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Fr. 520

June 6, 2014

It should perhaps be noted at this time that the fact of providing people with tools to further their self-articulation of identity may encounter certain shortcomings. Prominent among these is the worry that the descriptive task of cataloguing general trends and faultlines in the formation and  formulation of identity carries within it a normative charge. Specifically, when we outline generalities in the formation and formulation of identity, the term “normal” attaches itself almost of its own accord to these generalities and lends them a regulative air. More simply, insofar as these generalities are common, their perceived normality could make divergent kinds of formation and formulation appear deviant in regards to a “standard”.

For this reason, a potent and searching self-critique must accompany any attempt by researchers to furnish tools for self-articulation. Such tools must aspire to be as devoid of normative charge as possible, as can perhaps be seen in the cataloguing of animal, plants and minerals. The inherent difficulty in the present case owes to the object under study: the human species as opposed to animal, vegetal or mineral. Although the mere fact of pronouncing regularities as concerns the human case seems to carry with it the additional weight of a prescription, it is essential to bear in mind that regularities are not in and of themselves rules.

We say “in and of themselves” insofar as there is perhaps a prescriptive component to be extracted from the tools and resources based on regularities if (and only if) the person decides to make use of such tools and resources to effect meaningful change on an element of his or her identity. For, if we hope to provide tools for the self-articulation of identity, it is just as important to remember, on one hand, that self-articulation is equal parts discovery and invention and, on the other, that the person may wish to modify some identity-element or other so as to bring that identity (more) in line with some priority, goal or commitment to which he or she holds. In other words, the tools and resources of which the person may avail himself serve to aid in the manipulation of those elements as well as their identification, the latter being a preparatory step towards the former.

When we use the term “manipulation”, this should be understood in some sense other than “coercion”. Indeed, in a provisional manner, we could maintain that the conditions under which a person may effect meaningful transformation on his or her identity are subject to the same restrictions as those conditions under which a person qua citizen may give meaningful expression to reasons and convictions in the political sphere. These may include both negative conditions (freedom from coercion, freedom of speech) as well as positive duties (responsibly holding a position in regards to critique, earnestly considering the position of others). If such a list of conditions and duties requires considerable fleshing out for the task of self-articulation, we can hastily sketch out a situation in which a person considers several small-scale transformations to be carried out at the level of identity.

Consider a case, admittedly idealized, in which a person is a firm believer in the authority of Scripture and a supporter of social justice. When confronted with some discrepancy between these two, say by an interlocutor pointing out some inconsistency in a position and thus provoking an epistemological crisis, this person might be motivated to carry out a genealogical inquiry in order to determine to what this conflict owes. If the person is unaware of the extent to which these commitments are important identity-elements, it may first be necessary to map these out more thoroughly. Once this preliminary mapping carried out (perhaps on the basis of the universal-particular continuum outlined above), it would then be a matter of determining the precise point of tension. If, for instance, the issue is one of same-sex marriage, then the exact principles promoting and forbidding that practice must be determined. Identification made, it would at last be a question of resolving the conflict, which could be carried out through several, perhaps complementary means: analyzing the push-and-pull between universal and particular-universal commitments; juxtaposing the background of belief by which those principles are framed; hermeneutic examination of the texts in which these are embedded; etc.

What proves common to these enterprises is the preliminary groundwork that must be laid in the way of identification and that tools and resources for identification can themselves have a role to play in the modification of identity, prompted either by the person’s will or an interlocutor’s challenge. Whatever the limits and dangers that modification must confront, it seems that, with proper care, these can be integrated into a successful process of local transformation.

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