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A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity

Photo Source David Shankbone | CC BY 2.0

For 30+ years I taught a senior seminar course that I’d designed and titled The Politics of Personal Identity (or POPI). Limited to 12 students during their final college semester, it was a capstone course that endeavored to make sense of their liberal arts experience. Over the term we examined identity from every possible angle and their final assignment, announced the first day of class, was a 40-minute oral presentation titled “Who Am I? What Do I Believe? Why Do I Believe it?” This was followed by an extensive  Q & A from the other members. The ground rules were that nothing revealed in the presentations would be disclosed beyond the classroom.

In part, we relied upon McGill University professor Charles Taylor’s work to set our frame of reference of what it means to be a self, a human agent, a person. For Taylor, one’s identity is defined by knowing where one stands. That is, what are the commitments which provide the horizons upon which I base my actions in life, upon which I’m willing take a stand. In Taylor’s words and put counterfactually, “… if they were to lose this commitment or orientation they would be at sea, as it were; they wouldn’t know anymore, for an important range of questions, what the significance of things was for them.” If such a situation were to arise we would call it “an identity crisis,” a disorienting, radical uncertainly of where they stand. Put another way, to know who are is to know where you stand with regard to certain basic moral questions.

Taylor reminds us that people we judge as shallow also have a sense of what’s most important but for whatever reasons it’s not well thought out or simply given by the prevailing culture. People considered to have depth or character have moved beyond this or are struggling to know what they believe is the “good” or what issues truly have meaning for them. Taylor again: we are authentic selves not because we possess livers and hearts but because we can answer the question “Who Am I?” How are my most critical defining relations lived out? What kind of life is worth living? Does my life amount to something?  Where is my allegiance? How did I get where I am today and where is this quest heading?

Each year I invited professors and administrators as guest speakers and asked them to address these questions. All of them were highly educated, amiable, decent liberals with fixed ideas about the bounds of political action. I was both surprised and perplexed that most of them declined my offer. Those who enthusiastically agreed, included a radical political science professor, our academic dean who’d been a member of the Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE) and the college’s president. The latter had been deeply influenced by the anti-Vietnam war protests, the civil rights movement and his deep religious convictions. An ordained minister, his studies had included exposure to liberation theology.

What about those who demurred? I could be wrong but at best, my sense was some of them did not feel confident their answers would survive a robust Q & A session. At worst, they had indefinitely deferred looking too deeply into this matter. Why? Taking liberties with and updating the Bible (John 8:32, KJV) we might say that the truth about how the world works will set you free. But first, it can be forbiddingly unsettling.

Over my career I learned that college teaching permits one to hide behind a role without necessarily disclosing much about oneself.  And the longer one avoids this confrontation while investing time and resources into other notions of identity, the more uncomfortable and risky it becomes to do so. This is one reason some radicals now elect to dialogue almost exclusively with younger folks, a choice I understand but can’t emulate.

Further, I would argue that the closer one’s identity approximates how the world works and ought to work, the less this particular threat is a problem. How to move people to undertake this quest remains an exceedingly vexing question but one that requires answers. In my view, giving up is not an option. As Howard Zinn once noted, almost everyone who’s now a radical began as a liberal. Certain early experiences, patient mentors, the luxury of time, access to resources and frankly, just plain luck, all played a part. In short, some of us might exhibit a bit more humility.

Finally, I would argue that science, if done properly, can help provide the basis for morality. The supposed split between facts and values is a myth perpetuated by philosophers and anthropologists pushing cultural relativism. That is, there are better and worse ways of structuring the global economy to maximize the opportunities for human enrichment and fulfillment. Some moral values are better than others. We shouldn’t shy away from that debate because we would prevail by carefully explaining — with evidence — how global capitalism is the primary cause of general human misery, everything from material conditions to massive alienation.

Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. His most recent book is EMPATHY IMPERILED: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain (NY: Springer Publishing, 2013). Contact: olsong@moravian.edu