I am. We seldom realize it, but what we say (and don’t say) after those two words—how we identify ourselves, to ourselves and to others—constitutes one of the most important aspects of our experience in society. The phrase, taken alone, presents a significant problem itself. I’m thinking here of philosophy’s investigations into being (Descartes’s cogito is the most famous example), the ontological explorations of science and religion (what is the nature of consciousness and the body? How did human life come about?), and the more everyday existential wonderment (and bewilderment) one is prone to feel every once in a while: Is this me? Is that me? Am I, really?
The phrase becomes more interesting, and more pertinent to our daily lives, when we start adding modifiers—when we start asking How, who, why am I? The most basic modifier we have is our name, a marker of identity that most of us do not choose. I’m Kenny, I say, usually without a second thought. But there are social implications of my name that I seldom realize: people may associate me with particular pieces of culture (like Kenny in South Park…this happens more than you’d like to know), personality types (“my Uncle Kenny is really nice/aggressive/charming/etc. so maybe you’ll be like that too), or other markers of identity (particularly when they hear my last name, Martin, they may assume I’m a white American with Irish heritage). And they will certainly assume that I am a straight, cis man. All this without me thinking about the resonances and meanings my name might be projecting. A slightly more disturbing question then follows: who might I have been if I hadn’t been named as I was? Might my life have been better, or worse, or just different?
Though our proper names are important, many of us (though not all) get by without worrying too much about them. It’s a different story, however, with other aspects of identity. The stakes are all of a sudden much higher when we follow I am with words describing race, sexuality, gender, class, age, religion, and others. In our culture, I am black has tremendously different implications than does I am white, and I am Asian American has tremendously different implications than does I am black. The same is true for I am rich/poor, straight/gay, man/woman, and many others. I put things in terms of hierarchical binaries not to reinforce them but rather to point out that identity is often only recognized in particular, prepackaged, assimilated, normative ways by our society, and those ways tend to almost always be hierarchical and binary. Thus, it is often more difficult to say I am bisexual than it is to say I am gay; the same goes for such identifications as I am multiracial, I am genderqueer, I am middle class but barely getting by.
Luckily for many, parts of society are becoming more aware of the rich diversity of human identity and self-expression, and many social spaces allow people to identify themselves in a greater variety of ways than ever before. I’m thinking here of Facebook’s long list of gender identities that people can choose from. This increased awareness of identity has been a central element of “identity politics” liberalism, and though there are many valid critiques of such a politics, many people’s lives have improved dramatically as a partial result, and the language and policy of the Left and the Right have changed in many ways for the better. At the least, people are talking about identity in new ways, and society seems more open to multiplicity and variety of identity than ever before.
The election of Donald Trump, of course, casts a new (and for many, unforeseen) light on such matters. It also illuminates another recent twist on identity, one that in my view bears much of the responsibility for the ‘breakdown of dialogue’ between the Right and the Left that many seem willing to complain about but few actually willing to do anything about. What I mean is this: it seems to me that in recent years, people have begun to think of their identities not only in terms of their name, race, gender, religion, etc., but also in terms of their political affiliation and ideological bent. In other words, I am a Republican/Democrat/liberal/conservative/radical/libertarian/etc. has become one of the ways people mark themselves, one of the axes along which they see their fundamental place in society, and one of the foundational elements of their being. This infection of our conceptions of self by political ideology has been a great success on the part of the political establishment as a whole (yes, that includes, even, the likes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders).
But it has been detrimental to discourse among the people—the supposed heart of democracy—to the point that all political arguments have become personal arguments, the stakes so high and so personally perturbing that we simply avoid having political arguments at all.
And that is just bullshit. It is one thing for an LGBTQ+ student to have difficulty arguing with their explicitly homophobic uncle, or for a Jewish person to resist the thought of going at it with their notoriously anti-Semitic in-law. I’m aware that such situations are difficult and potentially dangerous (though I think those conversations are vital nonetheless), and I’m also aware that in calling for a discourse divorced from the potency of identity, I risk appearing to erase the importance of identity markers that should figure into political debate (race, gender, sexuality, etc.). That’s not what I mean.
My point is that for two people who are merely politically opposed to avoid what ought to be collegial argument—argument that serves to sharpen our understanding of diverse perspectives and make us better educated people—is absurd. This isn’t to say, either, that argument can’t be heated—it can and should be—but that at the end of the day we ought to be able to argue the hell out of a point and then shake hands and say, “Thanks, I’m looking forward to next time.”
So this is my request: talk to one another, and make it a point to seek out those you know disagree with you, and talk to them. Don’t just talk, argue. This request goes out, in particular, to those of us who form our identities, in some way, around any of the following words: artist, poet, wordsmith, thinker, intellectual. These are hard conversations to have, and easy to write off as needless, or distracting, or “not appropriate for the dinner table.” But there has never been a time, nor a place, more appropriate for such conversations in our country.
Finally, think about how you call yourself, how you situate yourself in webs of alliance and opposition and agreement and disagreement. Realize that though many, if not all, of our identity markers are socially constructed, fluid, and often specious in their workings (here in the academy we ought to be particularly aware of such things), identity nonetheless matters. Identity, for better or worse, means a whole lot in our society. More than anything, realize that we have some say in how we call ourselves, how we see ourselves, and how the world sees us. We have some say in how we relate and talk to people across lines of division. We have some say in how we act. Who are we, then? The choice is all ours.