How identity politics is hurting human freedom

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The influence of identity politics is not confined to the civil wars of the Democratic Party. In our schools, a diversity officer instructs pupils on how their primary identity is rooted in race, gender and economic class. In the universities, humanities professors train students to detect bourgeois, misogynist or neocolonial subtexts embedded in sonnets and Supreme Court rulings.

There is an obvious truth in the new emphasis on identity as the glue and driver of political alliances. The recent debate in Congress over tax policy was not a dispassionate discussion of economics. Class interests hovered over every square inch of the tax reform bill. And as Rousseau once remarked, behind every great fortune lurks a great crime. The wealth-generating crimes of Colonial America fell disproportionately on Native Americans and African slaves. The heritage of that oppression has not disappeared. It is also true that women have suffered a great deal more than men in the grim history of sexual assault.

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The vogue of identity politics threatens one of the basic exercises of human freedom: the construction of our own personal identity.

Nonetheless, the vogue of identity politics threatens one of the basic exercises of human freedom: the construction of our own personal identity. Our ethnic background, our income bracket and our chromosome count constitute basic facts about us. But they are far from being the major determinants of our personal identity or even being determinants at all.

Take ethnic identity. According to ancestry.com, the primary ethnic strain of my DNA is Irish. This is hardly a surprise to the many students and parishioners who claim that my face has the map of Ireland on it. But Irishness has played out very differently in the branches of my family. For my Uncle Tom, his Irish ancestry was a central trait of his personal identity. An ardent Irish nationalist, he picketed British ships when they landed in Philadelphia’s port. Members of his family learned Gaelic, sang Irish folk songs and took up Irish step dancing. He recounted with relish his visits to the family’s ancestral homeland in County Mayo. At the Requiem Mass I recently celebrated for him, his grandchildren sang moving hymns in Gaelic (we were spared “Danny Boy”), the Mayo Association served as honor guards, and piles of fresh soda bread garnished the luncheon table after the burial. Tom had transformed a genetic fact into an ardent cause.

The givens of ethnicity, sexuality, geography and religion are the bits of colored glass with which we construct our idiosyncratic mosaic.

In my immediate family the Irishness was more muted. My parents never learned step dancing, but they did win cha-cha contests. Several of us learned Latin, Greek, French and German, but no one studied Gaelic. We were Irish nationalists, but the only picket lines I recall joining involved antiwar, pro-life and labor causes.

Later in life, I developed an unexpected ethnic identity: French. I studied the French language, did my theological studies in Paris and pursued my doctoral studies at the Francophone wing of the Catholic University of Louvain. For a quarter of a century much of my research has focused on modern French philosophy. In a recent course evaluation, a student suggested that my existentialism course should be renamed “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” I do not know why I developed this love for French language and culture. There is no genetic or family history to explain it. But this is a cultural identity I have freely embraced. It is deeply part of who I am—and who others are not.

Despite our fashionable belief that gender is mutable, each of us negotiates life as male or female. For some people, masculinity or femininity is a central personal trait. But for many, gender and sexual orientation are thin, secondary facts about them. When I wear clerical garb on the subway, as well as in the sanctuary and classroom, I am broadcasting my commitment to the Gospel as the paramount value in my personal hierarchy of goods. But for many of our fellow citizens, the religious affiliation they check off in a box on a hospital admission card has little or no significance in their sense of self. It is their political affiliations, their family descent or their work achievements that march front and center in the presentation of themselves to others.

Much of our current practice of identity politics confuses the raw material of personal identity with the temporarily finished product. The givens of ethnicity, sexuality, geography and religion are the bits of colored glass with which we construct our idiosyncratic mosaic. Race, class and gender are only the preludes to a personal identity bearing the marks of deliberation, struggle and choice. In any human creation—and all the more in the identity we construct for ourselves in everyday life—freedom leaves its trace.

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J Cosgrove
8 months ago

Questioning Identity Politics. That is heresy here at America.

Except if someone wants to identify as a male and that is important to the person. Then that is anathema!

Toby Gillis
7 months 4 weeks ago

Indeed...surprising that this one made it through.................................

Vince Killoran
8 months ago

I used to be a fan of multiculturalism until it got wrapped into ethnic nationalism and emotional reasoning. Pluralism ca. mid-20th century looks pretty good just now.

Dan Acosta
8 months ago

A breath of fresh air! Thank you!

John Walton
8 months ago

WRT your experience in Louvain (Leuwen)?. The late Jim Loughran SJ used to relate the story that when he was an undergrad at Fordham, he asked about "Junior Year Abroad" -- the Dean told him that he could go anywhere in the world as long as it was Louvain.

I miss Fr. Loughran....by his own repute he was quite the pickup basketball player. thanks for writing this.

Kevin Murphy
8 months ago

Father Conley always makes me feel there is hope for the Jesuits.

