Since the end of the Cold War, and especially through the early twenty-first century, personal claims about ‘identity’ and ‘identification’ have come to occupy a privileged position in current political discussion. These claims routinely trump observable fact in shocking ways, and can get taken very seriously even when they appear to directly oppose fact.
This is a problem wherever it occurs, whether in relation to nationality, sex, race, class, religion or any other social division. It’s a particular problem for socialists, as we’ll see.
I’m going to make three logical claims here. Then I’ll point out some broad implications of these points. The three claims are these:
The logical implications I’ll deal with are these:
These arguments may be shared by all sorts of socialists, anti-socialists and people who claim to have no interest in political labels. The final set of points, which I’ll deal with in parts two and three, are those that I think relate to socialist and egalitarian thinkers. These are:
In part three, I’ll also be looking at the historical manner that arguments based on one particular species of identity-based error became dominant on the left.
Individual claims about identity, and about identifying, are always ultimately attempts to create social fact, and are always therefore predicated on being compatible with fact per se.
Let me first draw a distinction between fact and ‘social fact’. It is a fact that the Earth orbits the Sun. It is a social fact that this is no longer seriously, if ever, disputed. Whilst it took a while for the latter to be the case, the sheer impossibility of suppressing the fact of the orbit was what ultimately decided the outcome of the dispute.
Social facts thus tend to follow facts, albeit often with brutal conflicts on the way. The more inescapable the fact, the greater the tendency for social fact to follow it.
Consider, for example, the coat of arms of the English royal family.
It claims “Dieu et mon droit” (for those plebs like me who don’t speak Latin, that means “God is my right”). When it got put on a coat of arms, the “Divine Right of Kings” was still a commonplace political and theological doctrine. But increased scepticism about the existence of God (and the opinions God might have about royalty) over the last few centuries means that those arguing for keeping Mrs Windsor and her relatives in post usually start from other, more universally plausible, premises.
That is to say, contemporary monarchists generally rely upon things that are ordinarily accepted as social fact, because they are compatible with demonstrable facts.
We can’t prove that there is a God, but tourists definitely exist. Enough people know this without needing further explanation or convincing, that it is a social fact. You can base a rational seeming argument upon it without difficult intermediate educational or persuasive steps.
Encouraging tourism has thus become a central argument for monarchy.
Obviously, that doesn’t make it a good or true argument in itself. Personally, I don’t think it’s either. But its bases in both fact and the social fact stemming from it allows it to be made without it appearing inherently ridiculous or archaic. Unlike the claim of divine right that they still have on the picture and as part of the English anthem.
When somebody seeks position, status or regard, in whatever way, on the basis of their own identification of who or what they are, they are attempting to create a social fact – a common set of behaviours and moralities coding how they should be treated, which flows from their stated perception of themselves. This social fact that they’re seeking to establish can, in turn, only be fully persuasive insofar as it is compatible with actual fact.
No society can know the humans that make it up well enough to take account of all of them as individuals, in the full richness of their personal lives and feelings. Indeed, as the biblical injunction “know thyself” indicates, even a single human has to work to establish who and what they themselves are in their own mind (or soul, for you religious types) and body. If everybody automatically knew themselves, this couple of words could never have had religious power. After all, if you were already 100% certain that you knew yourself perfectly, this exhortation would be so obviously stupid that you’d bin the book, in the same way that you’d reject a religious prophet who insisted that all humans have six toes.
Because of the impossibility of ever fully knowing oneself or anybody else all social arrangements are based upon things that are observable to some extent. From this observable basis hypotheses, rules or codes of action – implicit or explicit – can be drawn. The observable things are facts. The competition of hypotheses, rules or codes are the battlegrounds upon which people and social groups attempt to shape social facts on the basis of those actual facts.
That is, they are the terrain where we fight (often literally) over how social facts will flow from, or relate to, actual facts.
