"A human being is part of a whole called by us the Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself,  his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." Albert Einstein

Who are we and does it even matter?

 

“Everybody has a story. Not, for most of us, a grand overarching narrative that draws together the various strands of our life into one neat consistent thread, but a collection of unique, discrete and occasionally contradictory chapters that come together only in the telling.” Gary Younge.

How many of us really think about the different components of our being — our identity as determined by our own actions and beliefs, and who we are as perceived by others?

For most of us, it isn't until we face a struggle in life — for the right to justice, equality, political representation, even the basic struggle as experienced by all of us at one time or another to belong — that our identity starts to matter in dramatic ways.

We might assert our personalities or our beliefs in superficial or philosophical ways — as feminists, goths or geeks, for instance — but the weight of these tags only becomes critical when our claim to them, and what they mean in a wider context, becomes hotly contested on the socio-political battleground.

Through a series of personal and political stories that cross continents and time, journalist and broadcaster Gary Younge thoughtfully dissects the politics of being in his 2011 book, ‘Who Are We — And Should it Matter in the 21st Century?

It’s a question that has become increasingly important in recent decades where race, gender, sexuality, political plurality and nationalism have underlined efforts by people united by a common cause to challenge those in power.

Whether it’s the Hong Kong protests, the Arab Spring, the fight for gay marriage in the US, UKIP’s unashamed use of patriotism in UK by-elections, or countless other examples besides — identity is the subtext.

“Identity is like fire,” writes Younge. “It can create warmth and comfort, or burn badly and destroy. It is at the forefront of some of the most inspiring achievements in world political history, whether it be women’s suffrage, the end of apartheid or advances in gay rights. But it has also taken centre stage in the most lurid moments of global affairs — the Holocaust and the wars in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

Younge expertly explores this dichotomy, and the book goes on to ask a question that one feels should be a constant for everyone, irrespective of social or political standing:

“to what extent can our various identities be mobilized to accentuate our universal humanity as opposed to separating us off into various, antagonistic camps?”

The most illuminating aspects of Younge’s book are the stories with which he opens each chapter to show how identities have been exploited at different junctures in history — such as the gradual change in women’s social status in Ireland from the changing attitudes to the Rose of Tralee competition to abortion laws; or the manipulation of race and gender in the 2008 US Presidential elections.

In the latter case, neither Hilary Clinton nor Barack Obama were standing on gender or racial platforms. Yet the dynamics of US society were such that these issues formed the crux of their campaigns. The fact that neither a woman nor a black man had stood for president before added to the inevitability of how the game was played out by politicians and media commentators.

Stories undoubtedly help us make sense of our place in the world and what Younge is expertly doing through these examples is showing us the innate complexity of identity.

Our place in the world can change depending on which aspect of our identity is under debate, or as is so often the case, attack. You might be black, Mexican and gay, and so involved at different times in a fight for the validity of your national, political or marital rights. As Younge frames it:

“We are many things at once and at all times we are also the same thing — ourselves. Any form of identity politics that seeks to diminish that multiplicity or rank identities into some pre-ordained hierarchy will inevitably end in distortion.”

That’s why singular identity politics can never work, as Amartya Sen before Younge noted in his book ‘Identity and Violence’. Younge reiterates the point, making prescient reference to the identity which has dominated political and media discourse since at least 2001 — that of the Muslim.

Critics, adherents, sceptics, everyone it seems has an opinion about the Muslim identity. Ultimately, that opinion boils down to the identity being an unacceptable one:

“When Muslims do bad things, it is never about [them as] individuals,their flaws, national customs, societal pressure or political and economic context. It is about Islam.”

The recent online campaign, #MuslimApologies made this very point with wit and insight, as thousands of people took to Twitter to apologise for every conceivable ill in the world and to highlight the positive associations of the Muslim identity.

The vagaries of identity politics

It isn't just identity politics that comes deservedly under attack. Younge artfully critiques the notion of diversity in “the corporatized and marketized world” as little more than a desperate whitewash, “the difference that makes no difference, the change that brings no change”:

“Having eviscerated from the issue of representation all notions of fairness, equality and justice, ‘equal opportunities’ morphs effortlessly into photo opportunities; a way of making things look different and act the same.”

So how can we ever make progress in such a climate, when power struggles have always clouded the progress of humanity, where war and inequality are the hallmarks of our existence?

Younge highlights that despite a history of division, the past century has seen humankind make significant strides in elevating the rights of women, black people, the gay community and religious minorities.

There is cause for hope and Younge’s intelligent analysis of the issue is an invaluable point of departure for anyone concerned with the shape of humanity’s future:

“The problem is not that diversity exists, it is what we choose to make of it. In short, do we understand our various identities as being part of our common humanity or as something separate, above and beyond it?”

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