Dee Holder
8 months ago

I am always confused about this sudden desire by some to discuss 'Identity Politics' . This is never in the context of how "Identity Politics" has driven racism, sexism and harassment of people whose sexual orientation and gender choice has angered some and generated fear in others. It is always in the context of preventing those who have been at the receiving end of such 'identity politics' from speaking out about their experiences and asking for a place at the table that has so long been denied them.

I am confused why after so many years of racism and sexism in writings and teachings of the past, it is such a problem to point out that racism and sexism? Is that not a form of 'identity politics'? And If the true desire is to stamp out identity politics, then should we not want those who made sexist and racist claims to be called out for it?

One of the most amazing things for me after I moved to the States was being able to learn about the amazing variety of people (all American) in the US. I could do one of two things, I could fear all those 'different' people, or I could learn about them. I decided to do the latter and have never regretted it for it has allowed me to learn about so much. The most important thing I learned is that there is a difference between being proud of your heritage and using that pride in your heritage to deny others the right to achieve the things you are able to achieve. The second was that while each culture, religion, ethnicity and yes even gender have their own flavor, under it all we really just want the same thing for ourselves and our families, that nobody is perfect, all are biased, imperfect, and at the same time all in their own way are loving, giving and valuable. That the only justifiable way to judge a person is to empathize with them, listen to them and take them at face value, for what they do, and understand that even I can carry bias and irrational judgment and to be vigilant against that.

Many minorities and women in the US have had their stories told by people who saw them as inferior. As those people now have more voice and agency, mostly on the blood of those that died in the streets to give them that agency, it is natural that they want to start telling their stories from their point of view, and are pushing back on they way their stories have been told in the past. This is a good thing and not something to be feared unless you fear those people being allowed to tell their stories for themselves.

If I recall, Jesus was a champion of those that have been oppressed and whose voices are often silenced and who society tends to judge as lacking. If you want to see an end to 'identity politics' then spend your time addressing racism, sexism and other injustices in this society. When those die...so will identity politics (as you define it).

The author of this piece talks about his various heritages and now he even got to choose a new one. For many in this country their heritage is chosen for them. That heritage dictates how many times they are stopped by the police regardless of their personal integrity and hard work, how many times their resume's are read (scientific studies have shown this), how often people will stop on the street to help them, if they are in need (yes more studies), how much pain medication they will get when in hospital and how much their loans will cost them, and how likely they will be stopped for, indicted and convicted of a crime. Least I am not clear about this, a person's skin color for example will determine how many call backs they get on a resume (identical resumes with different names were used to research this), how much pain medication they will get (blacks get lower amounts for the same pain), if they are stopped (blacks and other minorities are much more likely to be stopped and arrested for EXACTLY the same crimes, or even in cases where whites are more likely to actually be doing the crime).

As for the importance of representation. When I was a TA, there were very few people who looked like me in my field (I met none during my entire scientific education), as a result I decided that I would make an effort to help students who were underrepresented find others who were like them, to show them that yes, they might be different but that they were not alone. Every semester the students in my class needed to research a scientist and write a small paper on them. I decided to encourage my students to research less well known scientists, who had done good work, but who were not always given the same accolades. Find scientists who speak to you, and whom you personally find interesting I told them.

I knew I was doing the right thing when one of my students turned in her paper, her face glowing with happiness. "I didn't know that there were such great female scientists" she gushed, she went on to discuss the one she chose for quite a while, excited. This was over 20 years ago, but I still remember that with fondness.

In those classes I learned another lesson, that all your students are important and should be cared for equally. I taught a lab class and some of my students (first year) separated out by gender, so among the groups I had an all female group and an all male group. Initially the girls needed more encouragement so I paid them attention, I encouraged them, challenged them and made sure they felt comfortable doing science in a world that at the time told them science was not for them. I didn't feel the need to do that as much with my male students as one of them (a football player, LOL there went another stereotype), was one of the smartest kids in that class. They typically needed less help, so as the semester went on I found myself focusing mostly on the young women in my class.

That changed one day when after working with the women, I looked over towards the end of the class and saw my male students sitting there looking dejected. I went over and asked what was wrong. They said that they had no clue what to do. I realized two things that day. One was that I had been derelict in my duty. Yes it was important for me to make sure the women felt comfortable, but that should not be at the expense of my male students. And that very often the male students would not ask for help, if they needed it. So rather than stopping the help and support I was giving to my female students, I kept doing it, with the understanding that for many of them the scientific world was going to be a big colder and unforgiving than for their male counterparts (that has now changed thanks to the presence of more women in science these days), and I could give them a base to fight back by teaching them they could be just as good in that field, but also making sure that my male students also got my full attention and the help that they needed to make them into good scientists as well, and understanding that while they didn't face the same challenges that my female students did, they might face others.