So when a judgement of dangerous mental illness is made about an individual as a result of psychiatric consultation, this happens on the basis of things that are perceived by others and expressed as if they are facts: a diagnosis. Because access to the facts about a mind are essentially limited even to the owner / inhabitant of that mind, however, this diagnosis is always actually social fact.
That social fact of diagnosis in turn results in distributive social action: prescription. Depending upon the society faced with the diagnosis, the person diagnosed as dangerous on the basis of others’ assessment of them may be given resources and attention; locked up with security or nurses responsible for them at the expense of the State; excluded from owning a house in a certain area; housed; murdered by the servants of the State; be made homeless, have art therapy classes; be lobotomized or experience any combination of these treatments.
That decision about what to do about the (perceived) danger is down to the particular form of society in effect, and will usually reflect (rightly or wrongly) the same observational biases that led to the diagnosis. But it will never be possible to get past the need to observe, to choose something to observe, and to refer to something observed and consistent, in order to make a diagnosis that continues to be accepted.
Thus, and this is the key point that’s inescapable, the reliance on actual fact can never be entirely elided, even if social fact at any given moment allows systematic error or falsification.
Obviously, this is not only true of mental illness, or illness in general. It’s true of everything else too.
We’re unable perfectly to access facts about the world and how it works, just as we’re unable to directly and completely know ourselves. Instead we depend on observation of the world, and the testing of ideas about how it works, via collaboration and argument with others, whether in person or via words, sounds, pictures and symbols transmitted across time and distance.
I’ve called these collectively manufactured outcomes “social fact”. Scientists would also recognise this argument about how observations are used to better interpret reality as “scientific method”. Social scientists, or at least those who recognise that the implementation of observational knowledge in the form of technology has social effects, would largely recognise it as just how society is made. Social fact can be revisited, proven wrong and thrown out, or even persist in error forever because of people’s failure to successfully challenge mistaken components of it. But it is still all we have at any given time to act upon in working out who gets what – what I’m terming distributional effects – in political and economic life.
It might appear that I’m addressing the philosophical basis of the duties of the State towards its citizens, or something equally apparently remote from most peoples’ daily life and routine decisions. But this is not the case at all. This stuff is so ordinary that nearly all adults know it on a routine basis.
If we buy something in a shop it is usually because the observable cues around us signal that we can trust the workers in that shop to hand over the thing we’ve bought once the transaction’s complete, to give us change if we hand over a note, and not to refuse to serve us. These social facts meet and connect almost perfectly with the actual facts in most societies where there is relative stability, and we may even owe the origin of writing to the need to make certain of the accuracy of similar exchanges across distances too long for shouting across.
None of this (necessarily) involves us actually knowing (or caring) what those people are thinking and feeling about anything, least of all what they think or feel about themselves. Every single one of us (with the telling exceptions of prisoners in isolation, absolute hermits, people undergoing psychotropic episodes, and people undergoing sensory deprivation experiences) take part constantly in the distribution of stuff on the basis of what is externally observable. And anything we know about the social world (or think we know) derives from facts we perceive independently of the internal life of the people we engage with. That is to say that…
… basing rational distribution of social goods upon identity or a person’s claimed perception of their own identity is impossible without reference to the strength of social fact upon which that identity or identification rests. This ultimately always rests on observable, refutable, fact.
It’s time for us to meet some of the issues this relates to.
The idea of “National identity” has started to reach beyound the historical works about politics into relatively everyday discussion, especially when transformed and expressed as “ethnic identity” or “ethnicity”. In the “United [sic] Kingdom [sic]”, It informs both Unionism and pro-Independence attitudes in Wales and Scotland. It relates deeply to attitudes and actions relating to European Union membership and its end. It underlies and shapes a wide variety of interconnected debates around language and languages, immigration, and race and racism.
