Identity is That Which is Given

The anthropologist Margaret Mead once observed that in the 1930s, when she was busy remaking the idea of culture, the notion of cultural diversity was to be found only in the ‘vocabulary of a small and technical group of professional anthropologists’. Today, everyone and everything seems to have its own culture. From anorexia to zydeco, the American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has observed, there is little that we don’t talk about as the product of some group’s culture. In this age of globalisation many people fret about Western culture taking over the world. But the greatest Western export is not Disney or McDonalds or Tom Cruise. It is the very idea of culture. Every island in the Pacific, every tribe in the Amazon, has its own culture that it wants to defend against the depredation of Western cultural imperialism. You do not even have to be human to possess a culture. Primatologists tell us that different groups of chimpanzees each has its own culture. No doubt some chimp will soon complain that their traditions are disappearing under the steamroller of human cultural imperialism.

We’re All Multiculturalists Now observed the American academic, and former critic of pluralism, Nathan Glazer in the title of a book. And indeed we are. The celebration of difference, respect for pluralism, avowal of identity politics – these have come to be regarded as the hallmarks of a progressive, antiracist outlook and as the foundation of modern liberal democracies. Ironically, culture has captured the popular imagination just as anthropologists themselves have started worrying about the very concept. After all, what exactly is a culture? What marks its boundaries? In what way is a 16-year old British born boy of Pakistani origin living in Bradford of the same culture as a 50-year old man living in Lahore? Does a 16-year white boy from Bradford have more in common culturally with his 50-year-old father than with that 16-year old ‘Asian’? Such questions have led most anthropologists today to reject the idea of cultures as fixed, bounded entities. Some reject the very idea of culture as meaningless. ‘Religious beliefs, rituals, knowledge, moral values, the arts, rhetorical genres, and so on’, the British anthropologist Adam Kuper suggests, ‘should be separated out from each other rather than bound together into a single bundle labelled culture’. ‘To understand culture’, he concludes, ‘we must first deconstruct it.

Whatever the doubts of anthropologists, politicians and political philosophers press on regardless. The idea of culture, and especially of multiculturalism, has proved politically too seductive. Over the past two decades, nations such as Australia, Canada and South Africa have created legal frameworks to institutionalise their existence as multicultural societies. Other countries such as Britain have no formal recognition of their multicultural status but have nevertheless pursued pluralist policies in a pragmatic fashion. Even France, whose Republican tradition might seem to be the nemesis of multiculturalism, has flirted with pluralist policies. In 1986 the College de France presented the President with a report entitled ‘Proposals for the Education of the Future’. The first of ten principles to which modern schools should subscribe was ‘The unity of science and the plurality of cultures’: ‘A carefully fabricated system of education must be able to integrate the universalism inherent in scientific thought with the relativism of the social sciences, that is with disciplines attentive to the significance of cultural differences among people and to the ways people live, think and feel.’

‘There is a certain way of being human that is my way’, wrote the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his much discussed essay on ‘The Politics of Recognition’. ‘I am called upon to live my life in this way… Being true to myself means being true to my own originality’. This sense of being ‘true to myself’ Taylor calls ‘the ideal of “authenticity”’. The ideal of the authentic self finds its origins in the Romantic notion of the inner voice that expressed a person’s true nature. The concept was developed in the 1950s by psychologists such as Erik Erikson and sociologists like Alvin Gouldner into the modern notion of identity. Identity, they pointed out, is not just a private matter but emerges in dialogue with others.

Increasingly identity came to be seen not as something the self creates but as something through which the self is created. Identity is, in sociologist Stuart Hall’s words, ‘formed and transformed continuously in relation to the ways in which we are represented or addressed in the cultural systems which surround us.’ The inner self, in other words, finds its home in the outer world by participating in a collective. But not just any collective. The world is comprised of countless groups – philosophers, truck drivers, football supporters, drinkers, train spotters, conservatives, communists and so on. According to the modern idea of identity, however, each person’s sense of who they truly are is intimately linked to only a few special categories – collectives defined by people’s gender, sexuality, religion, race and, in particular, culture. A Unesco-organised ‘World Conference on Cultural Policies’ concluded that ‘cultural identity… was at the core of individual and collective personality, the vital principle that underlay the most authentic decisions, behaviour and actions’.

