Identity and discomfort

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Discussions about identity appear to be complicated, because it is not clear what is morally right: do we have to give up the values that we currently maintain, because they hurt the feelings of some people? Surely we don’t want to hurt other people, but is that reason enough to give up everything just like that? Or is it much more straightforward, as our liberal moral principles instruct us that we must counteract every social inequality. Here I will argue for that this is indeed the case. The fact that the liberal principles are intrinsically inconsistent does not change that.

Few debates are as frustrating as debates about identity and emancipation. Discussions about gender-neutral toilets, new letters added to the LHBT series, the heritage of slavery, women’s quota in politics and equal pay in business, and so on, they all seem to end in a deadlock of positions. Parties that pursue equality, parties that ridicule the politically correctness of it all, and other parties that feel that their own identity is threatened by all those progressive thoughts of marginal groups.

The frustrating thing is that everyone appeals to the justice of their own position (and thus to the injustice of the opponents’ positions), without having  clear way to cut this moral knot.

I will try to do so anyway (which is likely to lead to anger and disappointment among some readers). The moral starting point is that of liberal democracy, which assumes principles that are based on a division between a public and a private sphere. This division into spheres provides the freedom for individuals to decide for themselves how they want to live, but it also ensures tolerance for those who think differently.

In non-liberal societies, and that is the vast majority of all societies that have ever existed, a certain class, such as a caste, gets preferential treatment. Individuals are primarily members of their class, with the boundaries between those classes being stable and impenetrable. Liberal societies have reversed this order: egalitarian principles apply to society as a whole, without any individual having a higher or lower rank. It may sound somewhat counter-intuitive, but it is that emphasis on equality that makes produces the possibility of freedom – liberalism is not named liberalism by accident.

The trick is to have a sharp boundary between a public and private sphere. In the public sphere everyone is equal. In the private sphere you can choose what you find important, how you want to live, what you like, what you believe in, what you spend your money on, what sexual orientation you have, and so on.

In other words, our private spaces allow us to be ‘ourselves’, it is the atmosphere of the intimate, of the authentic. Here we are allowed to discriminate: we choose our loved ones, our friends, our club, our church, excluding others without any problems.

The public domain is characterized by general principles that are collectively agreed on. In this, it is above all the state that ensures that the equality of the public sphere by presenting neutral rules, laws and procedures.

But is the distinction between public and private really as sharp as we assume it is? Not really. We can oppose the sphere of intimate homeliness with the chilly sphere of the state, but that is by no means the only way to assign the ‘public’ and the ‘private’ to social spheres. For example, the not so warm sphere of the market is also considered to be private, while life on the streets can be seen as public. You could say that the notion of public can be used to describe everything that has something to do with things that are ‘open’ or ‘collective’, while you can use the notion of private to describe things that are ‘closed’ or ‘individual’.

So because we are all together, we can see ourselves as public’’, if something is not secret, then it is ‘public’ knowledge, but a store that is accessible to everyone is part of the ‘private’ sector, because it is not a provision of the state.

It is a terminological mess, which is rather unfortunate because to a large extent the categories public and private determine how we think about equality and inequality, about solidarity and freedom, about justice and honesty, about authenticity and fraternity.

The use of only two concepts for a multitude of social domains is not only confusing, it can also lead to exclusion and discrimination in ways that are sometimes barely visible.

Until recently, women had access only to the private sphere of the house, being excluded from any public sphere that could be considered as public, be it street life, the economy or politics. It is not surprising that the term ‘public woman’ was a euphemism for prostitution – if a woman had not been tucked away in the private domain, then it had to be a woman of low morality.

Labourers have had access to public life of the street or the economy, but they were excluded from a political role until voting rights were given to the entire male population. But though you could vote as a labourer, you belonged to a class that ultimately had politically and socially less worth than others.

If liberal society wants to do justice to its own principles, such forms of institutionalized inequality cannot be accepted. Groups must be able to rely on equal opportunities to enter any public domain, whether it is the street, the state or the market.

Exclusion is not just a thing of the past: homosexuals can still feel that they have to hide their sexual identity; ethnic minorities and immigrants may still feel that they have no equal access to society; disabled people can be denied access to institutions. In all, there are still emergent groups of people who realize that they do not have equal opportunities.

It is important that it is not only about the pursuit for equality, but also – and perhaps even more so – about the pursuit for freedom. If you have access to public space, it does not matter which identity you have as a private person, you can be free.

At the same time, it is important to realize that exclusion not only means that a member of a certain group does not have access to public domains, which allows that this person to decide for herself how she wants to live her life. It also means that this person must take up a role that comes with the membership of the group. Such a person is not an autonomous individual, but primarily a representative of a group. Perhaps not as stringently as it used to be, but as a woman you are often firstly a woman and as an immigrant you are often firstly an immigrant – only in second instance you can be an individual.

Identity, equality and freedom seem to be cross-linked in a paradoxical way. This leads to many issues that come to play a role in current discussions about emancipation.

Is the public debate about what is private?