It also underlies the far-right and Conservative right project of “identitarianism”. This takes from Sardinian pre-war Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci the aim of creating a revolutionary shift by asserting a popular cultural hegemony that’s capable of remodelling the “common sense” of the population in general. But it also seeks to deny the left the use of Gramsci’s insights via the incessant demonisation of “cultural Marxism”, and its association with foreigners. In the most objectionable forms those foreigners are held to be Muslims or Jews seeking to ‘replace’ native Europeans, and whether they are really foreign is largely irrelevant.
Wrongly or rightly, these uses of “identity” are predicated either on claims of fact or on the use of strongly embedded social fact. Even if it’s really difficult and presents essential awkwardness in measurement, it is possible in principle to work out whether the ideas associated with them are factually accurate – or to debunk them by reference to fact and thus to seek to expel them from the realm of social fact.
Thus the number of speakers of Welsh or Kinyarwanda or English in a given area, to a given competence, at a given moment in time, is in principle discoverable: it’s a fact. The number of people resident in an area who were born there or moved there from elsewhere is discoverable in ways that could in principle be widely accepted enough to constitute a social fact. The number of people carrying certain genes, or of a certain height or age, is even more identifiable. Social action associating these things with given identities (whether we consider the action in question evil, good or complicatedly neutral) can be argued for or fought against on the basis of facts, and the outcome of those battles will be social fact that will be perpetually tested and retested against actual fact.
Similarly, the percentage of a population of a given area who have contracted a given virus is in principle discoverable, even though only a small proportion of them actually got ill. It’s a fact that can form the basis of social fact and then of social action.
We can make real collective decisions on this stuff, and be talking meaningfully about the same things – despite bitter and sometimes murderous disagreement on the moral implications of the facts and the way that social facts are derived from them. Those collective decisions can be made without most members of any social collectivity personally knowing one another on an intimate basis.
This is lucky.
For instance, we’ve lived (so far) through a global pandemic for which vaccines took a while to be found and are only now being administered. People moving around too much obviously tended to make the disease spread faster, and resulted in more deaths. Fortunately for them, without having to know much about how people felt about it, much of the world had governments with the nous to slow transmission by simply stopping people from moving around. The lives saved as a result were saved because of the straightforward meeting of fact and social fact.
All of this is to say that once you have a working definition of what’s involved in an “identity” based in fact that matters for administrative purposes, it’s possible to distribute social goods on the basis of this identity. Decisions can be made and government (for good or ill) can happen in ways that can be just as rule-governed and straightforward as what mathematicians have labelled the “law of identity”: 1 = 1.
This may seem a hard-faced, impersonal or unimaginative outlook.
The recognition that people are not simply interchangeable numbers in datasets is at the core of humanist socialism, of most anarchism, of many forms of conservatism, of political corruption and cronyism, of religious outlooks, of most drug subcultures, lots of art, of aristocratic ideals and of much working-class community culture. All these resist or set limits on rule-governed bureaucracy – or hedge around it with shortcuts, resistance, backhanders, pragmatism, sabotage, nods, winks, sarcasm, sexual favours or surreal jokes.
But social fact being based upon fact, and in some way generating rules upon the basis of that, is the only way in which any society complex and stable enough for all its members to have generally predictable systems of human interaction beyond isolated and autarkic smallholdings can ever exist.
Perceived ‘identity’ and the roles people choose to ‘identify as’ are less useful categories of analysis than externally observable facts.
The principle of knowledge noted above cannot apply when we enter categories of identification that are self-defined, because we then lose the idea of identity being based either on fact or on social facts deducible from it.
If I am to decide for myself which categories I am to be treated as occupying in all areas of life, as well as the description of those categories, then there can never be any rational collective life, no distributive machinery, involving me on similar terms to other people.
I probably won’t choose to put myself into categories that the current category rules (the relevant social facts) state or imply that it is right or acceptable to persecute, rape, assassinate or use as mobile footstools. That doesn’t mean, obviously, that I have to want to do any of these things to others to wish to avoid them being done to me.
