Identity and Global Tensions and Other Good Stuff

Identity- a moving target

Last week in my entry titled Adoption I touched on the nature of identity. Identity remains a source of continual tension for the contemporary Western person because we have multiple, competing and overlapping sources of identity.

A simple example. Who is Mark Sutherland?  Mark Sutherland is an overly educated, white male, a New Zealander by birth, but British by adoption, living in New England. My identity shifts when I consider, as I recently had to, which passport do I travel on. Returning to New Zealand I left the US on my NZ passport but returned to the US on my British European Union passport containing my American Green Card. Each passport differently identifies me and my Green Card adds a further twist to identity. I am not speaking about legality here, but emotions. Each passport represents crucial emotional elements within an overlapping sense of identities.

My identity also shifts when considering other competing or overlapping elements of identity. Consider the attributes of middle class, overly educated, racially white, gendered male. Each signifies an aspect of identity which taken together construct an identity of someone well placed on the social pecking order – the only thing lacking is the possession of either a noble title or inordinate wealth to shoot me right to the top. However, my identity radically shifts when I add into the mix the element of being gay. In my identity as a gay man my experience of discrimination gives me an affinity not with overly educated white males, but with persons in society who are discriminated against because they are not male, or not white, or not educated.

Identity and global tensions

Differing notions of identity also go to the root of a growing tension between the West and Islamic societies. Although religion seems to be involved this is not a tension between Christianity and Islam. It’s rather a tension between differing notions of how identity is constructed. The capacity of Post Modern Secular societies and Traditional Religious societies to understand one another, never that great, seems to be deteriorating alarmingly. Religion- from the Latin religare, meaning to bind or the lack of it plays a part in this process.

In the world of Late Modern Western Culture, identity has become decoupled from family, clan, and religion because it is now firmly rooted in individual self-awareness.  While in Traditional Religious Culture identity is rooted not in an individual self awareness, but in a set of relationships that are structured by, and mediated through family, clan, and or religion.

The process of moving from relationally based identities fostered by the glue of religare, to secular individualist identity, decoupled from any notion of the existence of the divine has been chronicled by the philosopher Charles Taylor in his major opus A Secular Age. In the long progress of Western Society towards arriving at the first example of a secular society in human history, Taylor refers to the emergence of the buffered self.

Taylor defines secular to mean a social arrangement in which individual identity has not only become decoupled from family and clan with identity now residing in the unique and autonomous individual – the buffered self, but, and this is his main point, that the buffered self is a particular characteristic of the secular society, a society where identity is defined without any reference to the divine or God.

The notions of unencumbered right

Once upon a time, the framers of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution imagesunderstood the right to bear arms as the right of the community in the form of the militia to possess the means to defend itself against the encroachment of tyrannical government, acting unlawfully. The right the bear arms has now become the right of the buffered self to use or abuse guns in the pursuit of self defense against other members of the same community.

Once upon a time the right to free speech was the right of individual self expression free from the coercion of, and encroachment from, social and political authority.  Today, the right of free speech has become the right of the buffered self to say whatever is considered lawful to say, without regard to the consequences for others. Freedom of speech is now significantly decoupled from any sense of a duty to preserve social and political harmony. Free speech is controlled to some extend by legal duties that prevent speech that results in actual harm to another. Yet, there is no duty to refrain from intentionally giving offense through the unfettered exercise of free speech.

As we move further into the 21st Century, the world is increasingly characterized by a growing divide between societies in the Post Modern Western secular mode and societies that still adhere to traditional modes in which individual identity is defined by relationship to an extended community. In traditional societies social identity is still coupled to a sense of the presence of God and the social support afforded by religion.

In the growing acrimony and increasing violence that characterizes communication across the divide between Post Modern Western and Pre Modern Traditional societies, freedom of speech has become a litmus test, the core defining value for Western Society. We see this in the way freedom of speech has become a recent rallying cry following the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo. We rally to the cause in collectively identifying with the cry – je suis Charlie! 

Living in the tension

I am a product of the secular West. For me the right to individual free speech is inalienable. I believe the achievement of the right to individual freedom of speech to be one of the crowning achievements of our Western social development. Consequently, I too feel the surge of passion in the proclamation je suis Charlie as a protest against the forces of mindless and brutal terrorism. This form of terrorism is so called, Islamic. Yet, under any sane analysis this kind of violent response is anything but Islamic. Terrorism in the name of Islam is the distorted and perverted response from the authoritarian mindset to the challenges presented by the Western value of freedom of speech. Yet, a question continues to haunt me.

