Identity and the Civilization of the West
Identity has become a problem today. No one seems sure where it comes from, what it is for, or what difference it should make. The questions relate not just to who gets classified how, or the common concerns of this group or that, but to the nature of identity as such. So the future of Western identity depends on the future of identity itself.
This is an unprecedented situation. People usually do not argue about identity because it is so fundamental. It precedes choice, because it tells the chooser who he is and gives him a perspective from which to understand and deal with life. So it is not normally something people create for themselves or make decisions about, and someone who does so is most often a con man, fantasist, or psychopath.
What identity is
To choose an example close to hand, I am a human being, a man, son, brother, husband, and father, a Catholic, Westerner, and American. So I belong to a particular species, sex, family, Church, civilization, and country, and these characteristics are part of what I am. I cannot undo any of them easily, or in most cases at all: I cannot drop out of the human race, unman myself, disown my blood relations, unmarry myself (as I said, I am Catholic), or undo my baptism.
I acquired some of these characteristics involuntarily, others through my actions and the response of others. I had no choice becoming a human being, man, son, or brother. Nor could I choose my children, although I could have avoided becoming a father. In a sense I had more choice becoming a Catholic, since I am a convert, but my conversion was less a choice than a recognition that I had already become Catholic in outlook and loyalty. Marriage was more completely voluntary, but it too involved dispositions that are not simply a matter of choice, for example readiness to maintain loyalty to a particular person over the course of a lifetime. And, of course, becoming Catholic and getting married required the cooperation of others.
These identities are social as well as individual. They make me what I am, and also place me in society. The two are necessarily connected, since how I understand myself, my good, the world and my place in it, what I am and what I should do, depend on social networks to which I belong. The most important of these, almost by definition, relate to aspects of identity: if a network is sufficiently fundamental to my life, it helps define who I am.
The nature of identity as personal and social means that understandings of identity—of what it is to be a human being, man, Catholic, or member of a family, what I should do as such, and so on—differ somewhat among Tom, Dick, and Harry, and among Americans, Italians, and Japanese. Even so, they are not personal inventions or pure social constructions. Some version of them—some understanding of humanity, sexual distinctions and roles, marriage, blood relationship, ultimate reality and our position in relation to it—seems to be basic to every society and thus to the constitution of human life.
That is because personal and social identity serve as basic organizing principles. They tell us who we are and what that means, which helps us think coherently about what to do, and they tell others what they can expect of us. So they have always accounted for much of the institutional aspect of society, the differentiated positions and responsibilities that are necessary for a collectivity to function. Consider, for example, men, women, and the natural family that has always seemed the basis of social order. Or religious identity, Catholicism in traditional Europe for example, and the wide range of social expectations, relations, and functions it has accounted for.
Further, some versions of these understandings promote the normal beneficial functioning of human life better than others. Recognizing two sexes, with men playing a more public and women a more domestic role, seems a human universal. That would hardly happen without a functional basis, so we can be confident the system works better than the unisex or radically egalitarian multigender systems now demanded as a supposed requirement of justice and reason. And given that situation, recognizing the institution of marriage and the obligations of husband and wife as specific and permanent can be expected to work better than treating marriage as purely contractual or terminable at will, let alone abandoning institutional form altogether in favor of a shapeless system of “relationships“ and “hooking up.“
With all that in mind, a well-functioning system of identities is evidently basic to a normal and rewarding way of life. It tells us who we are in society, brings with it a system of moral practices, obligations, and ideals, and gives us a perspective from which we can make sense of our situation and reason effectively about what we should do. So it is part of what makes us social and rational, and human life organized, articulate, and functional.
What has gone wrong
For that reason it is troubling that the West is in the midst of a comprehensive identity crisis, one that seems to dissolve all identities even as they paradoxically take on obsessive importance.
