The crisis of character


The crisis of character

Identity politics and the death of the individual.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Long-reads Politics

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Nothing speaks more profoundly to the crisis of character than the phrase, ‘I identify as…’. In the past, individuals were. ‘I am a builder.’ ‘I am a mother.’ ‘I am a Jew.’ There was a confidence, a certainty, to their sense of identity, and to their declaration of it. ‘I am.’ Today, individuals identify as something. ‘I identify as working class.’ ‘I identify as non-binary.’ Or, in the notorious case of Rachel Dolezal, the American white woman who effectively blacked-up as she rose up the ranks of the NAACP, ‘I identify as black’. The rise of the i-word in our definition of ourselves, the ascendancy of what is called ‘self-identification’, is one of the most notable developments of the 21st century so far. It speaks to a shift from being to passing through; from a clear sense of presence in the world to a feeling of transience; from identities that were rooted to identities that are tentative, insecure, questionable.

Those words ‘I identify as’ – whether they’re being uttered by Caitlyn Jenner as she unveils her newfound womanhood or by an eco-friendly New York Times writer who says ‘I identify as a mammal’ – feel strikingly contingent. They speak to changeability. The undertone is ‘I identify as such-and-such for now’. Indeed, these highly personalised ‘identifications as’ something sometimes come with an acknowledgment that the identification could change in time, and change dramatically. A gender non-binary writer tells us that he/she ‘identifies as both genders’, but then says: ‘I do not know… whom I will identify as in the future.’ The Daily Mail recently reported on the case of a trans activist who identifies as a different thing on a daily basis. One day he/she is Layla, who wears ‘a dress and heels to work’; the next he/she is Layton – ‘a man who dons baggy jeans and workmen boots’. ‘I am’ doesn’t work here, because the very basis of his/her being can change in the space of hours.

Ours has been branded an era of identity politics. The New York Times calls 2015 ‘the year we obsessed over identity’. Many have observed, often critically, that Western campuses in particular have become hotbeds of identity politics, or what is sometimes referred to as the ‘identitarian left’, which now defines itself, and engages with others, through the prism of identity rather than on the basis of ideas or shared or conflicting material and political interests. In student life and new-left circles, people are ‘identified as’, or they self-identity as, white, black, men, women, gay, straight, bi, trans, agender, non-binary and so on, and their politics takes place entirely at this level. White privilege is kept in check. Male privilege is policed. Gay culture is chastised for its incursions into black culture. White women are admonished for their attitudes to black women. Politics is no longer the sphere in which interests are expressed and convictions crash, but rather has become an arena for the pitting of personalised identities against one another: a new caste system, in effect. The individual with conviction has given way to the insecure possessor of an identity, whose primary concern is with the protection of his or her identity from ridicule or assault. We enter the public sphere as self-ossified categories rather than as thinking, convinced persons; as ciphers, representing something, rather than characters, containing something.

But the truly notable thing about today is not so much the obsession with identity – it’s the instability of identity. Humans have been hunting for identity for centuries. The instinct to define ourselves, to project ourselves into the world, is strong. And there’s nothing wrong with it. What’s new today is that identity has become an incredibly subjective phenomenon. ‘I identify as…’ Where once an individual’s identity was informed, or shaped, by experience and belief, through an engagement in the public sphere or with a party or association, today identities are self-consciously and often defensively constructed. The NYT, in its description of 2015 as the year of identity, asked: ‘How do you identify? [W]hat trait or aspect of your being is central to your idea of yourself, and your relationship to the world?’ The keyword here is your. The NYT doesn’t ask ‘What are you?’ or ‘Who are you?’, which would speak to a strong sense of being something; it asks what ‘aspect of your being’ is most important to ‘your idea of yourself’. ‘Being’ is treated almost as something external to the individual, a thing to be mined for ‘traits’ we might identify with. Identity is not something we are or we experience; it is a technically cultivated category, built from ‘traits’ and ‘aspects’ to give ‘an idea of yourself’.

