Philip the Spy

Philip Pullman is eloquent on identity and related subjects. He makes the point that ‘What we do is morally significant. What we are is not.’ Which relates to what I (and other people) keep saying about the religious hatred bill: that religion is not the same kind of thing as race, because it’s not what you are, it’s what you do (and doing includes thinking). Yes, it’s not always easily voluntary, but it’s still not as unchosen as ‘race’ is.

At its extreme, it can lead to a sort of cognitive dissonance, when people claim an inner “identity” that has nothing to do with their actions: “Yes, I murdered my wife and children, but I’m a good person.”…So “being”, in the eyes of many people, apparently has its own moral quality, which may be good or bad, but which is resistant to any form of change except the miraculous (being born again). “Being” trumps “doing”.

Probably that guy in Herat thinks he’s a good person.

It’s hard to convey the sheer bafflement and distaste I feel for this attitude towards “identity”. I feel with some passion that what we truly are is private, and almost infinitely complex, and ambiguous, and both external and internal, and double- or triple- or multiply natured, and largely mysterious even to ourselves; and furthermore that what we are is only part of us, because identity, unlike “identity”, must include what we do. And I think that to find oneself and every aspect of this complexity reduced in the public mind to one property that apparently subsumes all the rest (“gay”, “black”, “Muslim”, whatever) is to be the victim of a piece of extraordinary intellectual vulgarity. Literally vulgar: from vulgus. It’s crowd-thought.

That’s exactly what it is – in more than one way. It’s a crowd way to think, and it’s about thinking of oneself as part of a crowd.

For myself, I like it best when I have no such simple and public “identity”. I don’t know what I “am”, and I don’t especially want to. But I know full well that I am free to feel anonymous and invisible, which I like feeling…

Oh, yeah. Same here. I like to go out in the world, to walk to and fro in it, like a spy. Unnoticed, unseen, unwatched.

There’s a great deal more – it’s a long piece, and very good. I have to go, I have some spying to do.

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