A few weeks ago I read Patricia McKillip’s trilogy, The Riddle-Master. [i] Published 40 years ago, it had slipped past me: only now have I discovered a compelling fantasy saga. I could spend time explaining why you should rush out to borrow or buy this series – and you should – but instead I want to focus on its hero. Without spoiling any of the story, it begins in small island, Hed, where the inhabitants are farmers and swineherds. Morgon is the prince of this island. Given its relatively simple lifestyle, a Prince of Hed is more like a local landlord, and Morgon is a friendly and supportive leader. He has a private fascination – solving puzzles.
Morgon comes across as a persistent, rather stubborn man. He’s not an Aragorn, nor a Lyra. He’s not unwilling to raise his head above the parapet (there are always parapets in sagas of this kind), but he’s not a soldier. He’s often confused, seems easily misled, and, unlike a Frodo, or a Ged, he isn’t driven by one clear goal. Unsure of himself, he is simply very, very tenacious. I’m not sure how young readers, brought up on a diet of amazing heroes, respond to Morgon, or to his troubled but beautiful partner Raederle. Tricked and often pushed in the wrong direction, he persists in wanting to make sense of things. I don’t think he demonstrates self-confidence or self-assurance, but rather self-esteem, a personal comfort with his own worth and value.
I like the concept of self-esteem, because it refers to how you feel about yourself. It isn’t about the judgement of others; it is your self-evaluation. Like Morgon, you don’t have to be a great fighter, an admired leader, a great achiever, but rather feel comfortable in your own skin. That comfort rests on accepting and feeling positive about your values and your actions, and it applies to anyone in any situation, househusband, teacher’s aide, entrepreneur, manager, accountant or plumber. If I like Morgon, it’s because he exemplifies being at terms with himself, caring for others, and doggedly unwilling to give up, whether the issues are trivial or more consequential.
In that same month, I also read Karin Slaughter’s most recent book in her Atlanta series, The Silent Wife. Karin Slaughter is a confronting, unrelenting detective story author, forcing the reader to understand the vicious acts of criminals and the confused, complicated lives of people in law enforcement. Of all the contemporary mystery writers I like, she stands above the field. For nearly twenty years she has explored complicated lives and gruesome murders in two settings, Grant County and Atlanta, both in Georgia. For a second time, I am not telling you to start reading her novels, but, if you are ready to confront some outstandingly told, dark and explicitly bloody behaviour, you should. [ii] However, for now I want to talk about Will Trent.
Will Trent is a special agent in Atlanta’s Georgia Bureau of Investigation. If Morgon attracts me because I find his values and behaviour ones I would like to claim, Will is very different. From a broken home, handicapped by his upbringing, often silent, frequently left to think things through, he has a special ability to place himself in the shoes of violent people, murderers or rapists, or both. That very ability often forces him to stand apart, quietly assessing and analysing the evidence around him, while also making him appear unapproachable and unwilling, avoiding taking part in the usual banter of work colleagues. He’s another person following his own path.
Do I like Will Trent? Not in the same way I like Morgon, who is a person I might want to be, but in another sense, certainly. He’s not self-confident, but he’s sure about himself and his values, another example of self-esteem. Complicated, too, because when it comes to personal relationships, he is handicapped by fear and uncertainty, yet he doesn’t give up, determined to work his way out of the mistakes and misunderstandings he can see he’s created. Like Morgon, he believes in himself, he accepts his limitations, knows he performs well at tasks, and he is determined to achieve the best outcome on what matters, both at work and in his personal life.
If self-esteem is about feeling good about yourself, it is a personal and private assessment. As an assessment of a person, the contemporary world seems to set that aside. What matters is public recognition, likes on Facebook, good reviews from colleagues, and many other forms of praise or reward for meeting social expectations, while criticising the non-conformists. I see it as a paradox at the heart of contemporary society. We constantly praise individualism, rather than community participation, but our individual worth is socially determined. Indeed, it is worse than a paradox, it is also constraining. Rather than allowing each person to grow and develop, supported by a sense of self-esteem, we burden people with an identity, pigeon-hole them, and then contain and shape them, expecting them to conform to the box into which we’ve put them.