The changing nature of American and Western identity sheds light on the matter. These identities are far from human universals, but they evidently have some reality. America and the West function to some extent as wholes, and growing up in them marked me (to continue with myself as an example) in a way that will not go away, and brought with it unavoidable obligations toward the assemblage of people, ideas, and institutions that helped make me what I am. So I am distinctly and indelibly American and Western.
On the other hand, America and the West are historical developments rather than natural facts or divinely ordained realities. They will not last forever, and they have changed a great deal during my lifetime, along with the principles and spirit that animate them. Further, those who guide them have been moving more and more clearly toward open borders, and toward inclusion of what was once viewed as non-American and non-Western. These changes would eventually replace American and Western identity with a radical cosmopolitanism, but to oppose them is now considered a betrayal of American and Western values. “That is not who we are,” as President Obama is fond of saying.
So America and the West have turned against themselves. It is too early to tell whether populist rebellions such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump may change that, but the history of failed populist uprisings, their lack of institutional and intellectual depth, and the strength of the tendencies that have led us where we are make it unlikely there has been a fundamental reversal. The very insanity of an official program of national and civilizational suicide, and of the hysterical reaction among educated and well-placed people to recent events that seem to threaten it, make its reversal less likely, since it underlines the immunity of recent trends to considerations of reason, advantage, or popular sentiment.
And that presents a problem. American and Western identities are humanly dispensable—life did not end for Aeneas after the destruction of Troy or for Romans after the disappearance of classical civilization—but membership in a particular people and affiliation with a particular civilization is not. A people is a population joined by common history, loyalties, institutions, and ways of life, and by a sense of common destiny, while a civilization is a complex of peoples joined by history and common aspirations and understandings. The existence of such things is universal and necessary, since they provide members with a somewhat coherent framework for life with others that includes mutual loyalties and the common habits, attitudes, and understandings that go by the name of culture.
The culture of a particular people functions in large part by recognizing other aspects of identity and giving them a common interpretation that helps them work together so that people can have a decent way of life together. Thus, particular peoples and their cultures normally have a somewhat coherent common understanding of humanity, masculinity, femininity, family relations, and religion, and they attribute an importance to those things related to their natural and intrinsic function. Until recently, American culture, as well as that of the broader West, did so as well. Like other cultures, they had flaws, but they had strengths as well, and gave people a place to live and something to work with.
Today that has changed, at least officially. The official view is that the aspects of identity I mentioned as human universals continue to be personally fundamental to the extent people feel them so, but they should be deprived of all relevance to social functioning and position, and made as voluntary and as subject to personal interpretation as possible. In other words, a genderqueer Somali Muslim atheist living in Ohio should have the same acceptance, opportunities, respect, and likelihood of success as anyone else. Otherwise he is a victim, and how can the larger society complain if he lashes out?
Exceptions that seem indispensable to the radically subjectivist rule of equal affirmation of all concepts of identity, for example enforcement of obligations between parent and child, are dealt with by viewing them as creations of the law that can and should be changed whenever social policy demands. Any view that opposes the subjectivist—that male and female are fixed categories that matter, that marriage is a specific arrangement with an intrinsic function and goal rather than a freeform personal project, that in Rome one should do as the Romans rather than Hmong do—is bigotry and “privilege.“ As such, it demonstrates ignorance, stupidity, psychological disorder, and very likely a disposition toward violence.
Such principles are now considered a matter of fundamental human rights. Even the many people who do not accept them through and through have no way to argue against them and so defer to them. They are therefore principles that win arguments. If you question them openly, even to the extent of saying that British, American, or Western people have their own destiny and interests that deserve the protection of their governments, you are not only deplorable, but irredeemably so. You are a white supremacist, and implicitly a Nazi. So why should you be listened to or viewed as a legitimate participant in public life?
As a result, we are now in a position in which it is considered supremely important to recognize Bruce Jenner as a woman, because he says he is one. At the same time it is supremely important to recognize no difference in nature, tendency, or role between men and women, except to the extent women seem to have special strengths and competencies, or special protection seems necessary, for example by distinguishing men’s and women’s sports. (The latter situation, however, cannot be called “special protection“ for fear of implying women are weaker.) And if tomorrow Jenner says he is neither male nor female, but something else, and his pronouns are “xe“ and “hir,“ you have to go along with that too on pain (in New York City) of a $250,000 fine.