I’d probably favour being regarded as a member of categories that get help under the rules, rather than of categories who are expected to give help. This is not (necessarily) because I’m lazy or venal or greedy – but because I don’t yet know what’s going to be asked of me in life in response to events external to my category choices later on. Nor does anyone else faced with this choice, given that the future has not yet been written.
If more than one person is given the option of defining their own set of category membership and category descriptions in this way, then the one of them that engages in the act of definition last will always have the greatest amount of freedom to shape how society is expected to treat them.
If the person thus defining themself is permitted to engage in that act of definition (that creation of social fact) at odds with actual fact, then the inevitable result will be a competition in self-definition: a competition to be the last to self-define. Even the category “human” will be one that is in principle escapable, if there is a way to get greater security by denying it. The rational tendency for those realising – consciously or unconsciously – that such a competition is underway, assuming that they feel able to deny the facts that the categories initially referred to, is to reserve the possibility of changing their mind.
That is, to insist that their act of identification, their final category choice, is “fluidity”.
The individualistic power play here is to decisively assert that there is no need for me, ever, to make a final decision. If the way I “identify” is as someone who never finally and decisively identifies as anything – and if society persists in treating me by reference to this category which I have chosen for myself, then I can never be caught by any negative results of any category choice.
Fortunately, fully self-regarding and individualistically rational “utility maximisers” who would happily and knowingly force this kind of situation upon their society are rare outside economics texts and studies in psychopathology. It takes a great deal of systematic effort to control an entire society in such a way as to hold back the power of actual fact and enforce instead adherence to a regime of social fact that runs against it, and humans are essentially social beings who share their knowledge of observable fact with irritating pride and regularity, and sophisticated tools. The centrality of the Earth in the solar system was inevitably going to be discarded by religious people after Copernicus, in the face of repeated measurements showing it to be mistaken – especially given that these kind of measurements could be tested by the location and navigation of things on the Earth, and that this information was verifiable and capable of generating technologically useful insights.
Assuming I’m correct that “identification” is a less useful way of approaching the world than externally verifiable fact, there’s a second implication that flows from the point we’ve now reached.
There are circumstances – and many of them – when it is correct to reject the identity or identification that people perceive, choose to perceive, or claim to perceive, about themselves.
One of these circumstances should raise no objections at all. Let’s look at that first.
John F. Kennedy was never a resident of Berlin, and he was not born there. So when he said “Ich bin ein Berliner”, it was universally understood that he was employing a metaphor. Similarly the phrase, “no man is an island” is known to be an illustrative metaphor about humans being social creatures, rather than merely the absurdly literal observation that no human currently has a Saturday job as several million tons of rock surrounded by sea.
To treat metaphor as literal truth, as these examples show, is either to painfully miss or humorously undercut and diminish the point that they seek to convey. At a minimum, therefore, we must always consider rejecting the literal truth of any identity claim somebody makes about themself as metaphor, in exactly the same way as if they’d made that claim about somebody else.
It’s also commonplace for people to make claims about themselves or their actions that they hope are not true or that are intended to elicit emotionally supportive responses. In a telling example of how heavily our speech depends on metaphor this is labelled in English as “fishing for compliments”. Almost all of us routinely encounter people saying things like “I’m such an idiot”, in the hope that there’ll be somebody there to offer polite disagreement, rather than to uncritically accept and amplify their negative judgement of themselves. And the person who accepts that their lover’s stunning outfit really was “just this old thing that was lying around” has missed out on an important part of their social education and may well be significantly less happy as a result.
These silly or trivial examples alone should suffice to show the minimal version of the argument: that there are cases when a person’s claims about themselves cannot and should not automatically be believed or even treated “as if” they were true, and that it can be cruel, emotionally absent or downright stupid to do so.