Freedom is about the identity that you want to develop as an individual within a private environment. Nobody else needs to know what you do at home. That is also the starting point for emancipation, but it is only via a public debate about what can be considered private that such a freedom may be achieved. As a heterosexual, I can choose my partner, nobody will dispute that. Until recently it was totally different for a homosexual, the right to choose a partner freely had to be enforced via the public debate. For many, this right still does not come naturally.

How do you redistribute recognition instead of money?

Social inequality in liberal democracy has long been the domain of Marxist analysis, which understands exclusion mainly in socio-economic terms. In fact, the welfare state has been developed to facilitate socio-economic equality. This certainly has been a huge success. But today’s emancipation is not about money, but about recognition: it has to be admitted that groups of people have been given a role in the past that they have not been able to choose for themselves. This also involves the recognition of the historical injustice induced to minorities, the recognition that there are more gender identities than just male or female and the recognition that women still have to fight stereotypes. All this requires different redistribution methods than we are used to, it requires that people admit that they were wrong – and only few people are inclined to do so.

Is it about a group or about an individual?

Emancipatory movements focus on a certain characteristic, such as a belief, an economic class or gender. In this way, individuals inevitably become members of a collective, they become a representative of that specific characteristic. This makes it inevitable that the emancipation of an individual will take place through emancipation of the group.

How universal is the specific?

Liberalism is based on universal moral truths, which boil down to the fact that we are all equal and that we all have the inalienable right to freedom. For now and forever. Emancipatory claims appeal to these universal truths, but this is done by referring to very specific issues such as a history or culture of a certain group, or a very specific type of gender preference.

Do you want to emancipate or not?

Emancipation is a reaction to the way in which a group is excluded on the basis of a certain characteristic, a belief, an ethnicity, a sex. Usually these are not properties that someone chooses, but which are imposed externally. You do not aspire the emancipation of women in order to become a woman, but to break through a role pattern that is bestowed upon a woman. You do not opt ​​for an ethnicity, but you strive that an ethnicity should not be an obstacle to have access to the public domain. You want recognition for the characteristic that is the cause of exclusion and you also want the recognition that that identity is of no importance, as in many cases it is not something you have chosen for.

Who can actually change anything?

Emancipation always goes the expense of existing power positions and ways of thinking. At the same time, the situation can only change through the cooperation of parties that have the leverage to enforce these changes. With that, change is not in their interest, but can only be based on a moral demand.

No one has to worry about a little inconsistency. In fact, nobody can live with a consistent world view. What is important is that such inconsistencies become an easy target of criticism and ridicule. For those connected to the alt right movement, it becomes easy to doubt the integrity and reasonableness of parties and individuals that strive for equality. Any emancipatory claim can be reproached by pointing out the inferiority and hypocrisy of the underlying argumentation.

For example, you hear how men are threatened in their masculinity by feminism. Men no longer have the freedom to be men, but have to conform to imposed role patterns imposed by the politically-correct elite. This leads to the provocative question about whose freedom is most important.

That may sounds very relevant and well-considered, but the cherished masculinity has come at the expense of women’s freedom to gain access to the public domain for centuries. In fact, it suggests that freedom and equality are not the same for everyone and that those who have received it by chance do not have to change anything. The point is that no one’s freedom is more important than that of another. That is not politically correctness, but that is justice.

Many of the opposing voices in this debate are simply reactionary. Parties that feel threatened in their power position, revolt by pointing out the inevitable contradictions that come with emancipation.

But other opposing voices are not necessarily reactionary. Many people that feel attacked do not belong to groups of people who are threatened in their current position – because they hardly have such a position to begin with. This mainly concerns those who are the victims of globalization, who have now become surrounded by politically correct elites and large groups of immigrants.

Unlike reactionary comments, you must take these voices seriously. They refer to the vulnerability and the loss of stability, which both can be seen as a significant impairment of a person’s self-esteem. If you lose your job, it is not only annoying because you no longer have income, but also because it seems to say that all your previous efforts were useless. If you have went to a ladies’ or men’s room for all of your life, why would someone suddenly tell you that you should not do this any longer. Don’t you not have a right to a historically formed identity, to your own values ​​and experiences? Is the identity of other groups more important than that of your own group?

Certainly not. Also here is inequality and also here is are roles imposed upon people, this is the role of the ‘deplorables’, as coined by Hillary Clinton: those who cannot change and do not want to change. This is as unjust a label as any other stereotype. Everyone can and should be expected to reconsider positions and practices if a legitimate moral claim is made to equality – only then can we actually fulfil the liberal promises.

Further reading:

Fraser, N. (2000). Rethinking recognition. New left review, 3, 107.

Minogue, K. (1963). The moral character of liberalism: The Liberal Mind, Indianapolis, in: Liberty Fund.

Pesch, U. (2005). The Predicaments of Publicness. An Inquiry into the Conceptual Ambiguity of Public Administration. Delft: Eburon.

Weintraub, J. (1997). The Theory and Politics of the Public/Private Distinction. In J. Weintraub & K. Kumar (Eds.), Public and Private in Thought and Practice. Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy (pp. 1-42). Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.

Young, I. M. (1986). The ideal of community and the politics of difference. Social theory and practice, 12(1), 1-26.


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