Islam has not undergone a process of secularization. It still posits a worldview in which society and religion are not separable. In this worldview disrespect shown for the Prophet is not severable from an experience of being disrespected as a Muslim. The question that haunts me is: given that we know the offense felt by Muslims in the visual characterization of the Prophet, how is our freedom of speech commended or defended by gratuitously publishing images of the Prophet justified on the grounds that we are only treating Islam with the same degree of disrespect and mockery we accord to our own Christian and Jewish faith traditions? It is only within our worldview where religion is separate from society that ridiculing of its more ridiculous antics is fair game. This right does not extend, in my view, beyond our own worldview context.

Individual isolation the reification of individual rights

I value the development of the buffered self in the way it has enabled individual identity for the first time in history to stand out against collective definitions of personal identity. Yet, I agree with Taylor that an unintended consequence of secularization has been our increasing sense of personal isolation from one another. Reification is where something essentially abstract is made into something concrete. Is the exercise of our individual rights immutable, i.e. fixed and unchanging regardless of circumstances, or relative and contextual?

I believe that our total emphasis on individualistic rights decoupled from corresponding duties beyond the minimum stipulation of the law, is damaging for our society. Rights become distorted when we exercise them without any regard for a corresponding duty towards others. This is not only a somewhat remote duty towards societies that see the world differently from us, but when we increasingly exercise our rights without basic regard for one another’s wellbeing within our own society, something is un-balanced. I do not want to exercise my right to free speech as a weapon that causes gratuitous offense and hurt to my neighbor. My right to free speech is a right only to defend myself from social and political forces of coercion.

Religion and personal identity in a secular society

Another level of identity complexity resides in my notion of the baptized buffered self. Even if I am guilty of a certain selectivity among the various claims urged upon me of my baptism, as a baptized buffered self I recognize a higher duty towards others enjoined upon me by my Christian faith These claims impact my exercise of my legal rights.

A Christian voice

It is somewhat timely, that as the terrorist alert ratchets upwards and Western voices are raised in somewhat belligerent defense of our freedom of speech values we find ourselves being addressed by St Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. There is a context and a specific content to this exchange between Paul and the Corinthians that relates to sexual behavior. It seems that the Corinthians are still acting like Greeks in terms of a freedom to consort with prostitutes that Paul sees this as inconsistent with being Christian. It’s easy to read Paul as advocating a Jewish, puritanical attitude towards the sexual freedom, otherwise considered normal in Corinthian society. However it’s not the context or the content of Paul’s conversation with the Corinthians that interests me here.

What grabs my attention in this reading is Paul’s assertion that because he has a legal –here read moral as well as narrowly legal – right to a certain action or behavior, it does not automatically follow that it is beneficial for him or others that he insist on exercising his right. Paul is advocating a degree of self-restraint in the interests of promoting social harmony. This seems obvious in societies where identity is relational, i.e. a sense of identity being conferred through networks of extended social relationships like a family, clan, or tribe, supported by the adhesive function of religion. It seems less obvious when identity resides in individual self awareness.

Secular Western societies are comprised of buffered selves, individuals who compete and conflict with one another in the exercise of the rights they enjoy under the law. The law is the ultimate guarantor of our rights and is also the minimal referee between competing rights in the interests of a minimum of social order. However the law is selective. For instance, racial or gender abuse is no longer protected under the right to freedom of speech, but abuse of gays and religious believers still is. Beyond the minimal constraint imposed by law we are left to exercise our rights as if we lived in isolation from one another. There is little sense of duty owed towards one another. Yet, Paul reminds us that for those of us who recognize God’s claim upon us through our allegiance to the Christian faith, we must consider our duty towards others as a primary factor influencing the way we do or don’t exercise our rights.

In this way our religious identity becomes another significant element in our experience of multiple identities. Christian faith moves from the purely private sphere to influence our behavior in the public sphere. Paul goes on to develop his argument in 1 Corinthians. He says that although the gospel frees him to do all that his conscience allows, if the free exercise of his rights causes another to stumble, then the duty he owes to those not able to exercise the full degree of freedom is to restrain himself in his otherwise lawful exercise of his rights.

The giving of grave offense to Muslims cannot ever be a justification for acts of terrorism in the name of the Prophet – peace be upon him. Yet, the Apostle Paul reminds us of the danger in exercising rights unfettered by a sense of duty to others. Translating this into our current global context, freedom of speech is not an absolute right exercised as if in a moral vacuum, mindless of consequences. It is limited by our duty not to give gratuitous offense to another. It is doubly so when we very well know that grave offense will be the consequence of our insistence on our legal rights.

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