To my mind, the key controversy of our time revolves around the notion of identity. Identity politics seems to be the rule of the day. But what is meant by identity? How does one define himself? In the existential sense, this is the familiar confrontation of the self with the self. This confrontation manifests itself in the creation and deconstruction of “boundaries.” Boundaries are necessitated by and presumed in identity. When someone elaborates on who he is, any number of responses can be sensible or implied by the context of the question: I am a man; I am a Christian; I am a soldier; I am a Mac user; I am a good person. The most holistic yet most open answer one could give is their name: I am Lee. Clearly, the intricacies of identity are delineated by means of language, communally accepted terms which grant meaning to that which is identified by means of distinguishing it out from the rest of the world. The distinctiveness of meaning attempts to capture a concept for both individual understanding and communication, but can only do so by separating the identified from the entire remainder of reality. So language, and therefore identity in its deepest sense, requires boundaries. In short, whenever I seek to identify who I am, I always and necessarily must define myself as separate from and in relation to all that is not me.
One might argue the person can approach the question of identity in a pre-linguistic manner. While this may be worthwhile, it problematically requires communicating a pre-linguistic experience in the very language which that experience cannot utilize to speak for itself. But even if one grants this possibility (I actually do), one’s intuitive understanding of her physical identity extends that identity to that which she can control and feel, what some phenomenologists have termed the “I-Can.” The “I-Can” is inherently bounded and one discovers its limits only through the body’s relation to the rest of the world. Similarly, the “I-Can” is limited in time. Prior to birth and following death, the intuitive physical identity departs. The body is at best a shadow of the former self, incapable of a self-understanding. And finally, if we extend the possibility of “I” past the “I-Can” even just theoretically, though the person can act as a lens for the totality of her experience, she is still limited to that experience which she does not create, though she may participate within it and rearrange it. The point remains, identity always presupposes boundaries and relations, whether linguistic or purely experiential.
The questions of identity reach back as far as history and are in no way unique to this age. However, while the questions themselves may not be new, the answers we have to give to those questions are rising in significance and contention at an international level. We have reached such a point in history where the combination of technology, wealth, and leisure frees many in the West from the once universally accepted pains of existence, specifically those limitations once considered to be member to “human nature.” In the United States, there is little serious fear of war or famine; medication minimally anesthetizes us to disease and sickness; our innumerable liberties to choose our vocations, sexual preferences, entertainment mediums, and niche communities continually expand. As a singular result, a strong sense of selfhood or identity is no longer cast upon us by some extraneous, pragmatic need linked to survival or perpetuity. The existential question of identity, who am I, looms deep in our conscious as we confront the sins of our history that have produced us and in some way subconsciously defined us. Our modern circumstances have created space for this question to come forth with renewed vigor, and in unmasking the insufficiency of many commonly accepted cultural answers to identity, radically new answers and non-answers are making themselves known.
This renewed struggle with identity, both personal and collective, has manifested itself in a conflict at once desperate to destroy all the old boundaries of self-definition and to erect new ones with heightened levels of intensity. In a similar spirit, a counter-movement of revivifying those old boundaries has also launched. When I mention the old boundaries of self-definition, think of the cultural structures designed to bequeath us with self-understanding and purpose, like the demands of manhood or womanhood, the obligations of marriage, the duties of a citizen, the ethical presuppositions of the professions, or the demands of an honor code. But what we find with the fall of these “social constructions” is (un)surprising, for instead of an amorphous liberty, new social constructions are created, and I would attest inevitably so. We find the odd uprising of safe spaces and identity politics on the left and the Benedict Option and Trump’s rise (and the wall Mexico has yet to build) on the right, which all seek to erect cultural or literal boundaries. The modern political divides essentially tend toward differences in how we conceive of identity, for these are all controversies surrounding whether specific boundaries of cultural conformity should rise or fall, cordoning off perceived affronts on the answer to the question of who we are.