The collectives that appear significant to the contemporary sense of identity comprise, of course, very different kinds of groups and the members of each are bound together by very different characteristics. Nevertheless, what collectives such as gender, sexuality, religion, race and culture all have in common is that each is defined by a set of attributes that, whether rooted in biology, faith or history, is fixed in a certain sense and compels people to act in particular ways. Identity is that which is given, whether by nature, God or one’s ancestors. ‘I am called upon to live my life in this way’. Who or what does the calling? Apparently the culture itself. Unlike politically defined collectives, these collectives are, in philosopher John Gray’s words, ‘ascriptive, not elective… a matter of fate, not choice.’ The collectives that are important to the contemporary notion of identity are, in other words, the modern equivalents of what Herder defined as volks. For individual identity to be authentic, so too must collective identity. ‘Just like individuals’, Charles Taylor writes, ‘a Volk should be true to itself, that is its own culture.’ To be true to itself, a culture must faithfully pursue the traditions that mark out that culture as unique and rebuff the advances of modernity, pragmatism and other cultures.

This view of culture and identity has transformed the way that many people understand the relationship between equality and difference. For the Enlightenment philosophes, equality required that the state should treat all citizens in the same fashion without regard to their race, religion or culture. This was at the heart of their arguments against the ancien regime and has been an important strand of liberal and radical thought ever since. For contemporary multiculturalists, on the other hand, people should be treated not equally despite their differences, but differently because of them. ‘Justice between groups’, as the political philosopher Will Kymlicka has put it, ‘requires that members of different groups are accorded different rights’.

An individual’s cultural background frames their identity and helps define who they are. If we want to treat individuals with dignity and respect, many multiculturalists argue, we must also treat with dignity and respect the groups that furnish them with their sense of personal being. ‘The liberal is in theory committed to equal respect for persons’, the philosopher Bhikhu Parekh argues. ‘Since human beings are culturally embedded, respect for them entails respect for their cultures and ways of life.’ The British sociologist Tariq Madood takes this line of argument to make a distinction between what he calls the ‘equality of individualism’ and ‘equality encompassing public ethnicity: equality as not having to hide or apologise for one’s origins, family or community, but requiring others to show respect for them, and adapt public attitudes and arrangements so that the heritage they represent is encouraged rather than contemptuously expect them to wither away.’ We cannot, in other words, treat individuals equally unless groups are also treated equally. And since, in the words of the American scholar Iris Young, ‘groups cannot be socially equal unless their specific experience, culture and social contributions are publicly affirmed and recognised’, so society must protect and nurture cultures, ensure their flourishing and indeed their survival.

One expression of such equal treatment is the growing tendency in some Western nations for religious law – such as the Jewish halakha and the Islamic sharia – to take precedence over national secular law in civil, and occasionally criminal, cases. Another expression can be found in Australia, where the courts increasingly accept that Aborigines should have the right to be treated according to their own customs rather than be judged by ‘whitefella law’. According to Colin McDonald, a Darwin barrister and expert in customary law, ‘Human rights are essentially a creation of the last hundred years. These people have been carrying out their law for thousands of years.’ Some multiculturalists go further, requiring the state to ensure the survival of cultures not just in the present but in perpetuity. Charles Taylor, for instance, suggests that the Canadian and Quebec governments should take steps to ensure the survival of the French language in Quebec ‘through indefinite future generations’.

The demand that because a cultural practice has existed for a long time, so it should be preserved – or, in Charles Taylor’s version, the demand that because I am doing X so my descendants, through ‘indefinite future generations’, must also do X – is a modern version of the naturalistic fallacy, the belief that ought derives from is. For nineteenth century social Darwinists, morality – how we ought to behave – derived from the facts of nature – how humans are. This became an argument to justify capitalist exploitation, colonial oppression, racial savagery and even genocide. Today, virtually everyone recognises the falsity of this argument. Yet, when talking of culture rather than of nature, many multiculturalists continue to insist that is defines ought.

In any case, there is something deeply inauthentic about the contemporary demand for authenticity. The kind of cultures that the Enlightenment philosophes wanted to consign to history were, in an important sense, different from the cultures that today’s multiculturalists wish to preserve. In the premodern world there was no sense of cultural integrity or authenticity. There were no alternatives to the ways of life that people followed. Cultures were traditional but in an unselfconscious fashion. Those who lived in such cultures were not aware of their difference, let alone that they should value it or claim it as a right. A French peasant attended Church, an American Indian warrior painted his face not because they thought ‘This is my culture, I must preserve it’ but for pragmatic reasons. As the political philosopher Brian Barry suggests, in the absence of some compelling reason for doing things differently, people went on doing them in the same way as they had in the past. Cultural inertia, in other words, preserved traditional ways because it was the easiest way to organise collective life.