This is the challenge of ‘identity politics’. I fear we all fall into the trap of defining a group, imputing motives and behaviours, and then get frustrated by and push back on those who appear to deviate. I can’t speak for you, but I know I do this. I succumb to identifying people by type: my current and worrying example has to do with millennials. Who are the millennials? Surely you know. They are the 18-30 year olds, well educated, gender and colour blind, politically active, concerned about climate change, and scornful of the baby boomers and the mess they’ve left to be cleaned up by their generation. They are the people who are going to save democracy, re-establish caring communities, and create a better future, every one of them. Right?
I know about putting people in boxes. I grew up in a fairly rigid, class-based society. In England after the Second World War, despite all the changes that had taken place, we all ‘knew our place’. There were aristocrats, part of the long line of privileged yet often financially poor people who had been around since antiquity. Next, there were the nouveau riche, people with money, lots of money, but lacking the ‘right’ background. Then there were those in the middle class, which, back then, was a very large group who worked hard for their living, were paid reasonable salaries, were buying their own houses, and were involved in the community, often ‘doing good’. Leaving on one side the subtle complications of the upper middle class, the middle middle class and the lower middle class (which categories sound like something out of Monty Python, which in many ways they were), below the middle class were the working class. You knew about the working class. They were poor, ate badly, drank too much beer, uneducated (even though they had been to school) and many were criminals. You can see how foolish this was, but it didn’t matter: by speech, dress, job, behaviour, you knew where someone slotted into the system. Those who broke out, the working class boy who made stunning movies or the aristocratic scion who lived on the streets, they were the exceptions that proved the rule.
All this began to change in the 1960s. Several forces came to bear, including television, the contraceptive pill, rapid increases in student numbers moving on to higher education, popular music shifting to more radical themes, and a version of what, many years later, became Melania Trump’s ‘I don’t care. Do U’. Class didn’t disappear, but now we had new identities forged around gender, sexual orientation, and race and ethnicity. These new categories changed society in another way. Instead of simply ‘having a place’ in the class system, your identity as a gay man, say, now led to explicit claims of recognition and consideration. Gay men had been humiliated, thrown in prison, treated as outsiders, and now they were to be officially admitted into society, offered opportunities, and provided with their own consumer goods and lifestyles. Fear was to be replaced by having a recognised, different but equal place in society.
That series of changes was good, at least initially. People who had been on the margin, hiding or pretending to be someone else, could live their lives openly. The end of the 1960s and the early 1970s were a time of hopeful and positive diversity. Then, the conservative forces pushed back: it was acceptable to be gay on television, something to smile at, but not on the street. The first phase of women’s liberation lost energy, too, as its young advocates moved into work, careers, and, for many, marriage and a family. I can only guess that for many women the late 1970s and 1980s were hard, aspirations blunted by lives defined by employment and commitments, self-esteem circumscribed by the re-imposition or acceptance of traditional roles and expectations.
This was the time of culture wars and ‘political correctness’. If ever there was a term that caused confusion and uncertainty, political correctness has to be a winner. To be politically correct could mean to follow the orthodoxies of your own group, including offering critiques of others. Or, alternatively, it was also cited as evidence of tokenism, a means to impose some kind of loose liberal orthodoxy without expecting any particular measures or policies to followed.
While it touched more lightly on people at work, political correctness exploded in universities. It was tellingly explained by Sayre’s Law, “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake”. [iii] Henry Kissinger put it rather more directly “university politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small”. Either way, once the cork was out of the bottle of the ‘Great Western Tradition’, the fun began. In 1987, Alan Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind, attacking political correctness and reinforcing conservative social and political challenges against what was seen as the imposition of a liberal orthodoxy. By May 1991, at a University of Michigan commencement ceremony, President George H W Bush said, “The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudice with new ones. It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expression off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits.” [iv] That was the way it was addressed back then. It is tempting to explore the battles between those attacking the dominance of ‘western culture’ and those supporting it. [v] However, I’ll leave that to another day.
