On Representation

Today the first ever black female Supreme Court justice was confirmed by the senate, and she was unwilling to lay down a definition for what it meant to be a woman. She could not do so because given the state of the ideology she will represent on the court, such a definition could not be given as it is possible that it will change tomorrow to something that would be completely unrecognizable and make anyone who hazards a guess even on contemporary leftist grounds to be considered to be an unredeemable fascist a few weeks or months or years from now. One may therefore sympathize with someone who is caught in an obvious gotcha moment where one cannot afford to commit to a definition of anything in the contemporary world, but it ought to be rather obvious that if the definition of woman is so mutable as to be impossible to pin down than the worth of representing black women on the Supreme Court cannot be very great. One may as well point to J. Edgar Hoover as the first female head of the FBI.

One of the inevitable truths of contemporary identity politics (or any sort of identity politics) is that the question of identity inevitably involves heavy amounts of gatekeeping and the problematic determination of who a fit representative is of a given group. To the extent that someone does not share enough qualities with someone in order to be a lot like them, then the praise that one gives to such a people as a representative of the larger group diminishes. One can find no limit to the ways in which someone may be unrepresentative to us, and thus whose achievements do not bring us joy or a sense of shared accomplishment, and whose contributions to the larger culture simply cannot be enjoyed or celebrated as much as they ought to be.

At times, efforts at praising identity achievements can be unintentionally funny. For example, I was promoted an article that praised a Blackfoot mom–who was a strawberry blonde woman–for becoming an award-winning author. No one who judged the article based on the photo of the woman would think of her as a Blackfoot author unless they had been told so, because one could not distinguish her from any of the hundreds of millions of white people in this country. How Blackfoot was she? I do not know, but it is quite possible that there are a great many Blackfoot tribe members who might not consider her to be representative of their tribe as a whole because she is white-passing. Similarly, I read a tweet that was later corrected that claimed that Doja Cat was the first female rapper to have a certain achievement on the radio songs chart since Lil Nas X, who had accomplished the same feat late last year. The joke, of course, is that Doja Cat is barely a rapper these days and that Lil Nas X, whatever you want to call him, is not a woman (at this time at least–no one knows what he may identify himself as in the future).

It is not as if the diminished happiness that we find when we only celebrate the achievements of those who are like ourselves is either a good thing or an accidental thing. This sort of narrow tribalism is indeed the very opposite of the process of genuine cosmopolitanism, to the extent that it is a good thing to be a cosmopolitan person capable of transcending, at least to some extent, one’s own background without feeling the need to tear it down or cease to appreciate who one is or where one comes from. Much of the pleasure in traveling comes about in the combination of recognizing the alien and unfamiliar aspects of humanity and finding appreciation in such things (even if they are not for you), while also appreciating the common human nature and striving for eternity that one finds in others as well that allows one to see other human beings as being, ultimately, not very unlike oneself. To be sure, some people emphasize one side or another of this enjoyment of travel, but for me at least both tendencies are present. Tribalism attacks at this because it seeks to attack those who might wish to enjoy aspects of our own culture that they encounter while simultaneously denying the common humanity of different groups, thus finding pleasure neither in difference nor in commonality. This diminishing of humanity and happiness is obviously an ominous trend, but by no means a rare one in human history.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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