Multiculturalists, on the other hand, exhibit a self-conscious desire to preserve cultures. Such ‘self-consciousness traditionalism’, as Brian Barry calls it, is a peculiarly modern, post-Enlightenment phenomenon. In the modern view, traditions are to be preserved not for pragmatic reasons but because such preservation is a social, political and moral good. Maintaining the integrity of a culture binds societies together, lessens social dislocation and allows the individuals who belong to that culture to flourish. Such individuals can thrive only if they stay true to their culture – in other words, only if both the individual and the culture remains authentic.

Modern multiculturalism seeks self-consciously to yoke people to their identity for their own good, the good of that culture and the good of society. A clear example is the attempt by the Quebecois authorities to protect French culture. The Quebec government has passed laws which forbid French speakers and immigrants to send their children to English-language schools; compel businesses with more than fifty employees to be run in French; and ban English commercial signs. So, if your ancestors were French you, too, must by government fiat speak French whatever your personal wishes may be. Charles Taylor regards this as acceptable because the flourishing and survival of French culture is a good. ‘It is not just a matter of having the French language available for those who might choose it’, he argues. Quebec is ‘making sure that there is a community of people here in the future that will want to avail itself of the opportunity to use the French language.’ Its policies ‘actively seek to create members of the community… assuring that future generations continue to identify as French-speakers.’

An identity has become a bit like a private club. Once you join up, you have to abide by the rules. But unlike the Groucho or the Garrick it’s a private club you must join. Being black or gay, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah suggests, requires one to follow certain ‘life-scripts’ because ‘Demanding respect for people as blacks and gays can go along with notably rigid strictures as to how one is to be an African American or a person with same-sex desires.’ There will be ‘proper modes of being black and gay: there will be demands that are made; expectations to be met; battle lines to be drawn.’ It is at this point, Appiah suggests, that ‘someone who takes autonomy seriously may worry whether we have replaced one kind of tyranny with another.’ An identity is supposed to be an expression of an individual’s authentic self. But it can too often seem like the denial of individual agency in the name of cultural authenticity.

‘It is in the interest of every person to be fully integrated in a cultural group’, Joseph Raz has written. But what is to be fully integrated? If a Muslim woman rejects sharia law, is she demonstrating her lack of integration? What about a Jew who doesn’t believe in the legitimacy of the Jewish State? Or a French Quebecois who speaks only English? Would Galileo have challenged the authority of the Church if he had been ‘fully integrated’ into his culture? Or Thomas Paine have supported the French Revolution? Or Salman Rushdie written The Satanic Verses? Cultures only change, societies only move forwards because many people, in Kwame Appiah’s words, ‘actively resist being fully integrated into a group’. To them ‘integration can sound like regulation, even restraint’. Far from giving voice to the voiceless, in other words, the politics of difference appears to undermine individual autonomy, reduce liberty and enforce conformity. You will speak French, you will act gay, don’t rock the cultural boat. The alternatives, the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut suggests, are simple: ‘Either people have rights or they have uniforms; either they can legitimately free themselves from oppression… or else their culture has the last word.’

Part of the problem is a constant slippage in multiculturalism talk between the idea of humans as culture-bearing creatures with the idea that humans have to bear a particular culture. Clearly no human can live outside of culture. But then no human does. ‘It’s not easy to imagine a person, or people, bereft of culture’, observes Kwame Appiah. ‘The problem with grand claims for the necessity of culture’, he adds, ‘is that we can’t readily imagine an alternative. It’s like form: you can’t not have it.’ Culture, in other words, is like oxygen: no living human can do without it, but no living human does.

