Fluid identities foster progressive societies

Published • 20 Mar 2009

I am undertaking an introductory course into gender studies for one my classes in my ‘arts’ (read humanities) degree. Largely the reading thus far has focused on the terms of the discipline and some of the waging debates, but there are a few sections that dive somewhat deeper and develop some interesting ideas.

I came across the following quote the other day on the subject of identity in a section that focused on a postmodern re-evaluation of the concept that needs to accommodate for fluidity in and evolution thereof rather than considering it a a fixed form that is created purely through socialisation. The concern was that this new definition looses its political power by a wider spread of commonalities in differing identities. It was addressed thus:

If identity is seen as fluid, rather than fixed, but as capable of points of (temporary or conditional) stasis, then its political force is not lost but enhanced. So, for example, a working-class Anglo gay man might be able to form a temporary or conditional identification with a middle-class Asian gay man on the grounds of shared sexual identity (and despite differences of class and ethnicity) for the purpose of shared social, cultural and/or political communication and activity. The identity here is conditional, in that both individuals will be aware of their differences (of class and ethnicity), yet it enables kinds of sharing and activity which less flexible notions of identity would tend to devalue. In the postmodern scenario, identity is not an essentialist attribute of an individual but a strategy which individual (complex, multiple) subjects can use to create new and varied alliances.

Although the author probably in no way intended to make a specific case for progressive societies I think this alone brilliantly illustrates — although not in great detail; you may need to let your mind run a bit — the potential of new interrelationships between people who have shared commonalities that stem from a more open and fluid view of personal identity. A society who practice this view would help remove barriers of negative stereotyping and rejection by creating new links between people that could well foster positive relationships.

We see this played out particularly in online communities — early in newsnets and IRC and now in forums, blog comment discourse et al. — which got its foot in the door early because the interaction is held in non-physical terms (at least to some degree) whereby issues of physical proximity (e.g. body language, stresses and alterations in verbal communication) don’t (or to a lesser degree) come into play. It could be said the Internet has helped teach us that earlier judgments based on sex, gender, race, ethnicity and so on — really identity — are largely biased and unfounded as netizens engage in online discussions where these details may not be revealed.

What also caught my eye was a line in a later piece of reading that noted the link between movements to reinstate and protect conservative values and the inherent instability of these values:

There are whole social movements dedicated to re-establishing ‘the traditional family’, ‘true femininity’ or ‘real masculinity’. These movements are themselves clear evidence that the boundaries they defend are none too stable. But the effort to sustain the gender categories also sustain the relations between them — and therefore sustains the inequalities they produce, and the harm they do.

I love the further links that can be created between this and other struggles induced by conservative movements that in a stubborn response to newer progressive ideas aim to retain their values and control. Off the top of my head: states and human rights activism; media stakeholders, millions of teens, and the free culture movement; proprietary software producers and the free (libre) software community; etc..

I think it is inevitable that there will always be forces that will want to protect their values against change, often in destructive responses that hinder development, but I think we’ve made sizable leaps in overcoming some of the most destructive responses in the last few hundred years, and as we develop in societies that are only more interconnected, our identities will only further help the cause of overcoming prejudices and misunderstanding whilst fostering a vast range of possible and probable productive relationships. As such it is vital that efforts to demonize through identity, particularly as illustrated politically in the last eight years are rejected and harmful acts made in accordance are condemned.

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