Thought for the Day – or perhaps I mean Provocative Cryptic Assertion via Adapted Quotation for the Day. Identity is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

I had this thought partly because of the ever-present dreary discussion of the Religion Question in US Politics (yawn). I’ve noticed that one ploy people resort to when anyone suggests that religion does not belong in the public sphere, is to conflate their religion with their ‘identity.’ It then occurred to me that that conflation, and confusion (because it is a confusion – religion is not ‘identity’), is what is going on – is the subtext, as it were – of the other side in the argument about Islamophobia we had a few days ago. (In many posts – Which Community?; More; What Liberals Can and Can’t Say; Stand Still, Dobbin; and Little Boxes, Little Boxes.) Not that I hadn’t realized it before, but it became a little clearer, a little more sharply into focus.

And it connects with something else I wanted to look at in the Mulholland post – which, again, may seem like more horse-walloping, but the ideas are Out There, so it’s better to get clear about what they are.

I think its a cop-out to argue that attacks on beliefs are different from attacks on inherited characteristics such as colour etc; the former acceptable under the rubric of ‘freedom of speech’, the latter unacceptable.

No. No, no, no. It’s not a cop-out at all, it’s of the very essence. It’s not a pretext or disguise for saying something else, it is the thing itself. (As a matter of fact, considered coldly, that sentence is a positively shocking thing for an academic – of all people! – to say. What in hell is their job if it’s not to ‘attack’ i.e. criticise and disagree with ‘beliefs’?) Beliefs are different from inherited characteristics, and the difference is one that makes disagreement (never mind ‘attacks’ – that’s just rhetoric) vital as well as possible. You can’t ‘argue’ with race or gender any more than you can with height or eye colour – or for that matter species. You can’t argue a dog into being a cat, now can you. (I know that, because I’ve tried.) But you can argue with beliefs, and you very often need to. It’s not just a matter of freedom of speech, either, it’s also freedom of thought. If you really think it’s taboo and somehow cruel and immoral to disagree with people’s beliefs, then you may well train yourself not to do so even in the privacy of your own mind.

And the ‘identity’ claim is one way to try to persuade or coerce us all to think exactly that. We all know it’s terribly wrong to mess with people’s ‘identity.’ We get told it all the time, for one thing. ‘Identity’ is one of the great cant-words of the day – one of those words that make one want to reach for one’s gun. (Which reminds me, someone actually said that on [I think] ‘Saturday Review’ a week or two ago. Exactly, I thought.) Just say your beliefs, your religion, are part of your ‘identity,’ and watch the atheists back off. Well – of course it depends how you define the silly word, whether that claim makes any sense or not. And people certainly do define it any old way that happens to be convenient – which is why I keep putting it in inverted commas: because it means so many things it doesn’t mean much of anything. But then…surely there is a choice that needs to be made. If we’re going to have expansive definitions of identity according to which it means whatever I do, think, believe, wear, eat, watch, listen to, like, dislike, sit on, put in my nose – then identity can’t function as a taboo or no-go area. Or if identity is going to function that way, then we need to stick to a very narrow definition of it, to cover what people are not what they become. To cover, in other words, things people can’t help rather than things that are chosen. To cover the physical, biological, genetic, and not the learned, acquired, added on. Otherwise, all of intellectual life will be full of taboos and unmentionables, and rational thought will come to a grinding halt. There are a lot of people who would like rational thought to come to a grinding halt, but we shouldn’t give them what they want. Rational thought requires the ability to consider and discuss cognitive matters on cognitive terms. Identity politics requires that people be allowed to draw magic circles around whatevery they decide to care about. The two are emphatically not compatible. I choose rational thought, thank you.

I have a lot more to say on this, but I’m going to do it piecemeal. That’s fair warning.

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