Little Boxes, Little Boxes

What was that we were saying about identity, and groups, and being forced into those groups by other people? We were saying a lot of things – so let’s say a few more while we`re at it.

I’ve been re-reading Meera Nanda’s marvelous (albeit horrifying) book Prophets Facing Backward. If you haven’t read it – you’re missing something. I thought a couple of quotations would be apropos. Page 16:

Holist views of nature and society in which the collective is held to be larger than the individual, the orgnaism more than the sum of its parts, are eminently suited for illiberal and totalitarian philosophies. Such philosophies can mobilize individuals to sacrifice their freedom for the sake of the collective good, and to even accept the indignities meted out to them in the name of their duty and destiny.

Can’t they though. And this is one reason – one of many – I’m ever more wary of communitarianism, identity politics, group rights, and ideas about the need to respect groups simply because they are groups. I’m also ever more surprised that these ideas have become so deeply entrenched on the left. I’m not as surprised as I could be, because I used to see more merit in them than I do now (or rather I used to be less aware of the demerits), but I’m still surprised, especially considering all the hideous experiences we’ve had with group hatreds over the last dozen years or so.

Another. Page 27:

Postmodern critiques…seemed to satisfy these intellectuals’ nationalistic and populist urges to resist the West and at the same time, to affirm the traditions of the West’s ‘victims,’ lumped together in one big mass without adequate consideration for internal class and cultural contradictions as ‘the Third World people,’ the ‘subaltern,’ or simply the ‘other.’

Just what I’ve been saying. Of course, when groups are being attacked as groups, then it may make practical sense to defend them the same way, but that’s a different matter from according immense groups consisting of billions of people automatic respect, or affirming their traditions, or really saying much of anything about them at all except that they should be treated decently (or if you prefer to phrase it that way, that they have human rights).

One thing I notice about all this identity-hugging is that people have a tendency to force others into identity boxes whether they want to be put there or not. One of our regular readers, wmr, commented on this under ‘Stand Still, Dobbin’:

IMO, the problem with group identification occurs not when one links oneself to a group, but when others insist on identifying one with some group. “The Metaphysical Club” tells of a talented black student who considered himself primarily a philosopher. Unfortunately, everyone else considered him a black first and foremost. He did not prosper.

And Vikram Chandra has a long, fascinating, irritated essay on the subject in ‘Boston Review’ in 2000 called ‘The Cult of Authenticity.’

I noticed the constant hum of this rhetoric, this anxiety about the anxiety of Indianness, this notion of a real reality that was being distorted by “Third World cosmopolitans,” this fear of an all-devouring and all-distorting West. I heard it in conversations, in critical texts, in reviews. And Indians who wrote in English were the one of the prime locations for this rhetoric to test itself, to make its declarations of power and belonging, to announce its possession of certain territories and its right to delineate lines of control…My purpose is also to give you some sense of the texture of the world in which I live and write, and therefore also a sense of the sheer effort it takes to sustain and drive this censorious rhetoric about correct Indianness, and a sense of the galloping vastness of its elisions. This rhetoric lays claim not only to a very high moral ground but also a deep, essential connection to a “real” Indianness. Despite all their demurrals about not essentializing Indianness, and their ritual genuflections in the direction of Bhabha and Spivak, the practitioners of this rhetoric inevitably claim that they are able to identify a “Real India,” and so are able to identify which art, and which artists, are properly Indian.

It’s all so dreary, so imagination-choking, so thought-smothering, so limiting. Don’t write that, because it’s not authentic. Don’t name your character that, because you’re ‘signalling Indianness to the West.’ Don’t be cosmopolitan, be whatever Identity you were born. Don’t expand, don’t change, don’t grow, don’t learn, don’t become different, don’t leave home, don’t go out into the wide world. Don’t you dare. And this is supposed to be progressive?

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