When I was 29 and sitting in a rehab facility in South Africa, I had an epiphanic moment where I realised an irrefutable fact about who I was. I was gay and I was a drug addict. The epiphany was not the labels themselves, but that, for the first time, I felt I had found something unshakeably true. A bedrock that I could rely on no matter what. Rather than being a source of pain and shame (which both had been, and often still are), the realisation anchored me to a sense of myself best described by the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece “Anthem”
Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack, a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in.
I had at that point done everything in my power to not be these two things, including skirting some rather frightening overdoses and lots of suicidal thoughts. But I had failed, and instead of being a negative, they suddenly became the yellow brick road to a whole new possible me. It was a powerful and necessary step for me. I am now 46, and while I still feel the same way about those two words, I also feel fundamentally different. They are descriptors that are fairly uninteresting. I have so many more facets and aspects that foreground how I see myself.
So here is the challenge as I see it. There is a paradox that in claiming ones identity to survive and often thrive in life, you also solidify the very thing that separates, polarises and isolates you. In practice it has huge implications for our social and political lives. How would we have a Stonewall or Soweto Riots, a Black Lives Matter or an Extinction Rebellion if we did not identify with our tribes and become moved to change the world? Are these iconic historical events not some of the greatest symbols of the unifying power of knowing how we belong? And in the same breath, can we not see that what keeps us separate, whether Democrat and Republican, black and white, Catholic and Protestant, is the very same act of identifying. Identity creates an “us” and “them”.
This tightrope walk of identity is perhaps the defining political act of our current time.
Where to begin?
We are obsessed with identity and its meaning. But are the labels that we use to define ourselves valuable or useful? And does your identity in fact describe a unique, essential ‘self’ at all? What is essentially “you”? Your race? Your religion? Who you sleep with or marry? Or what you eat (or don’t eat)? Each of us can list reams of words, like “white”, “father”, “Muslim”, “vegetarian” or “lawyer” that compose the things that make up who we are. But, as Shakespeare so famously wrote,
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”,
But the naming of it, the identifying process, is like giving a price tag to goods. And what price do we really pay when we do this? As the philosopher and spiritual teacher J. Krishnamurti, states in his Commentaries on Living;
Identification is essentially a thought process by which the mind safeguards and expands itself; and in becoming something it must resist and defend, it must own and discard. In this process of becoming, the mind of the self grows tougher and more capable; but this is not love. Identification destroys freedom, and only in freedom can there be the highest form of sensitivity. [1956:12]
What freedom’s are lost, then, by constraining the boundaries of who we are with these labels? Consider, for example, whether we can even prioritise the multiple identity groups every one of us straddles. Would I be, say, white first, gay second, an addict third and only rank fourth as a brother in this taxonomic hierarchy? Or does sexuality get a privileged position over race or class or the host of other ‘identifiers’ that could lay claim to me? The question seems bizarre – how can I be more gay than white? But what powerful currency these labels transact with in the world of 2020. And they are policed with a zeal by an army of social warriors no less thorough or unforgiving as the KGB or secret police of Nazi Germany.
So let me put forward a different way to approach how we view the concept of identity. In 1927 Heisenberg formulated his Uncertainty Principle, proving one can never know an electron’s position and velocity simultaneously. Four years later, in 1931, mathematician Kurt Godel proved his famous Incompleteness Theorem, setting the limitations by which mathematics is constrained. Towards the end of the 20th century even stranger theories were postulated with the formulation of the curled up extra dimensions in string theory. Each of these breakthroughs created a picture of modern scientific thought as having crossed the boundaries of the bizarre and broken notions of common sense. We live in a world where particles can pop into and out of existence, where matter exists in probability clouds.
So, if science’s most fundamental building blocks are unstable, if we can conclusively say that the very fabric of our world obeys laws beyond the scope of all traditional thinking, then why can we not use this de-limiting approach to society’s conception of the human self?
If the stuff of which matter is made is in flux, why does our need for classification of identity not allow the same flexibility? The transgender movement has certainly played a pivotal role in upending the status quo of how we choose to define who you are. But movements that are redefining identity have also opened the door to claims that many feel are simply fictions, with little or no “meaningful” constraints. This has created backlash from all sides. Take a famous essay where JK Rowling outlined her personal views on transgender issues and its attendant politics, drawing attention to the potential danger of allowing for a person to “self-identify”, to quote:
So I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe. When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman – and, as I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones – then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. That is the simple truth. On Saturday morning, I read that the Scottish government is proceeding with its controversial gender recognition plans, which will in effect mean that all a man needs to ‘become a woman’ is to say he’s one. To use a very contemporary word, I was ‘triggered’.
This essay released a veritable storm of hatred upon the Twittersphere and beyond. Why? Because identity has achieved the apotheosis of how we ascribe value in modern society, and attached to that identity are all the very real political and social rights and laws that can, for some, be life and death. So disagreement is not met with debate, but with all out war.
So before we weigh into the right and wrong of it, can we reframe the question?
Lets put forward concrete examples. If a man sleeps with another man for the first time at age forty, did he suddenly become gay? If a person converts to Judaism or perhaps discovers they have a relative who is part Cherokee, what part of the experience/ identity comes into existence through choice and knowledge? Do previously occupied categories suddenly dissolve, or should they now be ignored? What does it mean to be black in South Africa versus black in America in 2020? Is the lived experience a pre-requisite for claiming an identity? Can a person be both gay and straight, and simply occupy different positions at different times? And why is it natural for us to assume that, once a ‘position’ is adopted, the identity is fixed and unchangeable? And perhaps the most pertinent question of all; does the act of identifying cement something that is not meant to remain fixed and unchanging? And is this “fixing” of an identity causing damage to other ways of being and living in the world?