I heard a lot about affirmative action those days on campus, but the minority students on minority scholarships (the very few, most of my minority students were not on those types of scholarships BTW) in my class were just as good as any of the other kids in my class, most of them with the added burden (as other students with scholarships) of having to maintain GPA requirements to keep their scholarships, being the first in their family to go to college, and being surrounded by people (many of them teachers) expecting them to fail. I also had kids who were not minorities that were there because their parents had gone to the school, and had lower or similar GPAs than their counterparts on minority scholarships, and yet somehow, nobody actually expected them to fail, they were given the benefit of the doubt...

So dear sir, while in your case what you put on that card when you enter the hospital may not matter, understand that for others, it does matter and it can dictate what kind of treatment you will get when you enter there.

Nora Bolcon
8 months ago

Thank you Dee. This was an excellent comment. Your students are lucky to have you.

Its like Jesus always said and I keep writing in thread after thread, TREAT EVERYONE THE SAME! and same as you want to be treated. NOT claim there are no differences between people. We are all individuals and therefor we are all different based on a multitude of reasons and groups we fit in and don't fit in. Stop the different treatment - that is the answer. The best place to start that same treatment revolution, especially when it comes to gender is in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. We must demand ordained women priests, bishops and women cardinals be made immediately and allow them equally to be elected pope. That's the Gospel people. Period.

John Walton
8 months ago

Brevity is the soul of wit.

Mike Theman
8 months ago

The word "freedom" is tossed about as something that should have no limit, the ultimate right to do whatever one wants. But, of course, when one lives in a society, it is necessary to sacrifice some freedom in exchange for that choice of living among others. Your freedom of identity is necessarily impacted by the culture in which you live. When your choice of identity clashes with what is deemed a cultural good, you either have to limit your freedom (adapt your identity to the culture), or you need to change the culture in which you live (by forcing change or moving to a different place). Assimilation (the sacrifice of identity for a common culture) has been exchanged for the sacrifice of culture for personal desires. A house divided cannot stand, but that's where our "me" culture has led us.

The writers of the Constitution attempted to create the foundation for American culture in the Bill of Rights, but what had been intended as the right to be free from government intervention has been adopted by individualists as the right to use the force of government to protect personal identity. Ironically, our government is being used as a tool to destroy the existing culture in exchange for personal identity, and hence, divisiveness.

Nora Bolcon
8 months ago

The answer to this should be treat everyone the same, not decide everyone is the same person and treat them all - men, women, all races, and ethnicities no differently than you would wish to be treated and all will go well for you.

Father Conley, maybe if you stood up for your Sisters in Christ who were equally called to priesthood, you would have less women fighting you on every word in a book you want to teach students at colleges. Also, to correct this articles oversights, women paid a huge financial, religious, political, and educational price throughout our history due to sexism. We did not just suffer physical abuse.

A suggestion: If teachers express that this class is going to include a certain type of writing then the students know you are teaching a style or subject the way it happened in history which does not mean you promote that style or treatment now. Communication and fair treatment make all these problems of overly political correctness start to disappear but that takes genuine love and concern for the other and what the other has been thru.

Carol Cox
7 months 4 weeks ago

Dear Fr. Conley, I enjoyed your article very much. Growing up, I used to say that I was Irish and French. Every time my mother heard me say this, I would get a gentle tap on the back of my head, "You are not French!" But, I persisted. Last year, I discovered that my mother's family were deeply rooted in France, in Strausbourg! I was thrilled! Unfortunately, Mom didn't live long enough to know this. She would have gotten a chuckle out of it. I take pride in whom I am and where I came from. I did not struggle the way my folks and their relatives did; but, I cherish knowing that they made every effort to make life better for their children. We never took it for granted. And, we did not raise children of privilege, either. Our children are writers, teachers, business people, and fireman. We are proud that are carrying the torch forward by doing for others what was done for them.

Edward Graff
7 months 3 weeks ago

Fr. Conley's piece is well worth re-reading mainly because it's a beautifully written expression of the essence of privilege. Certainly it would be desirable if each person were free to explore and fully develop their identity as an interweaving of ethnicity, culture and personal interest. If Fr. Conley wants to celebrate his Irish or French roots (as I do), fine - but there is no price to be paid for his doing so. The reality is quite different for those whose gender or skin color or culture doesn't match the "norm." As my wife earned her doctorate, she had some really hurtful experiences with a priest teaching at a well-regarded Catholic university solely because of her race . . . nasty personal stuff all within the last twenty years. I never encountered those things myself because my appearance, like Fr. Conley's, simply doesn't inspire the same reaction from those who perpetuate sinful racism. Not enough of us are permitted the freedom to move beyond our superficial identities. This myth that discrimination and bigotry is a thing of the past is really central to the concern I sense in writers who can't see why race, gender, culture and sexual orientation are still of such paramount importance to communities within the larger culture. Of course we are each more than markers on a demographic checklist. Why then don't more of us act like we believe it?

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