I noted last month that personal and social identity is a problem for people today. No one seems sure where it comes from, what it’s for, or what difference it should make.
The natural attitude, it seems, is that to some extent we’re born with it—I was born male and the son of two particular people, and those things are part of who I am—and to some extent we acquire it, normally through our actions and intentions and acceptance by others. My wedding, and my reception into the Church, helped form my identity.
As to function, personal and social identity normally serve as basic organizing principles of human life. They tell us who we are, which helps us think coherently about what to do, and they tell others what they can expect of us. So they have always accounted for much of the institutional aspect of society, the differentiated positions and responsibilities that are necessary for a collectivity to function.
Consider, for example, men, women, and the natural family that has always seemed the basis of social order. Or religious identity, Catholicism in traditional Europe for example, and the wide range of social expectations, relations, and functions it has accounted for.
What makes identity a problem today is that influential people now think about society in a way that breaks the link between traditional identities and legitimate social functioning. They’ve adopted a technocratic ideal that says that rational action consists in the orderly and efficient use of available resources for whatever goals happen to be chosen. Everyone equally chooses goals, so on such a view the just and rational society is one that reliably and efficiently gets everyone what he wants, as much and as equally as possible.
The people now running things agree that such a society can best be approximated through a sort of EU writ large: a system based on world markets supervised and supplemented by transnational bureaucracies run by experts on economics, social welfare, and human rights. Such a system—which on current understandings is the only truly legitimate social order—has its own way of functioning. It wants workers, functionaries, and consumers, and it makes use of people in accordance with their wealth, organizational position, certified competencies, and the like, but it has no use whatever for traditional identities, which it sees as irrational and disruptive.
Those who accept that ideal—basically, everyone who counts in public life today—therefore believe that traditional identities must be suppressed for the sake of a just and efficient society. That’s difficult, because people are attached to them, so what’s done is what liberal society has done with religion: agree that traditional identities are of course very important for those attached to them, but insist that they have no legitimate public significance, and everyone can define them for himself.
So today you can customize your gender on Facebook to whatever you want, and government ensures that your choice makes no difference by imposing draconian penalties on people who fail to grant every choice equal recognition and participation in all aspects of social life. Those procedures are supplemented by endless propaganda about the oppressiveness of the old system and the glories of the new: the old socially-supported roles of wife and mother were inhumanly oppressive, we are told, but it’s liberating to work low-paid clerical or service jobs and raise gender-questioning children as a single mom relying for assistance on electronic entertainment and government-provided social services.
But (examples aside) how beneficial is the new system? I’ve touched on some of the issues before. Radically weakening traditional identities, and the social arrangements they support—family, religion, nation, cultural community—means a lot of unsatisfied needs. Traditional identities gave people a position in a moral and human cosmos by telling them who they are, what the system of the world is like, and how they fit into it. People need that, because money can’t buy everything we live by, even when it’s supplemented by smartphones and therapeutic social service bureaucracies. We’re social beings rather than Nietzschean supermen able to will our own moral reality, or machines able to dispense with such concerns.
What, for example, do people do with sex in the Brave New World now rising? Traditional identities related our physical being, and the physiological and psychological impulses and functions to which it gives rise, to social being and functioning. That helped us connect private life to life in society and make sense of them together. Self-defined do-it-yourself identities can’t do that, even if they could otherwise succeed in making sense of a situation so complex, subtle, and far-reaching, because they aren’t allowed social relevance. Whether you’re male, female, two-spirit, or genderqueer is now considered a private construction with no particular significance to others. The predictable result of that and related trends is that sex is a mess, and the situation won’t be made better by insisting on further progress on the same lines.
Man is social, and people orient themselves by what matters socially. If they aren’t allowed to place themselves by reference to traditional identities they will do so by reference to what’s allowed to matter, career and ideological correctness. It’s not OK to think you have a place in the world because you’re a white male, but it’s definitely OK to think that because you’re a Yale or Harvard-educated lawyer with correct views on social matters. After all, in America we’re willing to accept rule by an unelected committee of such people. Hence the obsessive competition to get into the most prestigious schools, and the endless moral signaling people use to align themselves with prestigious ideological views.
However, only a minority can aspire to enough success to make career aspirations a usable guide to life. Not everyone can climb the corporate ladder, and institutions such as Yale and Harvard exclude almost all applicants for the sake of defining a very small ruling elite. Also, it’s hard for people who aren’t devoted careerists or their hangers-on to see the world from the favored ideological perspective, since that perspective mostly has to do with divvying up promotions and running a system of top-down social management.
So current trends deprive ordinary people of a system of identity that works for them. For that reason many become anxious, confused, weakly connected socially, and increasingly non-functional as they fall prey to addictions, distractions, resentments, and other self-destructive behavior. It’s possible such people will pull together and turn to something much better, like a serious and grounded form of religion. The easier course, though, is to continue the slide, or turn obstinate and rebel, most directly through vehement assertion of a perhaps disconnected aspect of traditional identity. That is why respectable people think “fascism” when they see Brexit or Trump.
So what to do?
As always, the ultimate issue is the nature of the world. The West has ended up where it is because the idea of objective goods and ultimately a divine order has been rejected as a violation of human freedom. But if purposes are arbitrary choices, man is no longer social and rational by nature, since he could equally choose isolation and insanity. In the absence of stable and reliable identities, he becomes whatever “we“—meaning the most willful and powerful—make him, and the triumph of the will becomes the basis of human reality.
That approach is not going to end well, and it doesn’t illuminate the world we live in. Catholics must take those points to heart. The ideals of the secular liberal world are profoundly opposed to ours, and they’re not leading people anyplace very good, so we should pointedly refuse to go along with them. Rather than tricking out Catholic teachings so they look like something they aren’t, we should emphasize their distinctiveness, especially their natural law aspects, and most particularly those that support stable human identities like male, female, and marriage.
The way one fundamental view replaces another is that those who reject the first start debunking it in theory and promoting and living by their own view. That’s how liberationist views won in the 60s—they had a long history before that when they were despised, but eventually boldness, persistence, and the disarray of their opponents carried the day. So to deal with the present situation Catholics need to make a sustained effort to articulate, justify, and live by their own beliefs, and bring back the the idea of the world as a naturally and divinely ordered system—a cosmos—in which we all have a part. Catholicism deals with with the very largest issues, and it rejects current views on them. We should act like people who believe that.
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