Here is my hypothesis. Think of identity as a political revolutionary movement. It’s existence is necessary for it to challenge or topple the status quo. It is the vital catalyst for enacting this change. However, the very process of maintaining an identity is predicated on maintaining its uniqueness. The shared identity of the ingroup is what binds together, and it is maintained by emphasising outgroup difference and separateness. What happens to the revolutionary when they start to win the revolution? The group’s very existence as a unique identity is maintained by reinforcing how different it is from perceived or real “others”. If there is not enough difference then we weaken the ties that bind and cannot police the borders which dictate where the group begins or ends. Imagine if we lived in a truly egalitarian society; what need would identity fulfil? Identity unites the tribe in a powerful socially cohesive way, and yet, in creating a tribe it sets itself apart and, often, as exclusive and combative. If it is the basis of “us” and “them”, then does it not serve as much to divide as to unite?
If this has truth to it, then the question we have to ask ourselves is: when is maintaining these identities useful and when does it get in the way?
I do not think the labels that were integral in defining the 29-year-old “me” are relevant or helpful for me now. And that unequivocally does not mean they cease to exist, but that they simply do not function usefully to inform how I want to be in the world. It also raises the question of who and how we can claim any given identity. The issue is framed beautifully by Suzanna Walter in her writing about claiming ‘queerness’ if one is not gay, lesbian, bi or transgender.
“If it is clearly co-optive and colonizing for the white person to claim blackness if he or she ‘feels’ black… then why is it so strangely legitimate for a heterosexual to claim queerness because she or he feels a disaffection from the traditional definitions of heterosexuality” [2005:11].
Let’s follow the argument through. If a straight man can never ‘know’ what it is to be persecuted for being gay, are we saying that another gay man can, merely because he is gay ? Do all LGBT people experience persecution (or pleasure) in the same way? Clearly not; which raises the question of how we differentiate between the experience of being Jewish, or black, or of any other identity grouping. And if all experience is so specific that no-one can ever know another’s, then why not claim that a white person knows what it’s like to be black, because, after all, experience is merely a tenuous approximation for what each individual might be feeling? Where do you draw the line? And who gets to draw it? There is no bright line, but at some point, it becomes obviously flawed the more granular you get about grouping together or excluding of members from any claimed identity.
If no one can know anyone’s experience but their own then any identity is unable to cope with even the slightest variation from its heavily boundarised inclusiveness. And if we start to pull one thread the entire weave falls apart.
But wait, have I taken this a step too far? And is there a lesson in one of the identities I ascribe to “having”? What for example, does it mean to be an addict?
Addict & Identity: a label without essentialism
Having gone to rehab some 17 years ago, I still identify very strongly with the term “addict” and its attendant meaning. But it is interesting that addict operates a little differently from many of the other classifiers. “Addict” connotes a broad way of life, rather than a description of the manner, mode or means of substance abuse. Addiction is seen by each individual addict as an affliction that while shared, occurs uniquely in a recovering person. No addict is the same as any other, not their story, their drugs, or their path to recovery. The term “addict” has become the very centre of a non-essentialist identity that ties a dramatically diverse range of individuals together. The only common point is that there is a process of addiction, although its form is always unique. Narcotics Anonymous works because people create a fluid identity that is malleable enough to incorporate any individual, whatever their belief system, sexual proclivity or spiritual paradigm. Like the word queer, the term addict obeys the laws of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle; it is not possible to pin down specifics and yet it can still function to bind the community together. If anything, the addict identity tells you more about the differences than the similarities that connect the group, and yet it still functions to unite and bind to create a movement that moves towards a social good.
Of course, addicts are not politically motivated in the way that the sexual or racial margins are. There are no constitutional courts awarding (or removing) the rights of the addict community. It is a socio-political agenda without a recognisable constituency. In fact, the objectives of sexual & racial identities and addicts could be seen to be diametrically opposed (one identity seeks to obviate itself socially; the others are engaged in claiming and celebrating their social selves). The shared point of departure is that the act of forming an identity is really about the life-long, delving of self-knowledge. It is an act of becoming.
So why do I bring the “addict” to the table?
We all need to belong, but we need to belong in a manner that can hold us as complete entities, with all our fractured and discordant elements. I believe that the process of conscious living, of an awareness of our construction, is the most powerful political act that any of us can perform. It is the “change” that we must be, to point to Ghandi’s famous quote. It is an act that is at once social, spiritual and political that requires nothing less than everything from us, because it is not static but a shifting horizon. And if I can borrow from the 12-step’s spiritual principles, it is through honesty, open-mindedness and willingness, that we can consistently re-evaluate ourselves throughout our lives, and constantly shift our concept of ourselves. This consistent re-evaluation requires rigorous discipline, but promises a degree of freedom from the constraints that identity attempts to impose upon us. It is not a goal that can be attained; it is a way of life that in itself will erode any idea of a homogenous mainstream because the vast plethora of likes, dislikes, positions and fantasies are limitless and in constant flux.
Like Heisenberg’s discovery, we need to embrace the uncertainty that sometimes we can know, but not describe who we are, while at other times we can describe and yet have no knowledge of what identity means. This is my point. If we can not know each other, but only ourselves; if our experience is unshareable, then perhaps this is the nexus for our similarity more than our isolation from each other.
It is not religion that is the opiate of the masses in this day and age; it is identity. We are addicted to the idea of who we are and trapped into the power mechanisms of playing out these roles. They are powerful and useful, but they are also their own trap.
To quote T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding,
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.