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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Identity: A Reflection

Presented by Michel Léger, guest speaker; with Jonathan Mawdsley and Carol Carter Walker, Worship Associates

IDENTITY: A Reflection

Michel Léger, 5 October, 2014

What is your original face before your mother and father were born? —Zen kōan

According to the Source of all Truth, Wikipedia, the kōan at the top of the Order of Service is pointing to the ideal of a non-dualistic view of reality. But for me, this intentionally disorienting question is ALSO a dual invitation to consider diametrically opposed propositions about IDENTITY. What could one’s “face,” or “identity,” POSSIBLY have been before one’s parents were even born? A potentiality, at best, it seems.  So on one level, the kōan invites the conclusion that the face, the identity, arises and dissipates with birth and death.

On the other hand, the statement might be read as an invitation to consider the possibility that there IS an enduring essence, a face, an identity, that precedes and succeeds physical incarnation—that there WAS an original face before one’s parents were born. If the call of Buddhism is to “awareness of present experiencing with compassion,” and the ideal is to find a state of pure awareness without an ego, still this begs the question: WHO is being called to awareness? This ambiguity seems consistent with what I know about Zen kōans—that they teach by posing questions that typically have no single, logical answer. It is ALSO consistent with what I have noticed as a tension within Buddhism between the assertion of ego-impermanence or emptiness, on the one hand, and the emphasis upon or belief in reincarnation—of a single entity or awareness through many lives, for the purpose of spiritual development.

What I would like to do today is offer some observations and some questions about some of the ways we tend to assert that in fact there IS a fixed, single, enduring entity or identity, some of the ways we choose a single element of our experience, or a relatively small group of such features, to define the WHOLE of who each of us is as an individual.

When we use the word “identity,” what is it that we are actually TALKING about?


There are perhaps COUNTLESS, ways in which we “mark” and invest in identity, and these tend to depend on the context in which we find ourselves: in choir, my identity is “tenor,” at work, my identity is “academic advisor,” in my family, my identity might be “youngest,” or it might be “scapegoat,” or it might be “the gay one.” And the MEANING of each identity might shift for the individual, and for those around her or him, depending on the individual story each of us tells about ourselves and about others, depending on our own, and others’ needs and cultural baggage. Recently in choir someone made a joke about tenors being “castrati.” Clearly this person was telling himself the story that a relatively high male singing voice is associated with a deficit in physical maleness and with a blurring of gender identity; just as clearly, I rejected these associations by responding with some variation of : “and the horse you rode in on.”

To the students I see at work, my identity is more or less “powerful” depending on what they need or want from me and on their fantasies about my role. In my family, I can expect a range of responses depending on who is responding to what identity label I’m wearing. But when I think consciously about any and all of these, I have to conclude that neither for me nor for anyone else does any of these labels constitute an “identity” so much as a changing role or, at MOST, an ASPECT of my overall “identity,” whatever that is.

I want to invite you to consider which aspects of your overall makeup come to the fore regularly as temporary PRIMARY identity markers?  Which ones do YOU use?

SOME of the ways we “mark” or convey the idea of an identity are aspects of human experiencing  so commonly TAKEN as “markers” of identity that we scarcely give them a second thought. We don’t highlight or even mention these “markers”, because we assume they are obvious: race, sex, gender, physical appearance, for examples.

“Hello, I’m Michel Leger. I am a white middle-aged male who identifies with masculine gender in most of the ways our culture expects.” Who would DO that? 

THESE are the identity markers I would like to consider, and question: they seem to be central and reliable and enduring, as markers of identity, AS IDENTITY. But ARE they? How and why do we use them? And how well or ill do they actually serve our desire to be, and to be accepted for, who we believe we are—to be accepted for our IDENTITY?

Recently I posted something on FACEBOOK lampooning the hypocritical trend whereby President Obama gets castigated for behavior that is comparable to behavior engaged in by several previous Presidents who just HAPPEN to occupy a different POLITICAL identity. My comment was something along the lines of this: “Hang on! Wasn’t it Presidents X, Y, and Z who got us INTO this wide wealth gap or into this war or this Wall Street bailout, etc? NO one in the media accused THEM of treason or of selling out to Wall Street or of anything else. I don’t get why…oh wait, oh YEAH, he’s BLACK” Within minutes, one of my cousins, a conservative Catholic, had posted back “Oh I get so sick of the ‘blackguy’ thing; he’s half white too!”

In an uncharacteristic moment of restraint, I decided I would NOT reply at that moment, although I did eventually respond. For of course, the answer is obvious:

In our culture, because "half of him" is black, he is subjected to a double standard, whereby HIS behavior is suspect or even “evil,” even if is the SAME as his WHITE predecessors’ or fulfills their promises or continues their work. I can think of no logical explanation for this other than racism.

