Stand Still, Dobbin

You don’t mind if I go on thrashing the equine do you? No, of course you don’t, because you’re used to it. I repeat myself a lot. But then arguments are like that – they go on and on, inconclusively, cumulatively, incrementally. Who knows if one is making any progress or not? But if one thinks there is a point worth making or defending, one goes on.

Marc Mulholland has a new post on all this today. A much politer post than I deserve, too. But I still disagree with much of what he says. For instance:

Some of the criticisms raised deny the reality of group identities, asserting in classical liberal fashion that there is no such thing as society, only individuals (and their families?). I disagree.

One, again, there is a mixing of terms going on. ‘Group identities’ are one thing, and society is another. Two, there is a big difference between wanting to know exactly what is meant by ‘group,’ and denying the reality of ‘group identities’. Three, there is also a big difference between pointing out that groups can contain other groups with power differences and conflicting interests, and denying the reality of group identities. Not that he was necessarily referring to what I said – but I think what I said is a closer match with that paragraph than what Norm said.

Another instance:

I though it need not be said in so many words, but apparently it does. Respecting a culture does not imply valuing equally its every manifestation. Islam, as a ramified mode of human expression, deserves respect. The stoning of women does not. Liberal democracy is a valuable and honourable tradition. Bombing Dresden was a disgrace.

But I still don’t agree. I simply don’t think that all ‘ramified mode[s] of human expression’ deserve respect. (I’m also, again, not sure what that means, but never mind that for now.) Some just don’t. The Mafia, for example. Nazism, for another. Talibanism, for a third. The Interahamwe, for a fourth. Apartheid, for a fifth. And so on. I just don’t think there is a category ‘ramified mode of human expression’ that automatically deserves respect simply because it is a member of that category. Humans can be sadistic murderous thugs, and they can also be sheep-like obedient soldiers who do the bidding of sadistic murderous thugs, so I don’t see that human modes of expression get to be ‘respected’ without further ado.

This part is interesting –

But I believe that group identification – be it nation, religion, football team, Group Blog or Senior Common Room – is a necessary and constitutive part of human nature.

I know what he means, and I used to believe that myself, but I’ve gotten a lot more suspicious of it in recent years. Partly because of some of those modes of expression I mentioned above. The ’90s were not good years for group identification. Serbs, Bosnians, Kosovars, Hutus, Tutsis – they taught us to be wary of those group identificactions, it seems to me. I have a lot to say about this, but I’ll save it for another post.

I do take his point here though:

It was because one’s life was shaped by the question of identity, sharpened by a conflict. Ethnicity determined where one could safely walk, how one would interact with others (there is an anthropological term for this process of identifying ‘strangers’ – “telling”), how one would interpret rhetoric and so on.

Sure. But that seems to me to be all the more reason to be wary of identity and identity politics, not all the more reason to embrace it, still less to try to enforce and protect it via demands for a priori ‘respect’.

22 Responses to “Stand Still, Dobbin”