What the NYT and many others describe as new era of identity politics is in fact an era in which the historical, traditional underpinnings of identity have been ruptured, or even destroyed, unleashing an often desperate search for new identities, a rush for self-identification, for shallow identity construction. The subjectivity of human identity in the 21st century is striking, and alarming. Today, to feel something is to be something. In many Western nations now, including Britain, a man can become a woman – legally, and on his passport – simply by ‘identifying as’ a woman. People now ‘identify as disabled’, and it often isn’t entirely clear that they are disabled. One academic says that his ‘personal identification as a disabled person fluctuates according to the context’. In short, sometimes he is disabled, sometimes he isn’t. The objective category of disability – as a physical or mental impairment that limits a person’s ability to engage in public life – is done away with, and instead disability becomes something one feels, one ‘identifies with’, in certain situations if not in others.

The subjectivity of identity construction, the rise of the contingent diktat ‘I identify as’, is throwing public life into disarray. Social norms and institutions we once took for granted are disorganised, sometimes crushed, by the rise of self-declared identities. Even filling in a form has become a minefield. The UK government’s public consultation document on gay marriage didn’t ask those who chose to fill it in if they were men or women; it asked: ‘Is your gender identity the same as the gender you were assigned at birth?’ It was an implicit acknowledgement of the categorical disarray of the 21st century, where it must always be allowed that people might have shunned their objective identities – in this case male or female – for a self-designed one. Facebook now has 71 gender identities to choose from. Forms used to ask us to circle M or F; Facebook offers the option of everything from ‘agender’ to ‘bigender’, ‘neither’ to ‘neutrois’, ‘two spirit’ to, of course, ‘other’, because in a world of narrow self-identification, there must always be space for the other, for the identity that hasn’t invented itself yet. Facebook justifies its many genders as a chance for people ‘to describe themselves as they are now’, again speaking to the changeability, transience, the fundamental flimsiness of modern identity.

Women’s colleges have been propelled into crisis by the cult of self-identification. In an era when a man can become a woman by saying ‘I identity as a woman’, can women’s colleges continue to exist? It seems not. Mount Holyoke College in the US used to describe itself simply as a ‘women-only institution’. Now it grants entry to the following dizzying array of identities: ‘Biologically born female who identifies as a woman; biologically born female who identifies as a man; biologically born female who identifies as other; biologically born female who does not identify as either woman or man; biologically born male who identifies as a woman; biologically born male who identifies as other when the other identity includes woman.’ In short, Mount Holyoke is no longer a women’s college. Men can enter, too, so long as they ‘identify as’ women. Identifying as a woman is now equal to being a woman. Feeling is reality. The entirely subjective sentiment becomes objective, legal fact.

In its recently rewritten mission statement, Smith College, one of America’s best-known women’s universities, says it is ‘absolutely’ still a women’s institution. But it also says that ‘applicants who were assigned male at birth but identify as women are eligible for admission’. How does Smith decide who is a woman? It doesn’t. It says: ‘With regard to admission, Smith relies upon the information provided by each student applicant… Smith’s policy is one of self-identification. To be considered for admission, applicants must select “female” on the Common Application.’ So a man can get into Smith by self-identifying as a woman. That makes him a woman. That Smith can say it is ‘absolutely still a women’s college’ while accepting students with penises shows how utterly subjective even the idea of womanhood has become. Even this identity, infused with biological and social experience, underpinned by historical import, informed by the longstanding cultural identities of sister, daughter, mother, can be adopted by others as if it were an item of clothing, and no doubt discarded just as easily. ‘I don’t know whom I will identify as in the future…’