All this is obviously insane. People recognize on some level that a shared system of stable identities rather like the inherited one is basic to human life, but no one knows how to make the point effectively in the language of present-day public discussion. So the response to residual unstated recognition of that reality is repeated moral panics and ever more radical attempts to uproot all sense of settled identities and their functions. In that effort formal penalties are supplemented by social media lynch mobs and endless propaganda about the oppressiveness of the old system and the glories of the new: the old socially-supported roles of wife and mother were inhumanly oppressive, we are told, but it is liberating to work low-paid clerical or service jobs and raise gender-questioning children as a single mother dependent for assistance on electronic entertainment and government-provided social services.
That is the situation that led to Brexit and the Trump phenomenon, with their emphasis on the decisive importance of national identity, and it is why people committed to the general tendency of events describe Brexit and Trump supporters, often in shockingly abusive terms, as bigoted, irrational, racist, xenophobic, willfully stupid, and so on.
Why this is happening
People’s views are always running off in odd directions. Man is social, however, and not every view is socially acceptable, so the range of views admissible in public discussion is determined by the consensus of publicly influential people. This is all the more true today, since intellectual life, prestige journalism, and social life generally are becoming increasingly institutional and hierarchical, and at the same time increasingly herdlike.
So the question is why sane, highly functional, and in some sense well-informed people in responsible positions accept and foster insane views. The answer is that they have come to think about society in a way that breaks the link between traditional identities and legitimate social functioning. In particular, they have adopted a technocratic ideal that says that rational action consists in the efficient and orderly use of available resources for whatever goals happen to be chosen. That view has proven enormously effective in building up the modern state, modern industry, and modern technology and natural science. Also, unlike Confucianism or the Western natural law tradition, it seems equally available to all participants everywhere in an increasingly global society. It is therefore applied ever more comprehensively, and with regard to public issues has become nearly universal and absolute.
On such a view, everyone equally chooses goals, and the fact something has been chosen as a goal is what makes it worth attaining. It follows that the just and rational society is one that efficiently and reliably gets everyone what he wants, as much and as equally as possible. The people now running things have decided that such a society can best be approximated through a sort of EU writ large: a system based on world markets supervised and supplemented by transnational bureaucracies run by experts on economics, social welfare, and human rights. Such a system—which on current understandings is the only truly legitimate social order—has its own way of functioning. It needs workers, functionaries, and consumers, and makes use of them in accordance with their wealth, organizational position, and certified competencies, but it has no use whatever for traditional identities, which it sees as irrational, disruptive, and radically at odds with the perfect top-down transparency to which it aspires.
Those who accept this ideal—basically, everyone respectable in Western public life—therefore believe that traditional identities need to be suppressed for the sake of a just and efficient society. That is difficult, because people are attached to them, so what is done is what liberal society has done with religion: agree that traditional identities are of course very important for those attached to them, but insist that they have no legitimate public significance, and everyone can define them for himself and receive equal acceptance and respect.
Hence the compulsory acceptance of novel genders and family forms, the ever broader reach of anti-harassment rules, and the up-and-coming concepts of privilege and microaggression. Any expectation that people will abide by traditional norms, any failure to respect the private or cultural norms of others as equal in validity, is a hate crime. It is an attack on someone’s identity, an attempt to erase him, to annihilate him as what he is, and thus all but equivalent to murder.
Detached from human reality though it is, that approach harmonizes with liberal theory, which views maximizing equal freedom as the supreme social goal, with freedom and equality treated as open-ended abstractions that are left to define themselves, and social respect as a primary social good that must be equalized. It also harmonizes with tendencies of thought associated with modern natural science that reject essences and teleology in favor of efficient causality and what can be measured, and are therefore happier with equal satisfaction of whatever preferences manifest themselves as a social standard than a more adequate conception of the good.
