Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves. –C. G. Jung
The rise of transgenderism in the past couple of years has put our culture in a position of confusion and tension. Just recently, a self-identified “girl” who is biologically a boy was admitted to the girls’ track team at Cromwell High School and won state championships. The 2016 decision made by Target Corporation to allow opposite genders into communal bathrooms led to many Americans to decide to take their shopping dollars elsewhere. Much has been said in critique of transgenderism, including the inevitable collision course between the incompatible ideologies of transgender identity and gender feminism. Of that, I will say no more here.
What concerns me here is not whether there are two genders or ninety-two. I wish to steer the focus more deeply into the underlying habit that belies the transgender conflict. This is the unchecked faith in identity. The word “identify” stems from the Latin meaning “to regard or prove to be the same.” A botanist will walk through a pasture correctly identifying a species of wildflower. A mathematics teacher will correctly identify a mistake in the calculation of his student’s arithmetic. The botanist shows how the wildflower is the same as other wildflowers of the same species, and the teacher is able to show how the error in calculation is akin to other errors made in arithmetic. Yet, when we say “I identify as a woman,” or, and let’s expand the conversation greatly here, “I identify as a Republican,” “I identify as a liberal,” “I identify as a black man,” “I identify with my rural roots,” “I can identify with your experience,” and so forth, we must bear something critically important—the act of self-identity, of association of one’s self with various groups, is one fraught with complication and the risk of error.
Identification, especially self-identification, can be wrong.
Surely that is not to say that the botanist’s wildflower is a columbine because he simply wills it to be so. Otherwise, we’d have to allow that the botanist can get away with calling the columbine a pinion pine. We’d object, saying that is crazy. “But I identify this as a pinion pine, and therefore it is a pinion pine.” Similarly, we’d have to seriously consider the fate of our student’s learning if the mathematics teacher were to say that 2 + 5= 9 because he “identifies” the solution to be 9.
Willful rejection of reality is self-imposed suffering. When I reject reality, I reject myself. When I reject myself, I cannot accept others.
We must understand that identity and self-identification are egoistic in nature. What I regard as myself is not always accurate and is never complete. The ancient philosophers reaching back to Socrates and the Greeks, whose Delphic injunction to “Know thyself” implied that by nature men are myopic, narrow-minded, ignorant, and walking through life as though half-asleep. Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, spoke of a uniting ground of reality, something he called the Logos, which belied all appearances and served as the true basis of understanding. Yet, he said, most men wander about the earth unaware of this common reality. Thus, the Greek philosophers were keenly aware of the insufficiency of common human understanding and sought to uncover the truth of themselves through reflection and rational inquiry. Philosophy was born as a tradition of self-examination and rigorous self-critique in order that one’s self and one’s world may be seen with clear eyes.
Our habitual practice of identity, feeding into identity politics, must become occasion for pause and concern. Extreme partisanship, tribalism, “culture wars,” the image we present ourselves with on social media, all stem from unreflective self-identity. As much as nearly everyone will denounce being “labeled,” our inclination to self-label in all ends of the political universe is self-inhibiting, not only individually but as a people. Our country seems to want to tear itself apart, pitting neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend, even family against family.
Self-identification is a natural and necessary part of human life. From our earliest days of childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood, we are constantly grasping for a sense of self, of definition, of what we are. The experiences we have help clarify that picture of self as we grow. But we must always remember that our conscious impressions of ourselves are only at best a mosaic of fractured, incomplete shards of thought, sometimes reflective of truth, sometimes reflective of illusion. We must also realize that, by implication, if we do not ever fully understand ourselves, how can we claim to have a complete understanding of one another? Can we reach out beyond the worst echo chamber of all—our own self-conception—to really see one another?
Henry David Thoreau wrote in his Walden something we may do well to hold in our hearts in troubled times: “Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. what a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.”