Language itself, the very tool with which we communicate with one another, is distorted by the rise of narcissistic identity construction. Some individuals now demand that they be referred to neither as ‘he’ nor ‘she’ but as ‘they’. That this warps grammar – requiring such formulations as ‘they are doing well in their exams’ when referring to an individual – is considered unimportant. It is argued by identitarians that the psychic needs of the individual who self-identifies as ‘they’ override the habits of the public or the universalism of spoken discourse. At Scripps College, a women’s university in Southern California, students are now given 10 pronoun options to choose from. They can be he, she, e, per, zi, ze, they, hu, hum or hus. Here we have the construction of an entire new way of speaking, an alien, bizarre, elitist way of speaking, to satisfy the self-identity of small groups. Today, saying ‘I identify as’ doesn’t only mean you can change sex on your passport or masquerade as black when you’re white – it has also led to the reorganisation of university life and the emergence of new words, new grammar. The objective must bow to the subjective. Everything must be bent to the whims of the person who has said: ‘I identify as…’

Even the provision of basic services is disrupted by the spread of self-identity. Abortion providers are under pressure to ditch the word ‘woman’ and to declare that they will also provide abortions to men – that is, people who are actually women, hence they’re pregnant, but who have said ‘I identify as a man’ and thus must be treated as men, are men. The coalition of pro-choice groups currently campaigning for Ireland to ditch the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which bans abortion, recently put out a leaflet with this footnote: ‘While we have used the term women here, [we] recognise that not everyone who may need an abortion is a woman. We support access to abortion for everyone whether they be cis, trans or genderfluid.’ Campaigners want midwives to change how they speak. Midwife associations are being pressured to announce that they ‘serve women and people of all genders’. They are being asked to ditch the term ‘expectant mothers’ in favour of ‘pregnant individuals’. In American schools, and increasingly in European ones, too, sports are under threat: boys who identify as girls are demanding to play on girls’ teams. And on it goes.

This public acquiescence to the person who says ‘I identify as’, the rearrangement of university life, political campaigning, passports, health and numerous institutions around those who declare themselves to be something that by any basic, reasoned, humanistic measurement they are not, highlights one of the least appreciated aspects of what the NYT calls the new ‘obsession with identity’ – and that is the profound and historic crisis of public life; of meaning; of the Enlightenment ideals of reason and objective understanding; of the very idea of what it is to be human.

Too many critics of identity politics depict it as the handiwork of a coven of ‘identitarians’, a new left that usurped the old, universalising ideas of class and progress and replaced them with a narrow definition of people according to traits, gender, race, etc. In truth, the rise of self-identity, the replacement of ‘I am’ with ‘I identify as’, speaks to the hollowing out of the sphere and the ideas through which people once developed living, breathing identities, a real sense of themselves that was tangible, deep, convincing. It’s not that identitarians are foisting identity politics on us. It’s that Western societies, which have fallen into serious moral and existential disarray, have become increasingly incapable of providing people with a strong sense of identity, or of maintaining the mechanisms through which people once gained and built identities, and this has nurtured new hunts for meaning, for a sense of self, for some kind of personality at a time when the human personality is weak.

That everyone from the Passport Office to Smith College now nods dutifully along as a man tells them ‘I am a woman’ confirms that the cult of self-identification cannot be put down to crazy individuals claiming to be things they aren’t, or obsessing over the most narrow, least interesting things that they are: black, gay, whatever. Rather, society itself is complicit in this process, and as such it inflames it. Incapable of reconstituting the old validation of people for what they did, or for who they became through achievement, work, discussion, interaction and other social and political accomplishments, society instead gives the green light to the celebration of people for their ‘traits’, or for their narrow cultural or biological identity, or, increasingly, for who they claim to be, with little in the way of objective reasoning.

But it goes deeper than that. Far deeper. The modern West doesn’t only fail to hold back the tide of reason-defying self-identification, whether it’s Smith College immolating itself and its historic mission at the altar of gender self-identification or medical bodies claiming to provide abortions for men when they know very well that they do not because that’s a physical, objective impossibility. More importantly, it was the moral disorganisation of Western society over the past five decades that nurtured today’s identity politics, and created a climate in which identity has no real, felt, objective foundation but instead has become a fleeting, unsatisfying thing unlikely to fill its adherents with anything like a sense of achievement or true human value.

