexual fetish of autogynephilia as a component of their birth. It is the only identity which requires surgery to fulfill, but only for the adolescents convinced to diagnose themselves with gender dysphoria. In this light, the trans identity can be seen as a sort of meta-luxury belief. The "community" on whom status is conferred for the belief is also the "community" on whom the harm is bestowed. There may be no more clear example of the danger of grouping people by identity while determing individual needs on the basis of an identity, especially one self selected. Anyone asked for an example of success to balance the many examples of harm in using identity in this way would fail.

Our focus on identity leads our young to harmful conclusions based on a misunderstanding of what identity is and its function. Simply, if you are thinking about your identity and how others perceive you, you are doing it wrong. This misunderstanding is a necessary component of a self concept based on immutable qualities or a socially mediated concept like trans or non-binary. It is not enough to merely point to the harms of the popular conception of identity. To disempower this idea of identity, it must first be subverted with an alternative focus. The alternative is encouraging a more ephemeral and variable self conception around activities, actions, acheivements, and-- although it may seem counter-intuitive-- failure. Young people deserve the opportunity to develop skills and cultivate a sense of competency. Instead of encouraging vulnerable children to make themselves more vulnerable by depending on others for affirmation, we encourage them to be dependable for those around them. We teach them to use their skills in service to their community, and where they lack skills we cultivate the motivation within them to develop those skills.

The focus on identity creates an egocentric desire to be fulfilled on the basis of identity. It is about the decimation of shared interests by selfish desire. It encourages narcissism and social dissolution. It ignores human nature in service of some magic essence derived from self concept. It incentivizes weakness when we need to incentivize strength. We need to motivate our children to do good in the world because it is needed rather than to be seen as good. We need encourage our children to be resilient enough to have a positive relationship with failure. That means seeing failure as a signal that they have pushed beyond the limits of their knowledge and ability, which means they need to refine more not that they have reached the end. Instead of cultivating resilience, we are encouraging our children to identify failure as a part of themselves.


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