In both the destructive and defensive attitudes exposed in confronting this question of identity and boundaries stalks the animalistic tendencies of man, the preference for power and control and their guarantees of assuring liberty and stability. It is politically expeditious to appeal to our baser proclivities, which long for the triumph of the in-group over the out-group and find organization under cheap slogans and shallow banners of clothing styles and mannerisms. The left and right of popular politics generally offer only two sides of the same coin; they reflect the fractured populace as much as they encourage it. There is a powerful joy which comes to us with the victory of our tribe and the defeat of our alleged opponent, and this fundamental human reality is now openly used and manipulated in the theater of politics. The democratic purpose is to bundle as many identities up as possible into the Right or Left voting blocks, which creates political efficacy but always at the expense of diminishing and cheapening the complex, nuanced reality of individuals and communities. Movements such as feminism, intersectionality, the Alt-Right, and Trumpism all bear a common failure to supersede the tribal; for whatever good their critiques or defenses of modernity, they lack the existential courage to provide an adequate answer to the question of identity as such, or maybe more aptly, the question of teleology.
Beneath the emphatic cordoning off of identities in response to the question of who am I, the question most forgotten and ignored is the why am I, the purpose of why one exists, which I will term the teleological question. It is my contention that the oft-ignored why is inescapable in the question of who. The thickness of identity, that is the multitude and rigidity of the boundaries which shape the identity, leads to certain conflict as the boundaries defining the disparate identities of individuals and communities intersect, finding their instantiations in the world at odds with one another. The overwhelming emphasis on the “who” hides the repressed yearning of the “why.” It is the “why” which gives the question of identity its dynamism. Teleological assumptions are smuggled in with the surface concerns of identity proper. It is the hidden teleology in these identity movements, hidden to most of their own participants, in which I find both hope and fear. Teleology drives such movements, and the inner logic of that drive only gradually reveals itself at the appropriate and opportune moments, when the logic and spirit of the populace have been effectively prepared for further acceptance of once unacceptable conclusions. The twentieth century is unfortunately rife with examples of well-developed nations who effectively recreate popular notions of identity in short time and to evil ends. From thence flows my fear. My hope is in the ubiquitous though repressed question of the why with which every identity (i.e. person and community) must ultimately struggle. The simple transcendence of the question offers a hope for a common longing and a possibility of communion.
As America has fractured into different tribes of identity lacking any common ground of self-understanding, communities old and new grasp for cultural and political power. They contend more often on the level of identity and not on the level of purpose. With unusual self-awareness, new communities vie for the means to reconstruct all boundaries of identity and acceptance to their preference, with varying metaphysical perspectives dictating society’s proper recalibration. However, nearly all these movements offer only a trade of one tyrant for another, and in that sense, they are all as old as humanity. The undiscussed purpose for which these groups exist is for the dominion of their identity, which inevitably leads to the subordination of other identities (an outcome inherent to the possibility of identity itself). The admittedly basic libertarian goal of maximal freedom for the individual would appear noble, but it misses the key insight of both liberal and conservative that individuals are inextricably communal.
On a side note, some of my educated friends have gone the full gambit in declaring boundaries as inherently fascist, and have fallen into the postmodern impossibility of simply ignoring the question of identity, since any answer is always constructed and therefore unreal. The “I” becomes a deep-seated lie in this assessment, and their only safety is ironically in courting the void. The logic essentially attests that if we eliminate all the boundaries of definition, then the historic struggle of identity groups will finally cease. The postmodern saint ends in a form of suicide (if not a literal one, e.g. Deleuze), a thin identity which ultimately longs for no identity. Nonetheless, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the popular conservatives and some of those quaint enough to declare their belief in “science,” continue to cling to older ramparts of meaning while either not understanding for what purpose these boundaries were erected, not understanding the social constructive aspects of these boundaries, or consciously lionizing past boundaries of identity (and knowingly participating in the power struggle of the identity politics of the left). They therefore struggle to segregate good from evil with greater precision than those postmoderns who have already declared such a question intrinsically meaningless. Where intuitions may lead many people of all backgrounds aright, pure intuition is unreliable amidst the cultural pressures which constantly shape it. The true tyranny of our time exists in the manipulation of these cultural pressures. They not only shape identity, of which we are fully aware, but they shape teleology. If we fail to confront the more difficult questions of identity and purpose with intellectual acuity and deliberation, violence and oppression will invariably arise.