What we are faced with in the 21st century is the very serious situation where all the objective underpinnings of human identity have frayed or died. All those things individuals once defined themselves through – nation, church, work, family – have corroded in recent decades. We live in a post-national era where shamefacedness about our nations’ pasts is preferred over questionable national pride. A phoney cosmopolitanism that explicitly eschews ideas of national identity is now promoted by our elites. Churches in the West are in constant crisis, reeling from one scandal to another, and seemingly lacking the moral resources to withstand the tidal wave of relativism. In an era when few know (or are willing to say) what is right and wrong, churches have lost their purchase, and shedded worshippers.

Work has been thoroughly disorganised, too. Physically, the Western workplace has changed, with traditional male jobs increasingly giving way to a softer, feminised workplace where short-termism and job-sharing are the order of the day; and morally, too, the idea of work has transformed, and now tends to be seen less as a provider of comradeship and identity than merely a means to make ends meet. Trade-union membership is stagnating; industrial action has all but disappeared. Few would now say, ‘I’m a lathe operator at a factory’, as an expression of identity, of self, as they might have done in the past; rather, it would be merely a description of how they make money.

And the family has become hollowed out, too. Yes, we still live in families, and they provide us with great security and meaning, a sphere in which we can be ourselves, develop ourselves, nurture the future. But relentless external intervention into private life has undermined familial sovereignty, and risks reducing parenting from a lived part of our identity, a key part of who we are, to a skill we must get right. The declaration ‘I am a father’ is now more likely to elicit looks of concern, advice from the government, and some supernanny hectoring, rather than admiration for that once serious identity as provider for and socialiser of the next generation. To be a father now is to require guidance, not to be the architect of guidance.

The foundation stones on which identity was built for decades, the national flags, religious faith, workplace meaning or class feeling through which we constructed a sense of ourselves, through which we discovered or defined ourselves, are gone – or are at least shaky, insecure, withering. And in such circumstances, our sense of self can become weak; we cultivate new identities that feel unfounded, unanchored, changeable rather than convincing.

That the hollowing out of the old capitalist order and its institutions nurtures a crisis of identity has been noted by various thinkers of the postwar period. In the 1950s, the American sociologist David Riesman, observing major shifts in the education system and the workplace, noted the emergence of a new generation that seemed to lack, as he put it, ‘presence’. They seem to have, ‘not a polished personality’, but ‘an affable, casual, adaptable one’, he said. They were ‘present-oriented’ too, unlike their parents’ or grandparents’ generations, and those in ‘the earlier stages of industrialisation’, who were more ‘oriented toward the future, toward distant goals’.

These observations were taken further by the American thinker Christopher Lasch in the 1970s, most notably in his book The Culture of Narcissim. As a result of major quakes in the spheres of work, family and society, a new kind of individual was emerging, argued Lasch: one who ‘needed to establish an identity, not to submerge [his] identity in a larger cause’. Lasch’s observation of a new climate of narcissism in place of the old ideal of the strong-willed individual engaged in the world – John Stuart Mill’s individual with ‘strong susceptibilities that make the personal impulses vivid and powerful’ – was based on a recognition that the disarray of institutional life did not free the individual to discover his ‘real self’, as the hippies claimed it would, but rather gave rise to a new generation with a very weakened sense of self.

Lasch was struck by how the unravelling of social orders and norms gave rise to individuals whose sense of self was ‘weak, ungrounded, defensive, insecure’. He referred to the ‘weak self’, the ‘minimal self’. He noted that ‘apparent freedom from family ties and institutional constraints does not free [us] to stand along or to glory in our individuality’. Instead, it ‘contributes to [our] insecurity’. It leads the individual to ‘depend on others to validate his self-esteem’, until he ‘cannot live without an admiring audience’. Where the strong individual of the past realised himself through engagement with the world around him, the new minimal individual merely wants to be consoled by the world, flattered by it. In Lasch’s words, ‘For the narcissist, the world is a mirror, whereas the rugged individual saw it as an empty wilderness to be shaped to his own design’. Julie Walsh, in her 2014 book Narcissism and Its Discontents, describes the Laschian distinction between the post-Enlightenment idea of the individual and the postwar weakened, narcissistic self as a difference in attitudes to, or more fundamentally relationships with, the external world: the former sees the world as ‘a wilderness to be shaped by the subject’s own design’; the latter seeks only ‘self-consolation’ from his surroundings. The former is a subject, using thought and conviction to engage and become; the latter is an object requiring moral massaging from others for his very survival.

