In the arguments which follow I make the case that self-identification pursued as policy or as a defining part of a belief system is inimical to egalitarian species of thought and action: that it is, in other words, broadly incompatible with socialism as such. These arguments add up to this:
There are observable gains to be made from mistaken or false claims of identity or identification. These include claims to membership of oppressed or marginalised groups. It is not egalitarian or good to extend official or rhetorical membership of these groups to people who do not meet the entry criteria.
I want to break down this set of claims into three arguments – basically taking it sentence by sentence.
Whilst to me this appears so blatant as not to need demonstrating, I realise that this is not now universal. So I want to make the claim as strongly as it actually deserves, like this:
Every conceivable social role or identity or personal status position could, in some imaginable case, generate a recognisable benefit when considered from the perspective of, or for purposes of justification by – somebody mistakenly or falsely adopting that position.
This is obviously the case when we think about false claims that would get you really big rewards. Someone who convinces the world of their hitherto unsuspected exalted social status can gain a fortune and, as a result, security for life. (Or, more often, a brief respite from the grinding poverty that has historically been the lot of most of humanity throughout most of history). Thus even without an extant Russian Imperial state constitutionally designed around providing them with a nice life, several pretenders to membership of the Romanov family emerged in the decades following the Russian Revolutions of 1917. Even though such charlatanry overwhelmingly failed, the good times they had whilst making the attempt were probably better, for a while, than the lives they were escaping.
Similarly dubious claims of blood relationships and genealogy lay behind a considerable proportion of the wars humanity waged in the preceding centuries, whilst less than rigorous genetic claims or assumptions of racial superiority – the same claim writ large – underscored many of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ genocides. These were, in case you missed it, all instances where the allegedly superior race murdered, or ignored murder, on the basis of their own claims of superiority about themselves.
But the potential rewards don’t have to be royal diamonds or vast empires before it’s possible to get nice stuff by claiming to be something you’re not.
Consider the relatively vast attention and status that an ill and poverty-stricken teenage girl might acquire in a time and place where religious fundamentalism was still commonplace and print media was growing, by claiming to be blessed with divine visions. Once caught up in such a claim, and getting the benefits, few who’d started down that path would be likely to tamely retract – even if they had initially known themselves to be comprehensively lying. The rational route for the now “divinely inspired” young woman to take in this situation would be to double down on her initial claims – to live inside the lies she’d told, to do her level best to believe them and to put on a bravura performance for the rest of her life as someone regularly visited by whatever spirits (etcetera) fitted her self-made role.
In this instance, as we can see, all that’s required for the adoption of an entirely false identity to benefit someone is for it to cohere with social fact (see part 1 for my definition and elucidation of ‘social fact’ as distinct from and often different from actual ‘fact’). We can also see that it would be quite possible for someone falsely or mistakenly identifying in a given way (as someone blessed with visions) to be trapped within this identification because of their society’s failure to challenge their account. Seventeen decades later, in the case of the visions of Lourdes, the social facts continue to motivate a massive annual pilgrimage – and it would be a brave Catholic who suggested that the initial claims were false, mistaken or deluded.
Finally, and quite routinely, it’s perfectly normal for people to lie, or promise commitment and talent out of all proportion to that which they actually possess, in job interviews and college applications, in protest movements, in auditions and when seeking to impress others whom they find sexually attractive. Those of you reading this who claim not to recognise the possibility of such behaviour in themselves are (probably) falsely or mistakenly identifying as superhumanly honest.
Even if you’re correct, however, you will recognise that others less fantastic and clever and honest than you sometimes fill in gaps in their life story in creative ways: and that some of them, without (necessarily) even the merest hint of malice or natural dishonesty, can reasonably be expected to come to believe some of the lies they’ve told about themselves.
Hopefully we’ve come to the point of agreeing that there are observable gains to be made from mistaken or false claims of identity or identification, and that these gains may sometimes entrench error. But, so far, we’ve only looked at cases in which the identifying person would obviously have something to gain.
Our second sentence is less blatantly obvious.
This is, as you’ll remember:
This isn’t an easy or comfortable thing to realise.
Nonetheless, it’s demonstrably true.
In most western states there are now numerous institutions and funds that have been established for the purpose of addressing and redressing historical forms of oppression, exploitation or discrimination. The focus amongst these, and where the money is, tends to be in encouraging changes (or the cementing of already-achieved changes) that are not systemically dangerous to capitalism itself. They are largely about encouraging the inequality of outcome that results from formal commitments to “equality of opportunity”, whilst looking radical and reconciling useful parts of the population to these ideas.
In the United States of America, therefore, those shaped around ethnic minorities exist in large part (and the better funded they are the greater that part) to ensure that there are more black businesspeople and lawyers and academics, rather than that the endemic homelessness or the prison economy that disproportionately affects black American men is ended.
Were I an American who wanted the chance to access such funds in addition to the other means open to me to support the insane costs of attending university there, I would need to be black.
