Loitering at the intersection

Speaking of groups and maintaining them and rights and related issues – my colleague is working on a book about identity, one which looks set to be very good and very interesting. We were talking about it on the phone yesterday, I was talking about Amartya Sen and his view that identity can and should be multiple and fluid and voluntary, and JS said (something like) yes but we don’t want all identities to be fluid and optional, we for instance want to stick to the Enlightenment (that’s very approximate; I wasn’t taking notes and besides he talks very fast and I get only about one word in ten). I said yes but is the Enlightenment a matter of identity? Is it not rather one of values or principles? I don’t remember where we went from there, but wherever it was he had a point, but so did I, and the intersection of the two is one I frequently find myself loitering at. It’s the obvious and familiar paradox: I believe in critical thinking; very well, so do I believe in critical thinking about critical thinking? Well, yes, of course, but I can’t help noticing that the result is always the same: I go on believing in critical thinking. To do anything else would seem to be a contortion beyond human ability. If I think critically about critical thinking and so decide it’s a bad thing and that I will be dogmatic and uncritical instead, then I no longer believe in critical thinking, so I’ve been consistent, in a sense, but I’ve also turned myself inside out. I suppose I can just answer by saying that no matter how critically I think about critical thinking, I still go on thinking critical thinking is necessary, but I do so for sound reasons. A dogmatist could just reply that I merely think I do so for sound reasons.

Maybe I can just resort to a brute fact. It’s a brute fact that we have to think in order to function well. That’s how we got here. We can decide to give it up, but it’s not the best way for entities like us to function, just as it’s not clever to poke our own eyes out or chop our own legs off. (Some people do chop their own legs off. I got a phone call from one such person a few months ago. He’d read an article I wrote for TPM on the subject, and phoned me to tell me about his recent leg-chopping-off. Oh god…)

This paragraph from Jerry’s book in progress is relevant to all that.

It is not only in tightly-knit groups such as Buford’s hooligans that this merging of personal and group identity occurs. Indeed, at least in part, we all define ourselves in terms of our membership of particular social groups. Thus, for example, the author of this book self-identifies as British, heterosexual and male. However, the part that such identities play in what might be called our narratives of self, and the emotional investment that we have in each of them, varies from individual to individual and from group to group.

And also from time to time, and situation to situation. For instance, I was probably much more aware (albeit in a background way, because slightly different thoughts were in the foreground) of my identity as a female while I was writing that back of the bus comment below. I’m more aware of my identity as an American when reading or hearing unaffectionate comments about Americans in for instance global media. I’m possibly slightly more aware of my identity as heterosexual when writing comments about anxious archbishops, although actually I doubt that, because (as queer theorists rightly point out) straight identity is generally so dominant and taken for granted that one doesn’t really think about it even when faced with a contrast; it’s the same (as whiteness studies theorists point out) with whiteness. Default identities recede way into the background in ways that less dominant ones don’t. Nationalism must have been a much punier thing before cheap rapid travel, because whatever you were was the default thing to be.

More later.

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