Violence, defined as harm committed against a person, is dependent upon our definition of “person,” and therefore again asks the question of identity. In the new anarchy of identity, violence has naturally expanded in perceived application. Actions now sought to be defined as violence (a notable example is the expansion of the term “microaggression”) were once understood as more benign, perhaps the necessary constraints of civil society or an adherence to natural law or the accident of language. The question of the new “violence,” once sought its definition by comparing the differing moral sensibilities of cultures and even species to judge one’s own. In a sense, the hope was to discover a universal ethic or identity amid all the cultural differentiation by which to abide. However, this pursuit proved a failure following much historical intellectual assessment. A radical new faith has replaced it, which places hope in the ability to reconstruct reality from the bottom up, beginning with the individual subject, which is commonly understood as the defining denominator of reality. “Necessity” can no longer be considered an applicable term to reality, as all things gain their reality in relation to other things; in other words, reality is defined by relationships, not things, and as subjective beings, it is we who manipulate and create meanings from these said relationships using language and technology. In this scheme, we have a near and practical infinitude in the manipulative possibilities of such referents and therefore of conceivable identities. I personally contend that necessity is smuggled into this picture since our ability to reshape reality still depends on the nature of the reality to which we are presented (space, time, our limitation by other subjects) which limits the “reshaping” itself. Confidence in that manipulation is simply overstated. Even if existence precedes essence, essence precedes practical self-awareness. We are objects as well as subjects. Finally, the conception of limitless, conceivable identity proves too much, ultimately relinquishing the vestures of any sort of morality or humanism to the nihilistic power struggle most such advocates would like to deny. This is so only because “reshaping” still requires a telos; strictly speaking, “reshaping” can never be “recreating.” Again, no matter what we may attempt or think possible, being and becoming always first asks why. To what end is existence?
This radical new faith in humanity to defy all impositions of Nature or Nature’s God has profound effects for the notion of “violence.” In the lay sense, this reconceiving of the universe to ever declare “violence” as any conflict against such a radically expansive view of identity minimizes all forms of violence, traditionally understood, as it forces violence not only to widen in definition but also to become egalitarian in reckoning. While one may be tempted to simply state that violence must always entail the unnecessary creation of pain (or some similar formula), pain is at least as much psychological as well as physical, and the social burdens and constrictions placed upon the individual radically transcend sheer physicality. While there is important truth to the consideration of this higher aspect of harm, physical pain can easily become subordinated in significance to the pain inflicted by cultural limitation or obligation. The attempt at the self-liberation by ever expanding the definition of violence to decry the impositions of reality and culture almost certainly leads toward the practical and begrudging (and self-referentially “justified”) acceptance of actual physical violence enacted against any person or thing which would stand in the way of this liberation. It is not that pain is unreal; rather, pain is prodded into the fore of consciousness and used as justification for any number of good or evil deeds. Significantly, pain where it is felt is often a touchstone for where individuals lay down their most essential boundaries of self-identity, which unwittingly conveys the depth at which pain and suffering reach into the depth of human being. But further thoughts on pain should probably await a later essay.
The issue with creating a hierarchy of significance to apply to different types of violence is that such a hierarchy is only possible if applied to a hierarchy of values defining the most essential aspects of selfhood, and such hierarchies entail limitations to self-definition and can only gain their credence through an understanding of meaning and truth that transcends power. In other words, a hierarchy of values concerning identity is not only existentially necessary for decision-making, but in itself necessitates the potential of a legitimate epistemology and ontology. Even if we ultimately believe in the nihilistic underbelly of reality, at the level of the populace, the myth of a true and knowable reality is necessary to the subjective self, if only for the pragmatic concern that most men cannot or will not contemplate reality at this level, let alone be able or willing to live in view of it. Thus, to radically reconstruct the populace brings us back to the justification of violence. That is, certain persons should be exempt from violent overtures while others will require bearing violence to conform themselves to the new standard of good, which is either the preference of certain identity groups over others or the attempted elimination of all thick identity groups whatsoever. And here lies the oft evil baggage of all such systems of thought. The end result of all this theoretical self-aggrandizement is actual violence and tyranny.
