Fragile Identities

One of the most striking aspects of contemporary identity politics is the fragility of people who engage in it. Traditionally speaking, at least, there has always been a wide difference between identities that were self-chosen and those identities that were chosen by others. The reasons for this are not hard to determine. Outsiders choose names, sometimes with pejorative meanings, based on what they view as being distinctive about a given population, while insiders give themselves nearly uniformly positive names based on their own superior knowledge about what gives the group its coherent identity. One of the most intriguing patterns that one finds is that people will often define themselves as some sort of “people” and define outsiders in ways that subtly indicate that they view outsiders as being less human than insiders. All of this has gone on for thousands of years and across the world, suggesting some sort of common human psychology for strongly distinguishing between insiders and outsiders and even priding oneself on one’s inability to distinguish others except by their alien nature, tendencies which have survived in our language in words like “barbarian” and in exonyms like the Berbers of North Africa and the city of Berbera in Somaliland.

What is it that makes contemporary identity politics different? Among those differences is the fact that there is a growing hostility towards exonyms at all and an insistence that other people use the self-chosen names and identities of people. This has understandably led to a lot of backlash, because people choose some identities for themselves that are woefully inappropriate and at huge variance with the external reality of their existence. Most of the time people, and I will include myself in this, do not particularly care what people think of themselves or call themselves or pretend themselves to be. Our disinclination comes from being asked to or expected or demanded to go along with whatever idiotic and demented self-delusion that other people have. And it is this which is precisely the problem. Few people care or have any interest in what people call themselves, but have a problem going along with it if it does not make sense.

And yet, what we see in the contemporary world is that there are sanctions that come to people who fail to use the pronouns or to recognize the identities that other people claim. If people claim to be onion-gendered because, like Shrek, they have layers, people not only wish to claim that identity but wish for that identity to be recognized by everyone else. Not only that, but they are offended if other people show anything less than rapturous approval for whatever identity choice they make. If they want to consider themselves a neptunic cat-gender or a cake gender with whatever pronouns they wish, it is not enough merely to claim that identity but that it must be recognized by everyone else as well, and not with any sort of disapproval at the lunacy or stupidity of what is being claimed. This, rather than presenting strength, is presenting a great deal of fragility. If we are strong in our identities, it matters not what other people claim.

Traditionally, identities have tended to have been claimed by insiders for the benefit of other insiders, people who naturally would be in approval of those identity claims. What outsiders thought was quite irrelevant. If a particular fashion was popular among an elite, it mattered little what uncultured barbarians and savages thought about those fashions, because they were outsiders and their judgments and opinions were irrelevant. In stark contrast to that, today’s fragile would-be elites care deeply what other people think about their idiotic fashions, and demand that everyone toe the line with whatever they wish to consider themselves, regardless of how wacky it is. This is demanding a great deal more than humanity in general is willing to portray. What is less clear, and is worth investigating, is why it is that contemporaries are so fragile when it comes to their identities? Why is it that people who were once content to have their own identities around those who would agree with them and cheer them on now demand that everyone go along with them? What made people unwilling to accept disapproval and criticism? And how can this thin-skinnedness be reversed?

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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