There’s an old joke that instead of a “human being,” you should try to be a “human doing.” The idea is that there’s nothing special about simply existing, and that it’s your actions that give your life value and meaning. In 21st century America, however, identity is seemingly the only thing that matters. Everyone, and young people in particular, is forever asking the question “who am I?” to which the answer inevitably comes in the form of a variety of prefabricated labels. Everything from race, gender, and sexual orientation to religious and political beliefs, occupation, health status—even hobbies—becomes a part of a person’s self-image. Ask them to describe themselves, and you’re likely to get some variant of “I’m a Hispanic cisgender bisexual neurodivergent educator and a progressive atheist eco-feminist gardener.”
Now, let me be quick to say that I’m not here to critique any of those individual labels. What I’m questioning is whether the very concept of identity as we now know it is helpful to the way we interact with one another, how we build communities, and how we communicate.
This question sprung to mind as I was listening to a historian discussing the question of whether Shakespeare might have been gay. The answer to that question is uninteresting to me—in fact, I tend to think a person’s race, gender, and sexual preferences are generally the least interesting things about them—but what struck me was the discussion of how identity was viewed differently in the past. The concept of homosexuality as an individual identity, the historian explained, was quite new. In the past, it was acknowledged that some people were attracted to and had sexual relationships with members of the same sex, but these were largely regarded as actions rather than states of existence. In other words, homosexuality was something to do, not something to be. The concept of “being gay” simply didn’t exist, at least not the way it does now.
While it is dangerous to romanticize the past, in which many unenlightened attitudes flourished, I also think there’s great value in trying to get inside the minds of our predecessors and understand how they saw the world. Applying modern perspectives to the study of history is a surefire way to avoid really understanding anything, and only serves to make us feel superior to our ancestors. But the study of history with an empathetic mind can provide some badly needed context for why things are the way they are today.
In the case of homosexuality, it’s easy to see some good reasons why attitudes have changed. It’s easier to criminalize and persecute someone for their actions as opposed to for living in accordance with their nature. As homosexuals sought to escape persecution, incorporating their sexual orientation into their identity made it easier for people to understand that they were not deviant criminals, but rather ordinary folks looking for loving relationships just like their heterosexual friends and neighbors. So far as it goes, that’s certainly a good thing.
But when the focus on identity becomes too central to our understanding of individuals, it can cause problems. The political left understands this, as they have been instrumental in pushing back against, for example, the concept of criminality as an identity. For many years, criminologists attempted to explain criminal behavior by assuming that criminality was inherent in the personality of wrongdoers. Pseudosciences like phrenology and physiognomy were used to attempt to identify “the criminal type” based on their facial features and skull shape. But of course, we now understand that most criminals are made not born, and that it’s natural for good people to do bad things under the right (or wrong) circumstances. For this reason, the left has promoted the use of alternate terminology to decenter identity. Instead of labeling people “criminals,” it’s better to talk about people who have committed crimes. Instead of “slaves,” we have “enslaved persons.” Instead of “the disabled” we have “persons with disabilities.” While linguistically clunky, the logic behind these changes is clear: it can be harmful define someone by their misfortunes or by a single bad decision.
And yet, when it comes to other aspects of life, the left could not be more enthusiastic about affixing identities to themselves and others. The question “how do you identify?” has become a standard ice breaker, replacing old classics like “what do you do for a living?” or “do you have any hobbies?”.
Why is this a problem? To answer that, let’s go to Chris Rock in his role as Rufus the 13th apostle in Kevin Smith’s biblical comedy Dogma, speaking about belief structures:
“I just think it’s better to have ideas. I mean, you can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier. People die for it. People kill for it.”
I think the same complaint can be made about identities. If your religion is part of your identity, then when people question or disagree with it, they are not just questioning an idea, but instead levelling an attack on you as a person. If you identify as a socialist, then any evidence that socialism is a bad idea will be interpreted as an existential threat, potentially leading to the cosmic horror of ego death. These threats must be dealt with purely as a self-defense mechanism. The result is that it becomes nearly impossible to communicate with those who have different ideas. You can see this most clearly in the transgender activism community, where it is routinely asserted that critics “deny our right to exist.”
As far as I know, virtually no one in America is denying transgender people’s right to exist, but if your identity is completely wrapped up in being trans then it’s easy to see how legitimate questions about the biology of sex and gender could be interpreted as a personal attack, even when it’s not intended as such. But when disagreements are perceived as assaults, it becomes impossible to communicate, to empathize, and to remain flexible in our thinking.
An example in which I believe identity is causing real harm comes from the hearing impaired community. In some families, being deaf is so much a part of their identity that they reject medical interventions that could allow their children to hear, such as cochlear implants. They see the operation not as a way to improve their child’s quality of life, but as an attack on their individuality. Similar issues are occurring with fat activism and body positivity, where the encouragement of healthier lifestyles is interpreted as an attack on the overweight, and the mental health community, where questions about the wisdom and efficacy of SSRIs can spark violent emotional reactions. If you define yourself by your status as a psychiatric patient, anything that suggests an alternative will naturally be viewed as a threat.
Personally, I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of identity. I’ve been playing guitar for more than twenty years, yet I would hesitate to call myself “a guitarist.” When I became interested in paganism, it was years before I was comfortable calling myself “a pagan.” I always regarded these as things I do, not things I am, and have always felt somewhat bemused by my friends’ eagerness to jump headfirst into a new identity as soon as they pick up a new hobby. Of course, I am not without guilt here, as I do call myself a libertarian and an anarchist, but now I’m starting to rethink whether using those labels is wise. Maybe it’s better to have an idea that we would be better off with less government and more personal freedom without making it a core component of my identity.
Perhaps the hyperpolarization, so bemoaned in our country, can be partially attributed to the fact that everyone is quick to assimilate their views into their identity. If we want to restore communication, heal relationships, and hope to understand each other once more, maybe we should focus less on our status as human beings, and try to see ourselves as human doings.