But to what end? Liberal suppression of the question of the good puts that question off the table, a defect that will ultimately destroy liberalism as a governing philosophy. In fact, the end is inhuman and ultimately unworkable. Suppressing traditional identities, and the social arrangements they support—family, religion, nation, cultural community, civilizational affiliation—disrupts fundamental aspects of social order and human self-understanding.
Traditional identities gave people a position in a human and moral cosmos by telling them who they are, what the system of the world is like, and how they fit into it. We need that. Money cannot buy everything, even when supplemented by smartphones and sensitivity training. We are social beings and not Nietzschean supermen able to will our own moral reality, or machines able to dispense with such concerns.
What, for example, do people do with sex in the Brave New World now rising? Traditional identities related our physical being, and the physiological and psychological impulses and functions to which it gives rise, to social being and functioning. That helped us connect private life to life in society and make sense of them together.
Self-defined do-it-yourself identities cannot do that, even if they could otherwise succeed in making sense of a situation so complex, subtle, and far-reaching, because they are not allowed social relevance. Whether you are male, female, two-spirit, or pangender is now considered a private construction with no functional significance to others. The predictable result of that and related trends is that sex is a mess, and the situation will not be made better by insisting on further progress on the same lines.
The problem of course is not just the unsettling of sexual identity. Sexual identity profoundly affects understandings of family relationships, which are also central to personal identity. And I have touched on the need for cultural and civilizational identity to determine understandings of other aspects of identity, such as sex, family, and religion, and work them into a functional system that enables us to live a rewarding life with others. Otherwise such understandings become idiosyncratic and cannot serve as the basis of a common way of life.
In any event, the effort to free us from the oppression of settled social identities is pointless. Man is social, people orient themselves by what matters socially, and they cannot determine individually what counts from that point of view. If they are not allowed to place themselves by reference to traditional identities they will do so by reference to what is allowed to matter, career and ideology. So today it is not acceptable to think you have a place in the world because you are a white male, but it is definitely acceptable to think so because you are educated at an elite institution and have correct views on social matters.
The importance of such matters is demonstrated by the obsessive competition to get into the most prestigious schools, and the endless moral signaling to demonstrate correct ideological alignment. It means that in America we are willing to accept rule by the Supreme Court, an unelected committee now composed entirely of Yale and Harvard graduates. (The rise of “human rights“—our rulers’ vision of what human relations should look like—as a supreme legal norm means other Western countries are increasingly imitating that arrangement.)
Unfortunately, the new system of identities is much less functional than the old. Only a minority can aspire to enough success to make career aspirations a usable guide to life. Not everyone can climb the corporate ladder, and institutions such as Harvard and Oxford exclude almost all applicants for the sake of defining a very small ruling elite. And it is hard for people who are not devoted careerists or their hangers-on to see the world from the favored ideological perspective, since that perspective mostly has to do with dividing up promotions—hence the talk about “glass ceilings” and so on—and running a system of top-down social management.
For that reason current trends deprive ordinary people of a system of identity and thus a system of life that works for them. Many therefore become anxious, confused, weakly connected socially, and increasingly non-functional as they fall prey to addictions, distractions, resentments, and other self-destructive behavior. It is possible such people will pull together and turn to something much better, like a serious and grounded form of religion. The easier course, though, is to continue the slide, or turn obstinate and rebel, most directly through vehement assertion of a perhaps disconnected aspect of traditional identity. In the absence of a grounded overall conception of social order, such assertions are likely either to dissipate or go too far. That is why respectable people, who see no justification at all for parochial loyalties, think “Nazism” when they see the success of Brexit and Donald Trump.
Even for the successful, the current system has its problems. A view that resolutely excludes basic human realities from consideration is guaranteed to result in private unhappiness as well as public folly. The current combination of consumerism, careerism, and social climbing is radically inferior to a way of life oriented by a functional system of identities toward enduring goods and relationships. Careers reach dead ends, politically correct ideology offers few personal satisfactions, and all lives are unsuccessful in worldly terms, since they end in weakness, loss, suffering, and death. We need a way of life that can deal with life, and that we lack.
