Saturday, 14 July 2007

The Politics of Identity

Mathew has raised several questions in his sessions so far pertaining to art, religion, race, gender, class, caste and sexuality. Every thing betrays a certain politics, a set of beliefs that we as individuals hold. But more than that, the theme that runs through every discourse is that of discrimination.

It naturally leads me to question why we discriminate against another human on the basis of stereotypes. Are we all inherently incapable of tolerance and acceptance? If that is indeed so then human civilization is doomed to self-destruction. However, being the eternal optimist and believing in the goodness of human nature, I am inclined to think better no just about the fate of mankind but also about our capacity to be inclusive and celebrate difference.

The main problem with regard to discrimination and the ensuing persecution, to me lies in how we as individuals create and define our identity. The problem stems from the fact that we define individual identities in terms of collectives. Why, for eg, should 'Indian' or 'Tamilian' define me as a person? Yes, I am both of those. But is that all I am? There is something that distinguishes me from every other human being, be it a fellow Indian or an American. Why can that not be the focus of my identity?

While collective identities are highly useful in describing a geographical area or a set of socio-cultural practices followed by a group, they are also prone to stereotyping. And discrimination as a phenomenon hinges on the ability to stereotype and generalise people without paying attention to their uniqueness as individuals. It is only with generalisation that one acquires the ability to unfairly discriminate without even knowing the individual in question or having a rational reason to do so.

Group identity becoming primary also implies that each group now views itself as excluding or as being greater than any other group eyeing the same resources. Scarcity leads to a quest for dominance and while this is played out at the level of individuals as well, it becomes much more dangerous when the same zero-sum game operates at the level of collectives. For, a collective does not have rationality. An angry mob is infinitely more dangerous than an angry individual.

Lastly, none of these group identities can claim an over arching legitimacy. The only exception to this is Gender. By being a physical and objective fact, gender acquires a legitimacy that is beyond opinions and interpretation. However, how we perceive and use gender is of course open to contention. All other group identities are creations by man and there is no over riding reason or rationality to why one is superior to the other. The simple existence of difference, and this applies to gender as well, is not an indication of a superiority-inferiority equation. So, the claim to superiority of any collective identity must be called into question.

Even so, all said and done, it is not possible to do away with group identities altogether. The obvious obstacle that comes up here is that we are a highly interdependent species and moreover, each group has evolved distinct practices that set them apart and also bind the individuals who claim membership to that group. Each collective has a history and a present that cannot be denied or wiped out at this stage of human civilization.

What can be achieved, and is necessary in the long run, is to recognise both the uniqueness and the importance of the individual and to make that the primary identity as opposed to any group membership that the individual might hold.

Idealistic, but maybe if we work towards it we can prevent genocide and exploitation, stop the slaughter that could lead to the self destruction of the most evolved species on this planet.

1 comment:

Nikhil said...

The only thing that really makes a person's identity, in my opinion, is his system of beliefs and actions. Everything else is just an indicator - sometimes accurate, sometimes not. Stereotyping is a natural occurrence, and making generalizations is ok as long as we realize that they ARE generalizations and so exceptions do exist. As long as the generalization doesn't predispose one towards making judgments, I think its ok