My issue is in how proliferating identities have changed the notion of self-esteem. Laurent Dubreuil explored this in his recent article, Nonconforming: “Not all identities are equal in dignity, history, or weight. Race, gender, and sexual orientation were the three main dimensions of what in the 1970s began to be called identity politics. These traits continue to be key today. But affirmed identities are mushrooming. The slightest shared characteristic, once anchored in a narrative of pain, can give rise to a new group. There is now a rural identity, a peanut-allergic identity, a fat identity, an ADHD identity, and so on. Each comes with stories of humiliation or of life-threatening experiences, with demands for official recognition, with products specifically targeted to the group, along with people the writer Touré, in Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, called “the self-appointed identity cops.” Whereas identity politics, as developed four decades ago, “aimed to liberate the oppressed and to oppose American capitalism, its main form today is more invested in changing the direction of domination and in multiplying restrictions. It is the social order of the day, its rhetoric ubiquitous in the neurotic centers of the American economy (universities, the media, the tech sector).” [vi] A peanut-allergic identity?
If politics is concerned with institionalised power, then identity politics is about the power of who you are. There were and clearly still are overwhelming reasons to reject a society defined by categories created in the exclusive culture of white, male, Anglo-Saxon protestants. A truly democratic culture has to embrace diversity in practices, beliefs and behaviours, accepting the proposition that all people are equal, equal in the eyes of the law, equal in their right to fully participate in society, and equal in their right to be engaged in the democratic system. We are a long way from that point. We still have to acknowledge the failures of the past, and the impact these have had on the conditions of many groups in society today. We do have to address inequalities based on inherent characteristics, such as race, gender and more. However, in some ways identity politics is taking the issue further, suggesting we should be defined and sorted by those characteristics, and our ‘shared pain’ should determine how we are to be treated.
Here is my concern. I don’t want my ‘identity’ to define me entirely. My self-esteem is not merely a function of my membership of some pre-determined group. It’s a complex combination of my history, characteristics, experiences, and reflections. It is, and should be, created by me, not by others. However, identity politics offers people a ready-made definition of who they are. These identities surround them, and protect them. These comforting cloaks do not put an end to racism, sexism, or other sorts of exclusion or exploitation. They imprison people in stereotyped narratives of slights and trauma. Identity determinism is another layer of oppression, creating rather than addressing problems. We see the extreme of this in universities. Given an identity, a student should be coddled when encountering texts (or artworks or other experiences), or even sheltered from them, since, for example, ‘so many texts in the Western canon are offensive’.
Not me, I want to learn. As Debreuil explains, no simple set of factors define who I am. In fact, nothing should program any of us. Of course, many things limit our possibilties. Political and social inequality constrains the choices for many marginalized people. We must work hard to overcome these limitations. But as soon as we believe that social circumstances are absolute determinants of ‘who we are’, we condemn ourselves to stasis, an endless reinforcement of the past, abandoning change and new possibilities. While escaping from these structural constraints cannot be achieved through education alone, for me it is clearly critical. The free pursuit of knowledge cannot be an afterthought: neither teaching nor research should be limited at the outset by rigid pre-established categories. A democracy should prevent forcing people within the walls of fixed, presumed identities. Possessing self-esteem, thinking, creating and dreaming are not just about what we are, but who we might become, on a path to help us grow and flourish.
[ii] You can find out more about her books at https://www.karinslaughter.com
[iii] Sayre was quoted in the Wall Street Journal, 20 December 1973, but, as ever, many disagree as to the real source
[iv] Sourced by Wikipedia: George H W Bush, 4 May 1991, Remarks at the University of Michigan Commencement Ceremony in Ann Arbor, George Bush Presidential Library
[v] John Carroll, The Wreck of Western Culture, Scribe 2004; Bill Readings, The University in Ruins, Harvard 1996
[vi] Laurent Debreuil, Nonconforming, Harper’s, September 2020