With more important claims about how and what we identify as the same logic continues to apply: it is straightforwardly wrong to automatically presume absolute honesty or total accuracy in people’s own assessments of themself, no matter who they are or what it is about themselves that they are assessing. The more important it is to know accurately who or what somebody is for the purposes of allocating social goods, the more important it is that this rests on the basis of independently verifiable facts.
I may identify as a competent and sober driver, but in most of the world government will check this claim pretty carefully and few complaints will be raised as a result – especially if my car has just been weaving at excessive speed in a densely populated area. Likewise, you’d do well to be suspicious of a young child insisting that they were a soldier and should have a real gun (although it would also be fair to be circumspect about saying so if they actually had a real gun). I may identify as a perfect and loving husband, but if my wife is terrified of me and has taken out a restraining order, there’s some room for scepticism. Similarly, most forms of athletics actually represent mechanisms for discovering who really is the best (in the world, or school, or county, etc) at a given activity on a given day out of all of those who identify as the best – or would like to, if the evidence permitted.
There is no reason why my personal opinion about the genetic code that determines many central constraints upon who I am capable of being should be an exception to this. My opinions about whether I can wiggle my ears, have brown eyes, or whether I am actually a camel have no effect at all on the wiggliness of my ears, my eye colour or the number and transparency of the eyelids I have.
It doesn’t change the facts no matter how firmly I hold these opinions, or what harm comes to me as a result of holding them whilst others reject them.
Nor is it the case that me holding such mistaken opinions puts others, let alone an entire system of laws or social mores, under any kind of obligation to me as a result. It’s not your problem, dear reader, that my ears will not wiggle, my eyes remain blue, and I cannot close the extra eyelid I fervently believe myself to have. Even if the mismatch between my particular belief and reality could actually kill me, that specific belief continues not to be your problem. If I wish to go out into the desert naked and insist that my evolutionary capabilities will enable me to survive, there’s surely no obligation upon you (whether you are singular or collective) to pay for me to acquire humps, multiple stomachs, extra eyelids, retromingent abilities and foot transplants.
In “Implication i” I argued that “perceived ‘identity’ and the roles people choose to ‘identify as’ are less useful categories of analysis than externally observable facts”. A person’s systematic and consistent refusal to accept the reality of clear facts (or to use them logically and rigorously in attempting to shape the social facts that are as close as we can get to knowing actual facts in unmediated fashion) may, depending upon the shape of the society in question and the moral codes practised by its citizens, create an obligation to care for the person holding such beliefs and to protect them and others from whatever harm could result from their consequent actions.
But that obligation will in turn be mediated through legal or moral schemas with the status of social fact, which always depend ultimately upon the attempt to establish the central actual facts in each specific case accurately, and which are forced to do so on the basis of relatively impersonal rules. If, in a courtroom, university, mental institution, social club or bus, I insist that I must have special treatment because of my identification as a camel, then my treatment should be in line with anyone else making a clearly incorrect claim: rather than being calculated on the basis of my self-awarded Camelid Rights.
Needless to say (but oddly controversially at our current moment in history) all these points apply without exception to the most decisively genetically determined thing of all: sex. Humans (like all other mammals) have organised their a lot of their interactions on the basis of this fact, and the myriad social facts they have mediated it through, throughout the entirety of their existence.
It’s the reason, indeed, for that continued existence.
The social facts that have mediated the basic biological fact of sex are astoundingly complex and varied. In contemporary speech and writing the label of ‘gender’ is the linguistic application of this mediation. It is often also (mis)used for biological description because of socially (and often religiously based) timidity about the use of the term ‘sex’. George Mikes’ humorous observations on being a foreigner in England in the 1950s in How to Be An Alien illustrated the extent of this taboo by saying “The English do not have sex: they have hot water bottles”. The English (like the other nations of the “UK”) have loosened up in some ways since the 1950s. But given how widespread Christian fundamentalism is in the USA, the growth of sex-avoiding and anti-biological language there was entirely predictable.