Now on one level my cousin is correct: it is technically correct to say that Barack Obama could with equal logic identify himself as a white man OR as a black man OR as biracial or as all three; as genetically American OR Kenyan: but our CULTURE (except the “birthers”) identifies him as American AND our culture identifies him as black. We have a long history of using ANY African Genetic heritage as the SOLE marker of Racial identity. By contrast, I’m told that in Puerto Rico and elsewhere in Hispanic central and South America, the level of pigmentation in a person’s skin is NOT part of the RACIAL IDENTITY metric. What would the culture of the United States look like if we were able to imitate the sensibilities around “race” that our own U.S. Territory and our hemispheric neighbors cultivate?

Another HUGE identity nexus in our culture has to do with sex, gender, and sexual orientation:

MOST human beings occupy a distinctive “sex identity,” which is to say, most of us have distinct physical features—primary and secondary sex characteristics—identifying us as EITHER female or male. But these CRITERIA for femaleness and maleness, taken as an absolute, are little short of torment for women who undergo mastectomy or men who lose testicles to cancer—would anyone tell such a person that she is no longer female, that he is no longer male? Such an absolute would also torment those at any place in transitioning from one sex to another or those who in fact have BOTH male and female genitalia, from birth? Shall we continue to marginalize them by QUALIFYING their internal experience of their sex and gender with the prefix “trans,” or with useless archaic concepts like the clinical and polite word, “hermaphrodite?” What about those whose SECONDARY sex characteristics don’t meet cultural ideals or fantasies? Have YOU ever heard the word “androgynous” used as a positive modifier?

So if the presence or absence, or SIZE, of a physical feature does NOT reliably INDICATE physical sex identity, or the internal experience of sex and/or gender identity, how reliably can physical sex identity be taken as a marker of OVERALL identity?

GENDER is even less reliable. What is gender, after all? Is PHYSICAL SEX gender, or is social science correct that “gender” is simply a set of behavioral expectations almost solely constructed by culture to reflect its own biases about sex. Think of the toys and games that are marketed for boys and girls, the colors that their clothes come in, the behavioral expectations that they absorb from earliest life onward.

SO, for instance, patriarchal culture DRESSES females for slow movement, ADORNS them with makeup and jewelry like pretty possessions, elevates motherhood as a holy imperative, and withholds education and political power from females as if thinking and leading were inappropriate for “the fair sex.” The same culture forbids males to pay much attention to their emotional lives, and certainly does NOT honor emotion as a modality for MALE experiencing, processing, and deciding about important life questions—apart from pair bonding. But even there, the heteronormative expectation is that “the man is the head and the woman is the heart of the home.” Our binary gender culture denies to each of the sexes the full range of human experiencing: to females, intellect is denied; to males, emotion is denied. This psychological straitghtjacket is the WORST effect that the tyranny of gender binarism inflicts on individuals.

What about sexual orientation? Initially this term referred only to “object choice,” as in SEXUAL object choice—determined by the physical sex of the desired person related to the physical sex of the desirer. NOW we tend ALSO to think of sexual orientation in terms of EMOTIONAL desire—so my “orientation” is “gay male” because I am physically MALE and am emotionally and sexually attracted only to other physical males.

Now, as one of the strategies of coalition politics, the LIST of those whose IDENTITIES  are “marked” as “other” and whose civil liberties therefore remain limited on a national level includes not only “orientation” based identities but also “transgender people” and in some lists “queer and questioning” people. The list itself clearly blends different ways of marking identity: sex and sexual orientation together create the “identities” Lesbian and Gay; sexual/emotional attraction to both physical sexes alone creates the identifier “Bisexual,” irrespective of the physical sex of the desirer; and internal experience of gender alone creates the identity “Transgender.” 

I actually prefer the reappropriation of the word “Queer” to denote a repudiation of the idea that any ONE of these constitutes a “sexual identity,” and to repudiate the even more problematic proposition that sexual identity constitutes IDENTITY as a whole.)

Curiously, the opposite of coalition politics is also an ELEMENT of coalition politics: IDENTITY politics is the marshalling of political energy around the issue of power-sharing based in IDENTITY. From the perspective of those who hold and wish to retain power, only a SIGNIFICANT proportion of the population, AND only those who can claim that their “identity” is “innate,” are entitled to equal protection under law.SO, the fewer members any group has, the less concerned the majority has to be about providing protections to that group. THIS is the source of the contention around whether “gay identity” constitutes 1/10th of the population or whether that percentage is lower.

The other assumption is that an innate characteristic but not a so-called “lifestyle choice” is justification for ensuring equal protection—that ONLY the patronizing “they can’t help it, they’re born that way” could justify equal protection of GLBTQ people. Beginning with the fallacious assertion that BIRTH IDENTITY is fixed and constant, and adding the observation that no one can say for sure that gay identity is established by the time of birth, those in power leap to the conclusion that there is no reason to accord GLBTQ folks the status of a protected identity group.

