Social Affairs

The delusion of ‘radical’ identity politics

“Identity is a matter of setting up similarities and differences between people” 

Taye Negussie (PHD)

Since the end of the Cold War, we have been witnessing a resurgence of a ‘radical’ identity politics–a political passion which aims to create a social order supposedly under a single, ‘master’  identity to an effective exclusion of many more other worthwhile forms of social identities.

In its ambition to bring a certain identity to prominence, a fanatical identity politics inadvertently ends up imposing a “real” or “imagined” and politically expedient form of identity onto all members of a social entity irrespective of their individual uniqueness. More often than not, the targets of these “radical” ideologies are the ancient identities of ethnicity, religion and race among others.

Don’t get me wrong, though; I dare say this with the full awareness of (and even feeling sympathetic to) those moderate social movements which strive for the cause of their legitimate rights while acknowledging the relative significance of all other identities.

I would say what lies behind the passion for ‘radical’ ideologies of identities are often a gross misconception or incompetence to grasp the true nature of social identity–its multiplicity, complexity, fluidity and dynamism.

All recent atrocities – think of mass killings and genocides – committed against humans by their human brethren in places like former Yugoslavia, Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Somalia, Iraq and to a certain extent in Kenya and Ethiopia (in the early 1990s) and considerable violence against innocent people in many more other places are powerful reminders of what will eventually be borne out of an unfounded, narrow, illusory and faulty conception of identity.

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Richard Jenkins, one of the noted authorities in the field, defines social identity as “our understanding of who we are and of who other people are, and, reciprocally, other people’s understanding of themselves and others”.

If you ask someone to identify his identity you often get overwhelming responses ranging from marital status, social status, income level, and occupation to gender, ethnicity, religious or political affiliations and place of origin to psychological state, perceived ability, profession, and hobby.

A closer examination of the contents of all these possible responses that concern identity will signify either the individual’s presumed personal traits or social role with an implied sense of common identity – his shared meanings, ways of life, attitudes, values and beliefs among others.

Social scientists underscore that identity is not a”single thing”. People are not necessarily confined to a single identity, but can choose from a wide range of identities; even people belonging to the same social group can have quite different identities.  People may also vary in identity complexity –some may have more identities than others.

In the words of Edward E. Jones, “the self is not a bowling ball”. People conceive themselves as having a rich and varied set of roles at different times and in different circumstances. So the issue of identity defies simple description. One particular type of identity could reflect the individual in one setting, and still another identity could reflect the same individual in another setting which, in short, illustrates the complexity of identity of individuals.

To Jenkins, identity is a matter of setting up similarities and differences between people. Thus, it is largely about negotiated meanings which are “socially constructed”; and as such it may not necessarily reflect “essential differences” between people. Depending on the nature of the social environment and personal characteristics, individuals may pick up their own presumed self-identity which defines them best in a given social context.

According to Woodland, instead of people feeling part of a single identity group, their identity becomes fragmented in terms of different identity groups. These categories of identity formation are not discrete but intersect, even within the life of an individual in ways which often conflict or contradict one another. Take for example the ways in which ethnicity and class can intersect in conflicting ways, as when a minority ethnic group may share an economic location with another dominant ethnic group in which case the divide of ethnicity may lessen the sense of shared class interest, or vice versa.

Similarly, people may also be torn apart by two differentially demanding identities leading to a phenomenon commonly known as a ‘moral dilemma’. A typical example of this would be when a person is faced with the difficult choice of privileging either one of two overlapping identities, say ethnicity and religious identity; to which one of these two competing identities will s/he tend to be more identified with?

Those obsessed with fanatic identity politics wrongly project their view of identity onto others, thinking that it is a ‘universal reality’ applicable in all social situations.  Yet, in truth, ideas about identity are culturally-bounded. In individually-oriented culture, identity is more about an issue of a personality trait; whereas in collectivist culture identity often refers to the role of the individual in a society.

An illustrative example of this in the Ethiopian context is apparently that of the difference presumed to exist between the Amhara sub-culture (reputed for its individualistic orientation) and the Tigray sub-culture (often associated with group-orientation). While in Amhara sub-culture individuals enjoy more autonomy as evidenced by D. N. Levine’s seminal scholarly work Wax and Gold and as further witnessed  by the arduous attempt of the ruling EPRDF party to implant the ideology of so-called ‘democratic ethnicism’ among the Amhara people; whereas in the Tigray sub-culture the emphasis is more on the group-tie; Among the Tigray, individuals are often addressed as ‘Wodi-somebody’, meaning ‘son of so-and-so’–signifying lineage as the center of identity. Notice the probable tendency of these two diverging sub-cultures to practicing individual rights and liberal democracy, and group rights and collective democracy respectively.

In short, the issue of identity development is a rather more complex, dynamic, vigorous, and contextual phenomenon in which people’s identity continually evolves and transforms in the course of unfolding events. Therefore, the idea that people possess a “fixed” and “unchanging” ‘master’ identity is just farce.

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