The hopeful hegemony of Personal Identity

One of the really fascinating insights from Don Cupitt’s book After God is a very short, late book discussion on the nature of organizing cultural principles. He notes that humans have organized themselves first around tribes, later around nation-states, and in the 20th century around religious ideologies and ethno-nationalist sects. There is more complexity to this, of course: people living in a country with a state religion will both simultaneously be organized around a religious structure as well as a political one, and America (and the increasingly democratized world) has parties organized around both religious and nationalist tribalism.

Most importantly, he notes that the progress of globalization has moved people away from these geographical or historical structures to ones which are multi-national and inclusive: brands. By their global nature, international mega-brands need to alienate as few as possible while garnering support from people in far-flung geographical locations with wide-ranging philosophical beliefs. He says:

Interestingly, our great multinational corporations and systems of communication and exchange already practice a kind of global political correctness. They rather deliberately bracket out, set aside, any consideration of gender, nationality, race, color, creed. A worker is a worker and a customer is a customer, regardless. It is conventional to criticize the multinationals for being mobile, rootless, anonymous, and interested only in profit, but I’m pointing out that it is precisely these features that make them morally superior to our old locally based national and religious identities. Being mobile and global, they cannot afford to operate by generating and excluding an Other, and they therefore had to find a new basis for communal loyalty.

After God pg. 98, italics in original

Cupitt then goes on to mention the growing trend to “other-ize” Islam, but that this effort is a death throe of the old order. This was written before 1997! He both predicted the war which was triggered by the events of September 11th, 2001, and also, in a sense, predicted how public opinion would turn away from that war with our increasing sense of globalization.

What I find interesting about brand loyalty as a culturally unifying concept is both how notable this rise was and how quickly it seems to have burnt out. The extreme ethno-centrism and nationalism that was the reaction to 9/11 hasn’t faded, of course. Creating an enemy is a time-honed and effective method of galvanizing a tribe. But Cupitt’s observation that globalization has created an allegiance to, an organization around multinational brands was certainly a verifiable trend leading up to 2001 and several years after. It seems crass to us today, but people really did identify strongly with, say, Starbucks and their ability to get their favorite latte in any port. Fanatics for Apple products could be located the world over. People began to value their employer over their parents’ church, to protect their company’s interest over their country’s.

This is a moral alternative to Other-ness, one which encourages world-wide unity over adversarlism. It is objectively better than warring tribes. But it is hard to maintain- all it takes is one “big bad” to scare people back into polarization, which is why we are constantly fighting a cultural battle of globalization against ethno-centrism.

More than that, we quickly realized how brands are exploitative and don’t have our interests at heart. These multinational corporations turned out, it seems, to be just as destructive as warring tribes. Worse, a geographical or religious tribe is made up of the interests of its members so it has their well-being at its core. Brands and corporations have at their core the interest of their owners, stock-holders, and board members, meaning that people who willfully pledge themselves in service to a brand are working against their own interest (so long as they don’t have an ownership stake).

We also know that brands have lost this globalist clout because of the way brands now must act in the marketplace of ideas; brands assert a sort of identity with which people can find an affinity as opposed to gaining loyalty by virtue of their equanimity. This is best exemplified by something like a brand of frozen meat products positioning itself as a political radical, or a burger chain becoming irreverent and edgy. These brands are demonstrating the new ideal around which we organize ourselves, which is no longer the brands themselves.

We pivoted to a new organizing principle: personal identity.

In the past few years we’re seeing an increasing trend towards personal identity as an answer to tribalism. By this I mean any signifier which you choose for yourself independent of an institution, although your self-identification may qualify you for membership in some groups. We now believe that we have ultimate autonomy over our identification in a way we never have before: Your gender identity used to be assumed by your sex organs, now we understand that gender is a personal identity. Your sexual orientation was assumed by your gender, now we understand that orientation is a personal identity. Race used to be assumed by the appearance of your skin, now we understand that race is a constructed identity. Religion used to be dictated by your parents or cultural heritage, now we understand that religion is a personal identity.

This has manifested itself in many ways: The “me too” movement, for instance, relies on a fundamental personal identification as a victim of sexual violence and harassment. That’s why when we say we “believe women,” we’re not just unequivocally accepting their recounting of events as objective truth; we’re acknowledging that they personally self-identify as a survivor, which is an identification we cannot take away from them. The objective truth of the situation in question doesn’t change someone’s personal identification.

