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Fr. 721

June 13, 2016

Central to a grammar of identity is precisely that object “identity” and, more precisely, what we will term
“pathologies of identity”. Insofar as we can speak of identity as an object for political consideration, as perhaps best seen in recent movements in North American universities, we must consider that identity qua political object poses a problem in some way. Hence the term “pathologies of identity” by which we mean to connote a disjunct between the identity which the person projects, the person’s concrete history as individual, and the legitimate claims which the person, in virtue of that identity, may put forward in the political sphere and reasonably expect fulfillment thereof.

As this disjunct may take multitudinous forms, for which we are as of yet unable to present a more or less complete treatment, it may prove helpful to begin by examining a number of illuminating cases of such pathologies. Consider a prior experience with a female student. The student in question seemed rather reluctant to speak in general, but the effect was all the more pronounced with male teachers. It later came out with a female teacher that the student was uncomfortable communicating with men because she was “Algerian”. In other words, the student put forward what she felt a legitimate claim to avoid, as far as possible, prolonged or direct contact with men because of her identity. This owed specifically to her identity’s ethnic, national and cultural components. To back up this identity-based political claim, it would, on the view proposed here, require a concrete personal history in which those ethnic, national and cultural components were intimately bound up, even inextricably so, in order to justify the claims’ strong nature.

Yet the student’s own presentation of her concrete personal history qua individual seemed, if not to belie, at least to muddle considerably the identity which she had put forward and the claims which flowed therefrom. For she, by her own admission, had been born in France, attended French schools, worked in French workplaces and associated with young French people. Neither had she set foot in Algeria, much less spent time there, nor had she learned Arabic. If she spent her weekends almost exclusively with family, themselves first-generation Algerian immigrants, and observed therefore at least some Algerian customs and religious tenets, she also sold and wore contemporary Western fashion and eschewed obligations as to her apparel and appearance.

In short, the student had learned to live in and of both worlds and could ordinarily be expected to aid male customers who presented themselves to the shop where she worked. In this way, there seemed a disconnect between her claims which stemmed from a strong conception of Algerian identity for which there appeared less warrant at the level of her concrete personal history or identity. If she was uncomfortable speaking with others, particularly men, this perhaps owed as much to shyness as her Algerian identity. Thus, broadly political claims, which, otherwise founded, might seem reasonable enough to accommodate, appeared in those circumstances at odds with the claimant’s reality and so undermined their legitimacy. One bundle of identity-based explanations had taken over the work of another character-based bundle and further blocked social interaction. In such a case can we reasonably speak of a “pathology of identity”.



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