Where do we go?
The West has ended up where it is because objective goods and stable identities have been rejected as violations of human freedom that are unfounded in the nature of things. But if purposes and classifications are arbitrary, man is no longer social or rational by nature, since he could equally choose isolation and insanity. He could be anything at all, so he is nothing worth taking into account, just raw material for someone’s projects. After a brief moment of seeming unconditioned freedom, the illusion of absolute autonomy therefore vanishes and he becomes whatever the most willful and powerful choose to make him.
That will not last. Sooner or later, a view that eliminates the possibility of a life in accordance with reason and nature leads to radical dysfunction, loses credit, and disappears. But the collapse of current governing understandings may not lead to an immediate turn for the better. When a serious and sustained effort to eradicate the social relevance of something as basic as sex or particular cultural tradition falls apart, the immediate results are likely to be crude and unpredictable. Consider, for example, the situation in Russia after the failure of communism, an attempt to eradicate the significance of economic self-interest.
The farther the attempt has gone the worse the results are likely to be, so the sooner it is abandoned the better. But what can be done? How can a more stable, functional, and rewarding system of identities, and with it something perhaps more like the civilization of the West as it was until recently, be restored?
As always, the ultimate issue is the nature of the world, and the answer to our current problems must be given at that basic level. The answer will evidently involve the restoration of a stable and functional system of standards and identities, but the system cannot simply be imposed but must be felt to reflect the nature of things. Natural law, particularly those aspects that support basic human identities like male, female, and marriage, must come to seem once again an evident feature of reality.
In a sense, that would simply require a restoration of common sense. What kinds of things do experienced, adult, and normally functional and socially connected people tend to believe about the world if they are not continually re-educated to believe something else? But that reversal faces barriers in a public order that secures the position of its rulers by radically subordinating intuition to supposed expertise, and scorns ordinary beliefs based on everyday experience as “deeply rooted social stereotypes“—which for some reason is thought to debunk them.
To change that situation will be a huge task requiring a transformation of public ways of thought. There is not time or space here to discuss what that would entail, but to be aware of the problem is already to be half way to solving it. The forces of renewal have reality, some of the best modern thought, and all thought, learning, and literature before the modern age to support them. Against that there is only inertia, careerism, and blinkered views that are already losing credibility, however compulsory they may be at present. In the end sanity will win.
The way one view replaces another is that those who reject the established view start debunking it in theory and promoting and living by one that seems better. That is how liberationist views won in the 60s—they had a long history before that when they were despised and often suppressed, but eventually persistence, boldness, the disarray of their opponents, and a conviction of their obvious correctness carried the day. To deal with the present situation we need to do the same: to make a sustained effort to articulate, justify, and above all live by the idea of the world as an ordered moral cosmos in which we all have a part.
But what then? The future belongs to those who accept the truth about man and the nature of things. A great civilization can be disrupted and disordered, but when the fit passes it returns to type if its principles remain adequate to human life. If people manage to live well in an increasingly nonfunctional world, what they stand for will prevail. So if Western civilization is worth saving, it can be saved. It is up to us to be worthy of it.
– James Kalb is an attorney and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. A Catholic convert, he has written on politics, culture, and religion for a number of publications in Europe and the United States. He is the author of two books, The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI, 2008), and Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013). His last contribution to the Sydney Traditionalist Forum was to its 2016 Symposium (“transcendence: community, nation, civilisation; religious aspects of the present turmoil”) was titled “Liberalism as a Religion”.
This article is to be cited according to the following convention:
James Kalb, “Identity and the Civilization of the West” SydneyTrads – Weblog of the Sydney Traditionalist Forum (11 February 2017) <sydneytrads.com/2017/02/11/2017-symposium-james-kalb/> (accessed [date]).