The same taboo applies to colloquial terms like “fucking”, “rogering”, “shagging”, “getting laid” and “having a quickie” as references to the act of sex – whether engaged in procreationally, recreationally or both. The lack of correspondence between “gender” and any of these taboo terms, because of it being a term referring only to social facts rather than actual (and potentially embarassing) facts, means that the non-taboo term “gender” often substitutes for the taboo term “sex” in polite conversation and usage.
Included within such polite conversation (dangerously, confusingly, and with a profound disregard for basic linguistic competence) are social scientific, philosophical and artistic discussions of “desire” and “the erotic” within which words with the straightforwardness of “sex” and “fucking” are entirely absent, and are painfully avoided in favour of radically meaningless terms such as “sexualities” and “typologies of desiring” that always refer back to “gender” rather than to sex.
But the effect of this conceptual confusion is actually profoundly limited, even in language. In English, for example, despite the spread of this theoretical avoidance of sex, nobody yet refers to engaging in the act of sex as “having gender”. We don’t claim to fancy someone because they’re “gendery” rather than “sexy”, and it’s to be hoped we never will. It would be meaningless, at best. At worst, it would be to deny that person their biological existence, and reduce their animal existence to nothing more than an idea that could be conveniently relabelled.
To enforce the use of the ideational and socially defined category of “gender” rather than “sex”, when considering concrete and pre-social facts that relate specifically to sex, is to attempt to directly pit social fact against actual fact. In such a confrontation, as we’ve seen, social fact will end up the loser. Like the Catholic Church’s long refusal to recognise Copernicus’s explanation of the solar system, or the long relative decline of philosophy and science in the Islamic world due to the theological ascendancy of the literal school of Q’ranic interpretation after Ghazali’s Incoherence of the Philosophers, it will eventually prove futile and cause deep crises for those institutions, belief systems and governments which adopt it.
I’m still surprised that I ever had the need to make such an argument, or set of arguments.
I’m also acutely aware that, given the current climate, this is liable to result in me being regarded as being “sexist”, “prejudiced”, “homophobic”, an “enemy of socialism” or “one of the baddies”. Incidentally, the last sentence refers to the meme below, which I’ve seen applied to people making the same arguments as I’m making here, in order to suggest that these viewpoints may be fairly considered as fascistic:
I don’t think any of these things are true.
That said, it is true that the arguments I’ve presented up to now could serve people who are any or all of these things: merely because the use of facts of some form in the construction of social facts is common to all political, cultural and religious perspectives capable of motivating sustained support.
So, before continuing, let’s ensure that my position and its implications are explicitly and fully understood, and that there’s no ambiguity at all.
In insisting upon the value of actual facts in shaping social action I share a viewpoint that is common to scientific racists, Nazis, the black power activists of the 1960s, Karl Marx, Friedrich Hayek, Samuel Smiles, J.K.Rowling, Zionists, Hamas, the workers at the DSS office who sanction you for being a minute late, environmentalists giving warnings about global heating, and the nineteenth century explorers who mapped much of the world for the purposes of extending imperial domination over it.
The only thing I am stating that I agree with these people about is the importance of fact in social action. I do not share an entire moral schema with any of them just because I agree with them all that fact has a determining role in human life. I do not even share the belief that the particular things any of them label as facts are necessarily true or accurate. I only agree that fact matters. Obviously, people who don’t like facts having such importance are likely to ignore me pointing this out.
But attempting to undermine me or the argument I put here by virtue of pointing out who I share an attitude with will not work, nor will smearing of my motivations as hateful or old-fashioned: I share an attachment to externally observable fact with them because it is unavoidable. I am not in the fashion business, except insofar as I’m commenting on the cut of the emperor’s clothes. And my motivation (which is in any case utterly unknowable to anybody but myself) has no impact at all on whether the argument I’m putting is correct.