Alternatively, if I was sufficiently cynical or misinformed, and thought I was able to carry off the deep fakery involved, I could pretend to be black or identify as black. The depth of thinking and preparation necessary to pull off a performance like this could even constitute an advantage in competition for such funding against people who, because they were black, had never had to work out how to act and talk as if they were black.
That’s a lot like what Jessica Krug did. Over the course of (at least) eleven years as a researcher, author and associate professor specialising in work relating to the identity she’d faked she probably netted over four hundred thousand dollars in salary, with a forty-five grand Fulbright scholarship for travel and research on top. (Feel free to check my figures in detail – I think I’ve erred on the conservative side in my estimates).
The scam was uncovered by a colleague who spotted that she had adopted different ethnic identities over time. Which is to say, she was found out by someone who refused to recognise self-identification as more important than fact.
Jessica Krug had the gumption, at least, to publish an apology, to do her level best to make it appear genuine even though she wasn’t doing it willingly, and not then to continue (as far as I know) to profit from the deception she’d engaged in. Rachel Dolezal, on the other hand, still has a website that does rather less than this, and that advertises the awards she gained due to the work she did on race and ethnicity whilst “passing” as a black woman. She’s also had a book published on the strength of her story.
It’s called (I shit you not) In Full Color.
All this, bizarrely and horribly, follows her having failed in a racial discrimination lawsuit she took against her university – partially on the basis of her claim that she was discriminated against for being white.
These are extreme examples drawn from American experience. But given that much of the culture of the Anglophone world now consists of the amplification of American ideas, however, there’s no reason to suspect that similar instances have never happened elsewhere or could not in the future. The only possible guard against them becoming routine, and thereby destroying or delegitimising whatever good intentions there are behind schemes aimed at rectifying historical injustices, is a close eye on fact, and a careful suspicion of self-identification.
With regard to class, it’s well-established that there are gains – whether financial, political or in terms of status – in adopting false, mistaken or ridiculously outdated claims to being working class. This is routine amongst conservatives (and, indeed, Conservatives) with well-preserved regional accents, as well as amongst politicians and businesspeople whose current unearned wealth clearly separates them from the background they lay claim to in order to market themselves. My personal way of referring to such people is to say that they are (when their claims about their background are actually accurate) people of working class origin. I’d like to see this category being used more often.
It’s also routine for right-wingers within the Labour Party to lay claim to being working-class on similarly specious grounds, or to tacitly encourages their supporters do it on their behalf. The regularity with which Keir Starmer is claimed to be a “toolmaker’s son” is an illustration, despite it being a matter of record that his dad owned the factory. Another signifier of being working class that’s often wheeled out is having “grown up on a council estate” – despite the fact that council estates in Britain were deliberately (and rightly) designed as cross-class communities.
Assuming you accept as fact that there have been occasions when people have gained from making or encouraging false or mistaken claims to their membership of a social group, there is no logical reason to automatically believe such claims, and thereby award such gains. I’d suggest the decision on whether to grant such status comes down to moral perspective.
If the social group they claim membership of is a structurally powerful one whose members owe their position neither to talent nor work, there is generally no need for socialists to be offended. Thus, pending abolition of these institutions, one possible socialist response to chancers seeking to join the aristocracy or enter the ranks of the peerage under false pretences could well be to wish them luck. Until such time as they use that power against poorer people, as aristocrats have been known to do.
In contrast though:
In the cases of Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug the issue was not (only) that they adopted a fake identity, but that they gained by doing so, whilst depriving people who genuinely belonged to that group. Had they just believed themselves to be black whilst forgoing the advantages they could gain as a result of passing for black it would be difficult to condemn them.
It would of course also be difficult to understand. If I refuse the benefits of belonging to a given group, it lessens the senses in which I can be said belong to that group.
Less puzzling would be a case in which I identified with the oppressed or disadvantaged group and made a sacrifice for that group as if I were one of them. But, whilst this wouldn’t be puzzling, and would probably be morally good, those with the courage to make sacrifices for groups they are not part of generally don’t claim to be “of” that group, but rather to “stand with” them. Rachel Corrie died for the Palestinian cause in the same way that Palestinians die for their own cause on a regular basis, but she never claimed to be one of them. Indeed, due to the very fact that she was not one of them, her death drew far more attention than those of people named Mahmoud or Nour or Karim in the occupied territories usually do.
No, when membership of an oppressed or marginalised group can carry advantage, of any sort, then it is nobody else’s business to decide that the usual criteria for membership of that group should be dropped. To use the cases of Krug and Dolezal again, it would evidently be wrong if their colleges had chosen to redefine them as black after their fakery had been unmasked, especially if that decision was made, for example, by a white majority college board.
Less obviously, members of the group itself don’t have any particular moral right to include people who do not meet objective criteria for membership.
The fact of historical oppression or marginalisation is independent of the current circumstances of the people who now make up that group. It’s accessible (to a point) by historical research, as is the extent of the continuing effects of that history. Similarly, membership of an oppressed or marginalised group in the present is a factual relation, rather than a matter of collective opinion. That’s why history is such a charged subject for contemporary life, and why so many people seek to claim expertise in it – it is (amongst many other things) about attempting to uncover and state the facts of how we got here, and thus (to an extent) the facts of where we are. But the past continues to be independent of our understanding and misunderstanding of it – just as gravity continues to happen whether we comprehend it or not. We do not vote on gravity, and it would make no difference if we did. The same applies to the relations of fact that constitute being female, black or lacking the weapons owned by an occupying army: our political actions always work on the basis of facts – only some of which are by their nature amenable to change, and very few of which can be altered by simply denying or ignoring them.