This desire to treat the world as a mirror, as a thing that must validate our self-esteem, is far more pronounced today than it was in the 1970s. The cult of self-identification, the insistence that grammar, education and institutions reorganise themselves around what individuals feel themselves to be, takes to the extreme the reduction of public life to the level of mere validator for insecure individuals. Lasch’s work also helps us to see how phoney is the freedom claimed by those who ‘identify as’. They frequently insist that they’re liberating themselves from outdated structures and social expectations. They pose as harbingers of a new and daring way of life, overturning everything about the old order, from gender to language, family life to social attitudes. This is false for two reasons. First, because what they present as their self-willed rebellion against and undermining of the old social, moral and sexual order is in fact a long drawn-out process of capitalist and institutional decay that has called into question almost everything Western societies once took for granted. And it was authored not by them but by various profound historical events and developments. They are really prettifying social and moral crises, standing on the rubble of the West’s decayed sense of itself and declaring: ‘We did this.’ And secondly, the freedom promised by the new narrow self-cultivation of identity is shallow indeed; in fact, it is not freedom at all.

The new identitarians, or self-identifiers, might technically be liberated from old social pressures, gender norms and moral expectations – though it’s more accurate to say that those things fell apart rather than the identitarians having broken free of them – but they have become locked into new and even more insidious relationships of dependency. Their need for constant validation, for self-consolation, for an ‘admiring audience’, means that while they may be free of past, burdensome social expectations, they have become psychic slaves. They are dependent upon the recognition of others, especially officialdom. The frenetic subjectivity of their identity creation disguises the extent to which they lack any sense of genuine human subjectivity – as actors in and on and through the world – and instead have become objects of the therapeutic industry, maintained and even directed by the approval of institutions and experts.

This explains the angst-ridden nature of much self-identification, the feeling of being under siege, of being at risk. Whether it’s trans campaigners trawling for evidence of transphobia and insisting that their very ‘right to exist’ is constantly being called into question, or student-union officials erecting safe spaces in which no Islamophobia, transphobia or any other phobia may be expressed, these supposedly free and easy new identities feel anything but free and easy. They’re tetchy, needy, defensive, ugly even. They need validation, and they seek it everywhere. Gay-identity campaigners hunt down the remaining handful of cakeshops that refuse to bake for gay weddings and insist they make them a cake; trans activists myopically peruse the press for any hint of anti-trans criticism and demand retractions or censorship; campaigners demand that schools, colleges, hospitals, everyone change their language and admission forms and behaviours to account for the feelings of infinitesimally small numbers of ‘two spirit’ people or ‘men’ who want abortions. And it’s never enough: for the fragile identity, validation is a constant necessity. The self-identifiers are liberated from the past, yes, but they’re enslaved by the 21st-century validation machine, their esteem locked in a danse macabre with the self-esteem industry.

Where earlier celebrators of the individual emphasised our capacity for autonomy and for governing our own minds and sense of ourselves, today’s self-identifiers cannot exist without the blessing of new forms of therapeutic authority. Mill’s view of the strong individual was a creature who used ‘observation to see, reasoning and judgement to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision’. Contrast that with today’s self-indentifiers who claim words wound, that individuals are vulnerable, that, in the words of one, ‘our mental safety is threatened by those who question our right to exist’.