This idea, that personal identity isn’t contingent on objective reality, means that identity is inviolate. Identity is a subjective, unverifiable quality. An individual has only to claim a specific identity and no one can argue against it. You can’t tell someone else their chosen identity is wrong, whether it involves gender or sexual orientation or sexual assault victimhood. Of course, who would want to anyway? The only reason why someone would choose to invalidate someone else’s personal identity is as a way to gain their fidelity to another tribe. In this way, invalidating someone else’s identity becomes an act of aggression.

I wonder how we will look back on certain moments of self-identification as we evolve this inviolate sense of identity. For instance, viewed in this light the race-swapping Rachel Dolezal isn’t necessarily the shocking story it seems: she simply is identifying with a race to which she lacks genetic relation, but it doesn’t invalidate the affinity she feels towards that identification. We already know that race is a construct and certainly isn’t based in genetics, so why shouldn’t this apply to her? Of course there is the question of appropriation, but where does identification begin and appropriation end? Are drag queens appropriating feminine identity? Are sexually adventurous straight people appropriating homosexuality? I don’t know the answer to these questions other than to say that one’s own personal identity must be treated as valid.

This emerging sense of organizing around identity has the added benefit of being truly ecumenical in a way that brand-identification never was. We can gather in tribes related to our identities, but we can’t fight about which should reign supreme, because we recognize that identity is subjective and inviolate. We might form groups around one identity, but they stop from becoming monolithic because of the vast diversity and intersectionality within each group. And each group can’t demand homogenization, because we can’t dictate other’s personal identities! I find this extremely hopeful, but a little counter-intuitive: it is actually by our acceptance of labels that we transcend division. We’re more peacefully connected because of the ways we describe ourselves and others, not in spite of them.

After God

I came to the BBC docu-series The Sea of Faith by way of the Samuel Barber musical setting of the Matthew Arnold poem which its title references. I later discovered it’s author and narrator, Don Cupitt, was a prolific writer and former priest. I’ve been familiar with his work long enough to cherish his contributions to religious thought but I only recently revisited After God, a stunning gem of a book which is made even more remarkable by how prescient it seems nearly 25 years after its publication.

Cupitt’s writing is so unusual because he splits his attention between laypeople and academics yet never fails either. His references to the philosophical canon are deep, yet if you don’t know the citation you’re immediately made aware of its importance without his ever being patronizing. He is fluent in the technical language of Kant but speaks as directly and colloquially as a friend.

His writing, viewed some 25 years later, rarely feels dated. His interest in Derrida, Foucault, and the post-structuralists feels of it’s time: those writers today are relegated to a historical tradition which doesn’t place them much higher than other writers, but much of the writing from the later half of the 20th century feels like a direct response to them. His construction of religion as language feels steeped in Wittgenstein; I don’t think a contemporary writer would try to frame his argument thus nor rely so heavily on the construction of language.

The prescience he demonstrates in his examination of religious history is culminated in his remarks about literalism. He nearly predicts our current climate of intensely divided ideology. He links this dying conservatism to authoritarianism, which is clearly demonstrated in a current day Republican Party which follows no ideology but seeks only power-for-power’s-sake. He presages the continued decline of religion- since he wrote in the 90s, the number of religiously unaffiliated people has probably doubled, or more. What seemed like a crisis in the 90s today is an unabated trend.

And yet there are still believers! I agree with him that, in the future, all philosophy will be naturalistic. Yet we’re still arguing those basic points today! The Sea of Faith has ebbed but not emptied. Its supporters believe it can be refilled, without any major reformation. His writing is unequivocally one of the greatest influences on my own belief in The Catholic Atheist, and yet he, and I, remain somewhat lonely in our crusade to de-mystify religious theology and reform religious life. Why isn’t Cupitt a worldwide sensation? Why hasn’t he changed our world, the way he’s changed mine?

If I knew the answer to this, perhaps I could get my book published. In the meanwhile, it is worth noting that Cupitt’s plea to begin the creation of a worldwide religion has been largely unheeded. What is needed is not a new Catholicism, but a global sense of unity, tolerance, and inclusivity which defines a new world religious sensibility. We can keep our tribal sects, we should embrace our beautiful differences. But the only path forward is one in which religious traditions drop the dogma and embrace pluralism, one where theology is supplanted with self-examination, where absolute truth is replaced with the Blissful Void. “What of all this deserves to survive will survive.” But only if the process of post-modernization doesn’t destroy that which we already value.