If I am asked for an answer to the enigma of identity and violence, I have little to offer in terms of a social plan, or activist movement, or policy scheme, as I think all such “programs” are in their very essence both symptomatic and perpetuating of the very problems we face. They deem individuals, in their mass as society, something to be controlled and manipulated for their own good, and they claim to understand man in his depth well enough to compel his change. Such programs are despicable both for their success and failure, at once wrapped up together, for in short, they make man what they need him to be by making him less of himself. For example, the technocratic, bureaucratic oligarchy which America has been gradually slipping into disperses responsibility into highly specialized committees of experts which gain their viability by writing and enforcing a virtual infinitude of highly technical laws, procedures, and customs. In such an environment, responsibility is replaced by strict adherence to experts who themselves only have very limited perspectives on how the laws they create influence the greater whole. Therefore, individuals are “liberated” from serious, reflective responsibility in regard to their actions and influence on the world and its future. Even the experts cannot be held accountable so easily for their own policies; their own limited perspectives and likely repose prior to intergenerational effects free them from that burden.
In this and similar systems, individuals are encouraged to lose even the awareness of self in greater relation to the world, preferring instead merely the search for that which makes me happy, which has become conflated with the search for who am I in the modern parlance. Self-fulfillment, as maximal self-satisfaction, is the teleological denominator of (what I will call) pseudo-identities. In this way, those who seek power wish to trade the deeper, more complex individual quest for identity for the acceptance of a pseudo-identity, a partial aspect of who we are. In the postmodern West, there is a lack of any structured worldview which offers a common language for revealing the eternal and transcendent elements of the human being which go beyond this glorified navel-gazing. Many are happy to accept these mass produced pseudo-identities focused on individual happiness and self-fulfillment to avoid the angst and dangers of seeing oneself in a fullness of conflicted relation with the world, others, and the self. Pseudo-identity leads especially to both the expansion of the term “violence” (defined as harm against this partial concept of a “self-formed” identity) and actual violence, as boundaries of the pseudo-identity become particularly stringent in light of their ambitious political weight.
I see most critiques of oppression, violence, and fascism as registered against those who typically find themselves on the right end of the political spectrum; however, one must be willing and able to see the applicability of all similar criticisms regardless of where and how they manifest, to include most crucially within ourselves. Oppression, in some sense, is inherent to being, because we all lay claim against another and are defined in relation to one another. However, to utilize the terms of “violence” and “oppression” in this discussion of relations and boundaries is to drag these emotionally loaded terms dangerously into the metaphysical sphere on the coattails of “identity,” especially since we no longer have a common ground for meaningful dialogue at that level of analysis. The pseudo-identity has become its own answer to the “why” of existence, a circular viewpoint, but highly vulnerable to the manipulation of cultural political powers. When I assess the new left from this vantage, victimhood is clearly the new sign of righteousness amidst the expansion of the definition of oppression. The lauded few rise to cultural power in a victim hierarchy justified by historical repression. Though it is a different sort of power, cultural power is just as capable of evil. If meaning and significance are defined as the justified ability to impact the world, then this leaves the vast majority in the lower echelons of the victimhood hierarchy not absent of political power, but rather absent of existential power. The new lower class may be cushioned in material comforts for now, but ultimately, the sense is that it would be better if they were not. The only way forward is that of penitential deference, but instead of a humbling before God, it again will be a humbling before man. Historical injustice is thus brought to keel by a new form of injustice, and as the new identities stack their own track records of injustice, they will eventually find themselves at the mercy of their own radical offspring, however they will manifest. Ironically, the rise of a victim class is only made culturally tenable by the set of values (charity, love, justice) that the old order avowed, even if only in name. As power trades hands, the question is if the new groups that rise to it can handle it justly. If their hidden teleologies are either those of the postmodern identitarian suicide or the inherited lie of “self-fulfillment,” my suspicion is that any true social justice will continue to evade us. To treat persons as inherently unjust based on their identities and not their souls (the teleological aspects, if I may) reveals the fascist potential in the depths of all human souls, whether leaning right or left.