To allow the idea of any such objectively constituted group being able to choose to include those who do not actually fit the criteria for membership necessarily implies that it would also be possible for that group to choose to exclude members who in fact do fit the criteria.
This leads to two difficulties. Let’s consider this in terms of sex. Firstly, it becomes possible for a woman to be socially defined as “not a woman”, despite being unambiguously a woman. Secondly, and because of this, the very basis for the group having any objective existence disappears. At the moment that women can decide who is and who is not a woman, the category itself loses all usefulness and meaning. Nobody then can know who is or is not a member of that group, or even who has the right to make a decision about who is.
This has, to some extent, happened already. The fact that some women accept the admission of natal men to social goods previously regarded as by right the sole preserve of women has been used to dilute the category “woman” in toto. It is now possible for the claim to be made, without irony, that “Trans Women are Women”, and that natal women have no right to object to the inclusion of natal men who identify (or claim to identify) as women in the category “woman”.
Indeed, I’m understating the case. Accepting the claim that “Trans Women Are Women” – that people born male who consider themselves to be women are in fact women and have the right to the same social goods women are due because they are women – has come to be necessary for membership of much, if not most of the organised left, and of many of the progressive groups and causes that the left seeks to be part of. Thus Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price has insisted that this is a red line for anyone who would be a Plaid representative. It should perhaps be noted that Adam Price (who is a man and identifies as such), is not thereby giving away his own rights, but other peoples. That said, in Scotland, the SNP under Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership have been similarly determined to support “trans rights” and have similarly made advancement within the party conditional upon it.
This is arguably in contrast with a rather less determined approach to independence. It is, however, of a piece with a commitment to “progressive” values, in which awarding women’s rights to natal men who identify themselves as women has come to be seen as part of a historical process that includes female suffrage, the legalisation of male homosexuality (in Britain, lesbianism was not a crime), equal pay for equal work, and legislation against discrimination of the grounds of race or sex.
The difference is obvious, however, and by now should be predictable and familiar. Membership of these groups is a matter of fact, not of identification. It is impossible to know who feels themself to be gay. Societies that (morally wrongly, obviously) discriminate against gay people do not discriminate on the basis of feelings, but of behaviour. Until the 1960s this happened in British law on the basis of observable acts between men. Whilst there were powerful social taboos against homosexuality, it was never illegal for a man to feel attracted to another man. Doing stuff about it was the basis of the law, as you’d logically expect.
Similarly, discrimination on the basis of sex and race has rarely proceeded on the assumption that the people to be discriminated against get politely asked if they’re sure they want to identify as part of the victim group.
None of this precludes sympathy with those who genuinely feel themselves to be members of a group that they are not actually part of, for whatever reason. But in any society that insists on facts being the basis of law (or even of the “collective arrangement of social conduct”, for those anarchists rightly seeing a loophole in the term “law”), it does preclude the automatic granting to them of rights to the social benefits held by factually constituted groups.
For socialists, concerned primarily with ensuring a fair and relatively egalitarian distribution of social goods, the idea that anyone can gain social benefits on the basis of their own individualistic labelling of themself contrary to the facts, should be anathema.
It is possible for mistaken or false identification to become more accurate in certain cases, even to the point of being entirely true, via deliberate action. In some cases, this can even be easy. By contrast, there are others that can never become true, no matter how much effort and goodwill is expended. Where it is actually possible to make the transformation from false to true identity or identification, is desirable for the individual, and is neutral or beneficial to the collective good, then it is reasonable for socialists to support such transformations. Where any of the reverse conditions apply, it is not.
I may identify myself as a being a member of a group which definitionally possesses certain skills or capacities, or does certain things. If I’m capable of and willing to make the effort required to master those skills or capacities or do those things, and I’m unlikely to cause more harm than good to those around me by doing so, it’s fair that socialists would support my journey from false to true self-identification.
This is, after all, a pretty accurate description of most forms of training, knowledge and education – and it’s a rare socialist who’ll argue that these are bad things in themselves.
That said, it has been normal since the rise of capitalism for poorer people, including most working-class people, to be encouraged to “improve themselves” (even by socialists), as if their personal inadequacy was the root cause of all inequality and exploitation. This lie of the inadequacy of the poor has driven much of the expansion of education from the nineteenth century to the present, and has resulted in the multiplication of fields of study of widely varying rigour – often with the effect of protecting the offspring of the rich from their failure to compete against the intelligent, gifted and hungry.
Thus education is not always a good in itself for socialists, can be opposed to knowledge per se and may through this form obstacles in the way of the egalitarian distribution of power and wealth. This partly explains the growth of self-identification as a historical phenomenon, as we shall see in part 3.