To say that no human can live outside of culture is not to say they have to live inside a particular one. Nor is it to say that particular cultures must be fixed or eternal. To view humans as culture-bearing is to view them as social beings, and hence as transformative beings. It suggests that humans have the capacity for change, for progress, and for the creation of universal moral and political forms through reason and dialogue. To view humans as having to bear specific cultures is, on the contrary, to deny such a capacity for transformation. It suggests that every human being is so shaped by a particular culture that to change or undermine that culture would be to undermine the very dignity of that individual. It suggests that the biological fact of, say, Jewish or Bangladeshi ancestry somehow make a human being incapable of living well except as a participant of Jewish or Bangladeshi culture. This would only make sense if Jews or Bangladeshis were biologically distinct – in other words if cultural identity was really about racial difference.

The relationship between cultural identity and racial difference becomes even clearer if we look at the argument that cultures must be protected and preserved. If a ‘culture is decaying’, the sociologists Avishai Margalit and Joseph Raz argue, then ‘the options and opportunities open to its members will shrink, become less attractive, and their pursuit less likely to be successful.’ So society must step in to prevent such decay. Will Kymlicka similarly argues that since cultures are essential to peoples’ lives, so where ‘the survival of a culture is not guaranteed, and, where it is threatened with debasement or decay, we must act to protect it.’ For Charles Taylor, once ‘we’re concerned with identity’, nothing ‘is more legitimate than one’s aspiration that it is never lost’. Hence a culture needs to be protected not just in the here and now but through ‘indefinite future generations’.

A century ago intellectuals worried about the degeneration of the race. Today we fear cultural decay. Is the notion of cultural decay any more coherent than that of racial degeneration? Cultures certainly change and develop. But what does it mean for a culture to decay? Or for an identity to be lost? Will Kymlicka draws a distinction between the ‘existence of a culture’ and ‘its “character” at any given moment’. The character of culture can change but such changes are only acceptable if the existence of that culture is not threatened. But how can a culture exist if that existence is not embodied in its character? By ‘character’ Kymlicka seems to mean the actuality of a culture: what people do, how they live their lives, the rules and regulations and institutions that frame their existence. So, in making the distinction between character and existence, Kymlicka seems to be suggesting that Jewish, Navajo or French culture is not defined by what Jewish, Navajo or French people are actually doing. For if Jewish culture is simply that which Jewish people do or French culture is simply that which French people do, then cultures could never decay or perish – they would always exist in the activities of people.

So, if a culture is not defined by what its members are doing, what does define it? The only answer can be that it is defined by what its members should be doing. The African American writer Richard Wright described one of his finest creations Bigger Thomas, the hero of Native Son, as a man ‘bereft of a culture’. The Negro, Wright suggested, ‘possessed a rich and complex culture when he was brought to these alien shores’. But that culture was ‘taken from him’. Bigger Thomas’ ancestors had been enslaved. In the process of enslavement they had been torn from their ancestral homes, and forcibly deprived of the practices and institutions that they understood as their culture. Hence Bigger Thomas, and every black American, behaved very differently from his ancestors. Slavery was an abomination and clearly had a catastrophic impact on black Americans. But however inhuman the treatment of slaves and however deep its impact on black American life, why should this amount to a descendant of slaves being ‘bereft of a culture’ or having a culture ‘taken from him’? This can only be if we believe that Bigger Thomas should be behaving in certain ways that he isn’t, the ways that his ancestors used to behave. In other words, if we believe that what defines what you should be doing is the fact that your ancestors were doing it. Culture here has become defined by biological descent. And biological descent is a polite way of saying ‘race’. As the cultural critic Walter Benn Michaels puts it, ‘In order for a culture to be lost… it must be separable from one’s actual behaviour, and in order for it to be separable from one’s actual behaviour it must be anchorable in race.’

The logic of the preservationist argument is that every culture has a pristine form, its original state. It decays when it is not longer in that form. Like racial scientists with their idea of racial type, some modern multiculturalists appear to hold a belief in cultural type. For racial scientists, a ‘type’ was a group of human beings linked by a set of fundamental characteristics which were unique to it. Each type was separated from others by a sharp discontinuity; there was rarely any doubt as to which type an individual belonged. Each type remained constant through time. There were severe limits to how much any member of a type could drift away from the fundamental ground plan by which the type was constituted. These, of course, are the very characteristics that constitute a culture in much of today’s multiculturalism talk. Many multiculturalists, like racial scientists, have come to think of human types as fixed, unchanging entities, each defined by its special essence.

Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster. His new book is Strange Fruit: Why both sides in the race debate are wrong (Oneworld, 2008), from which this article is taken.

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