Group “identity”

Sometimes the best way to learn what people are thinking is to pay close attention when they’re talking about something else. When a subject is their main topic, they might be saying just what they think they should say, but at other times they might be more off their guard and candid. Recently I was reading an essay by Suzanne Romaine, called “Revitalized Languages as Invented Languages,” in a book called From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages (my review here). It refers to the notion of group identity as a side issue to its main topic. Her comments about “identity” struck me precisely because she wasn’t grinding an axe about them.

Some examples: “People feel a key part of their traditional culture and identity is lost when that language disappears.” “Although the term identity derives from Latin idem ‘same,’ identity is primarily about constructing differences between ourselves and others.” “Hence, identity planning goes hand in hand with language planning.” “The power of identity to imagine and invent both nations and languages is by no means confined to the past.” “The interests of those learning Catalan, Cornish, or other revitalized languages for the sake of identity are not identical with the interests of native speakers.”

She takes it for granted that identity consists of group membership, and that it’s about how your group isn’t like other groups. It’s psycho-epistemological tribalism, “us vs. them” as a basic mode of thinking. I don’t mean that it’s necessarily hostile, but it’s the idea that the answer to “Who am I?” is found not in my personal capacities and values, but in how my kind is different from your kind. It easily leads to hostility.

This approach gets nasty when it’s applied to “race identity.” If people’s identities are their physical differences from you, you end up seeing not an individual human being but a breed, a specimen of a group. When people have internalized this way of thinking, the best they can do is say, “You are the Other, but I reach out to you anyway,” which is condescending. The worst they can do is horrible.

“Race identity” advocates are perversely prone to accusing other people of racism. While this is often just a convenient smear, it might also be a result of premises so internalized that they can’t think outside them. If you can’t imagine treating people as individuals rather than specimens, then the only alternatives are “good” racism, the privileged people reaching a hand downward to the unfortunate lower groups, or “bad” racism, reaching a foot downward to stomp on their faces. The idea of treating people just as people is outside their grasp, so they think of the condescending approach as non-racism, and imagine that anyone who disagrees with it must be a racist of the face-stomping kind.

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