My answer simply lies in a few concepts as old as any of us: paradox, mystery, the ineffable, vulnerability, humility, and sacrificial love. We must learn to re-conceive of our identities at a much more fundamental level of purpose which can at once reveal their fundamental fragility and even beauty. If we allow for vulnerability, humility, and love, the self does not self-destruct or yield to oppression, but changes in essence towards something no longer insular, but self-gifting and expansive, no longer concerned with utter self-preservation and fulfillment at the cost of all else. My personal encounter with this transition of being is seen in the kenosis or self-emptying of the Christian saint. Instead of finding ourselves attached to an island of self-significance, we become one with all significance. Not only is “I” defined in relation to “Thou,” but I am Thou. Such a paradoxical understanding of identity can only be made possible in the realization of the unclosed-self and the self’s participation in all things: the interweaving of all being which maintains both the particular identity and universal participation in paradoxical tension. Furthermore, this answer as to how identity should be properly constituted is less concerned with its immediate boundaries, but rather its teleological orientation. It allows identity to be conceived as purposed towards giving, in love, work, and beauty. The boundaries of identity, whether viewed as items of oppression or glory, properly dim in light of their purpose and in an ultimate sense their translucence. It strikes me that some reading this language could brush it off as the metaphysical ramblings of religious mysticism, but this reconceiving of self bears incredible practical reality. It fundamentally breaks us from the assumed necessity of tribe and the war of all against all by reaching for the common core of existence.
A fear of transcendence has held back many well-intentioned people from a confrontation with that element of the self which goes beyond their stable comforts and desires. It is easier to pretend this aspect of identity either does not exist or can be logically encompassed and manipulated; these answers allow one the illusion of self-control, commonly defended as “freedom” in the new tensions of identity. But in truth, it is the transcendent element which opens us up to true liberation, a freeing from the false and blinding constraints of self. The transcendent is that which calls one out of oneself to a greater purpose beyond the boundaries of identity as confined to one’s mortal span, and ultimately beyond even the boundaries of community. It confronts the question of teleology so essentially related to the question of identity, but it does not allow that telos to hide itself or turn back on itself. In every soul, the transcendent is immanentized, and thus particular identities and persons take part in that greater purpose whether knowingly or not. This is the paradox that must be accepted by the hard-nosed identitarians, that we can have identity at the same time as never being holistically encompassed by it. God is ineffable and therefore man is ineffable as well.
Of course, all things are available for human abuse, and notions of transcendence are far from guiltless in the atrocities committed throughout history, whether religious or political. It has been the abuse of the transcendent which frightens many, but abusive potential does not entail unreality or intrinsic evil or even the ability to escape transcendence. One can only believe in a better if she first has a Good. But the West no longer adheres to even a shaky consensus of the Good or the telos behind identity. Once the ramparts of communal identity are removed, once the mythos is exposed, the nations are left in the bare antagonism of tribe against tribe, in a neo-Hobbesian war against all. This war may eventually play out in death and suffering yet again, and if so, its seeds are being planted even now in the intransigent groupings by which we arrange ourselves. Returning to a past cultural existence (perhaps Christendom or the Caliphate) wherein we had achieved that common ground is now impossible at least in any short term analysis. Nostalgia must also be met with a healthy skepticism. The temptation to conceive of the past as a Golden Era is as ridiculous as thinking the future can be one. We have proved the former claim, and we are actively busy on proving the latter. We must love the old and burst forth with it into the new in spite of the deficiencies of either. The temporal aspects of our identity demand that we are both formed by the past as well as forming the future. We are responsible to both.
There are two teleology’s of being if we follow our questions to their end. The first is suicide, of which we know we are capable. Whether in true nuclear fashion or in some Transhumanist future, man as we know him can cease to exist. If total happiness be our end, humanity as it is can fundamentally never achieve it. Therefore Man must destroy himself to escape himself. The second end of being is salvation, which presupposes that man as he is is good, just not yet good enough. It assumes that there is something which allows man to complete himself, to be who he truly is, or strangely, to be that which he already is. Personally, perhaps maddeningly, I hold faith in this latter reality, because from what I can tell, others though fewer have walked this path. But while the path forward in faith will draw sustenance from all those who came before, that path will have to answer to this age. In that sense, it will be strikingly new and alive as well as deep and ancient. New saints and new martyrs will light the way and reveal that the crisis of our time is only a continuation of the crisis that has always haunted humanity. Courage is required. The last thing that should be expected is that the world will follow this way. But it never has. No utopia is possible under this faith, nor any personal perfection attainable, though we may seek goodness and bear that light for others in humility and love, ever wary of our own failings and the failings and pain of others. We must cultivate the world by first cultivating our souls. He who struck this chord in me said we must die that we may live, and thus He turned the entire question of identity on its head, providing the entirety of the answer to Being in his own personhood. Indeed, in Christ was the Transcendent made Immanent, and then the possibility of the fullness of identity made real. This is the burden of identity. And its joy.