Indeed, one of the most striking and complex things about the new era of identity is the coexistence of a highly subjectivised search for identity with a tendency to ossify identity, to fix it, to make great claims about its basis in biology or science or fact. This is most notable in the contemporary gay movement, which on one hand presents itself as a liberal strike against the social and moral strictures of the past, but on the other is constantly looking for material evidence that homosexuality is a fixed, biological fact. Gay academics hunt for a ‘gay gene’, or for evidence of ‘gay animals’, speaking, in Peter Tatchell’s words, to a ‘terrible lack of self-confidence and a rather sad, desperate need to justify queer desire’. Among trans activists, too, the claim to be consciously and radically upsetting gender norms sits uneasily with the essentialism of corrective surgery to turn men into ‘women’. Trans-sympathising experts have built up a huge base of alleged scientific authority to demonstrate that transgenderism is a real condition.

Meanwhile, many of the new self-identifiers contradictorily claim that they have no choice but to be what they feel themselves to be. Trans teenagers will kill themselves if we do not allow them to become the gender they were really born as, threaten trans activists. The bigender person profiled by the Daily Mail, who self-identifies on different days as Layla, a woman, and Layton, a man, strikingly said that this ‘isn’t a case of me waking up and choosing to dress a certain way. I’ve got no control over whether I’m going to be Layton or Layla on a certain day.’ (My italics.)

How do we explain this strange coexistence of highly subjective identity cultivation with an instinct to biologism and essentialism? This coexistence of radical, freely chosen identities with the idea that there is also no choice – that trans people feel like women in their very souls, and gay people may even possess a particular gene? This coexistence of the casual ‘I identify as’, and ‘I might identify differently tomorrow’, with the urge to crush any criticism or questioning of that identity? This, too, speaks to the weakness of identity in the 21st century. These are attempts to anchor the new identities, steady them, make them provable, tangible. But there is nothing of substance to anchor them in or to. No social movements, no democratic institutions. And so they become reliant for their existence on the validation of others, and on the craven acquiescence of a society that cannot, or at least will not, uphold any kind of objective measurements or encourage the cultivation of identity on the basis of engagement, belief and achievement.

There’s a further problem, an even more profound one. Today, we’re faced not only with a corrosion of the external world of institutions and movements through which we once gained our identity, but also a weakening of the internal world of the individual, of conscience itself. The sensitivity of the new identities to criticism or slight speaks to the demise of the Enlightenment individual who gains his sense of self not only through objective institutions but also through the development of inner convictions. In the era of conviction, public debate, public criticism, was welcomed; in fact it was encouraged. ‘The energy of the human intellect does from opposition grow’, said Cardinal John Henry Newman. In the era of self-identity, of weak personalities reliant on endless validation and personal identities lacking any meaningful foundation, public discussion is restricted, policed, lest it ‘harm’ or threaten the ‘right to exist’ of the weakly cultivated new individuals. The more they bind up their entire existence in their new, unconvincing personal identity, the more they experience criticism of that identity, not as opinion, but as threat, a mortal, existential threat. Far from liberation, the new generation’s daily experience is existential vulnerability.

What is today referred to as the rise of identity politics is in truth the hollowing out of the institutions, beliefs and freedoms around which life and identity were shaped and cohered for centuries. It is a crisis not merely of politics, or class, or the left; it is a crisis of character, a questioning of what it means to be human, an uncertainty as to how we become fully human. Addressing the emergence of new, weak identities, and the corresponding creation of a therapeutic industry and new forms of moral censure to prop up these identities, will require more than ridiculing the new left or the so-called ‘identitarian movement’. It demands nothing less than the reconstruction of public life, and the rediscovery of our faith in the strong individual who both makes and is made by the world, rather than simply needing to be consoled by it. It requires that we refuse to acquiesce to alienated, subjective identity-making, and instead recreate the conditions in which people can develop their identity through the exercise of moral autonomy, and through creating and engaging in new institutions, new ideas and new societies.

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of spiked.

Picture by: Philippe Leroyer, and published under a creative commons license.

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Topics Long-reads Politics


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