The idea that the smaller a minority is, the more justified its oppression, is manifestly repugnant. Of course!

The idea that a human character and personality and IDENTITY is fully formed at birth is manifestly absurd. Of course!

The idea that only an identity that is NOT CHOSEN is protectable—that CHOICE of sexual preference is invalid and subject to the approval of the majority, is repugnant to our whole political way of being. Of COURSE!! What other “identity” choices could thus be subjected to mob rule?

Identity Politics, both on its own and as part of coalition politics, has its uses, certainly. Recognizing that history is filled with examples of oppression based on judgments ABOUT the IDENTITY of the Oppressed, “identity politics” provides a step in the direction of JUSTICE: recognizing IDENTITY CATEGORIES of the historically oppressed allows for directing  protections and reparative policies toward the historically oppressed.

The “Come out, come out whoever you are” movement of the 1980s and 90s was a rigorous exercise in identity politics, and certainly bore great fruit, pun intended. This was the political movement to demonstrate to the wider world the presence of gay people all around you: we’re everywhere! One purpose, of course, was to counteract the argument that we were so few of us that we did not deserve legal protections; but it also counteracted the head-in-the-sand denial by many people that the issue of gay-equality was not THEIR issue, that they did not KNOW any gay people, and so did not have to CARE about what happened to us. Arguably this is one of the most important movements within the greater GLBTQ civil-rights movement, and has brought us the furthest along our road in the 46 years since the NYPD got its butt whupped by the outraged Drag Queens of the Stonewall Bar on Christopher Street.

But HERE is the danger of Identity politics. Ultimately, by DEMONSTRATING how MANY of us there are, and how many people KNOW someone who is Lesbian or Gay, we authorized or agreed to the notion that only SUBSTANTIAL minorities matter, and that only oppression that is widely KNOWN about needs to be changed.

AND in the past decades we BENEFITTED from  science’s AMBIGUITY on the issue of whether or not we are born this way, rather than attacking the homophobic  premise that the question needed to be asked at all.  No one asks “why” a socially, emotionally, or politically neutral characteristic appears in an individual or in a group. This question is asked ONLY when the characteristic in question is somehow problematic –usually one expected to tax our legal or health-care or social-tolerance resources. So science seeks a biological explanation for violence, sociopathy, mental illness, physical disease… and homosexuality. By buying into the notion that it MATTERS whether or not we are “born this way,” we place ourselves always already OUTSIDE of the expectation that we be treated as if our sexual orientation were neutral. We allow the mainstream to place us in a no-win position: either we are “helpless” (poor us)—to be like the hetero majority—as if we want to be—or we are transgressive in our “choice” of identities. But the bottom line is that WE are not accorded the dignity of asserting WHAT our identities ARE and WHAT that MEANS. And so, of course, we cannot be accorded the dignity of full legal status as citizens.

ANY characteristic—innate OR chosen—that becomes the primary basis for IDENTITY, opens this possible danger—that it will simply authorize the imposition of such categories, by those in power and internally, by ourselves, in our own understandings of who we ARE, for good and ill. Employment forms forcing self-selection into identity categories ostensibly serve the interests of combatting discrimination in hiring and in provision of services; but this (self-selection) ALSO reinscribes, over and over again, the DIVIDING of a single, human, race into multiple subcategories based on physical features determined by a TINY percentage of genetic material; and it enforces the dualistic assertion that BINARY is an accurate way to describe sex and gender.

So what IS “identity?” Is it race? Sex? Gender? Sexual orientation? Something else?

Maybe the Buddhists have it right: the “ego,” that little word indicating an “I,” they say, is no more enduring than the myriad phenomena that swirl in and out of its awareness. The “I” is, for all its behaviors and plans, investments and excesses, essentially “empty.” And yet, Buddhist (and Hindu) beliefs identify BOTH a locus of awareness AND a more-or-less coherent entity of “selfness” flitting in and out of incarnations in an ultimate trajectory toward a blissful eternity of non-incarnation, and toward an ultimate re-absorption into a non-individualized “oneness.” So in effect, in Buddhism, “identity” exists, albeit impermanently, and ultimately as part of a super-identity of ONE.

In closing, let me throw a few more questions at you.

Do the IDENTITIES we inhabit HERE, the spiritual faces we wear, help us as we seek to CONNECT to one another in THIS space, in THIS context of spiritual seeking?

Do I, with an open heart and an open mind, seek out meaningful conversation and seek a heart-to heart connection with people who hold different views on spiritual questions? Do I stay within my own comfort zone by connecting only with those who share my views, or only with those who are content to have spirituality-free conversations?

So how am I contributing to a Church atmosphere that nurtures the FREE and responsible search for truth and meaning, and that welcomes newcomers seeking to engage in such a search?

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