Who’s Who and What’s What?

It’s fashionable in the freedom movement to criticise Critical Theory but various reports over the last few days have made me think about the importance of one of its commonplaces:

Identity is multiple, contested and transitory

Me, paraphrasing everyone else

For those sensible people who stay far, far away from pretentious artsy varsity courses, Critical Theory is basically what happens when you subversively say “it ain’t necessarily so!” but get really arsey about it – and publish expensive books and well-cited papers that repeat the same point from various angles, like very dull sermons, using a lingo that’s so complex it’s indecipherable even to the author (this is known as “dense”).

The various reports that have made me reconsider the value of this pretentious commonplace (one of the ways to get points in CT is to know the “archaeology” and “genealogy” of words and this one can have me expounding for hours about mnemonic systems and topoi – but it just means something that everyone always says) were on the Tory leadership contest and Unionist bonfires in Northern Ireland.

It struck me, rather unkindly, that people of ethnic minorities tend to be British when it suits them. Then I reflected, more fairly, that that’s exactly what the British establishment has done to ethnic minorities. So tit for tat! In the bad old days when Britannia ruled the waves, the people overseas were told that the Empress Victoria, out of an over-abundance of condescending kindness, had decided to mother ’em all and that henceforth they were to consider England (shieldboss of the universe and shorthand for the UK) their one, true and only Home.

So kind of Queen Vic! That, of course, was all very well as long as all these grateful subjects stayed away. When they decided to come Home, the British establishment quickly decided that that’s not really what they’d meant at all. At least not for most of them. Robert Winder (in his annoyingly Anglo-centric but entertaining book) sums it up:

Immigration is one of the most important stories of modern British life, yet it has been happening since Caesar first landed in 53 BC. Ever since the first Roman, Saxon, Jute and Dane leaped off a boat we have been a mongrel nation. Our roots are a tangled web. From Huguenot weavers fleeing French Catholic persecution in the 18th century to South African dentists to Indian shopkeepers; from Jews in York in the 12th century (who had to wear a yellow star to distinguish them and who were shamefully expelled by Edward I in 1272) to the Jamaican who came on board the Windrush in 1947. The first Indian MP was elected in 1892, Walter Tull, the first black football player played (for Spurs and Northampton) before WW1 (and died heroically fighting for the allies in the last months of the war); in 1768 there were 20,000 black people in London (out of a population of 600,000 – a similar percentage to today). The 19th century brought huge numbers of Italians, Irish, Jews (from Russia and Poland mainly), Germans and Poles.

This book draws all their stories together in a compelling narrative.

Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain

As a Roman Catholic, Scots-Irish, English, German (possibly Lutheran but probably Jewish), French, Pictish, Viking, I’m clearly connected to events over the water – which in Glasgow means the Irish Sea – especially around the 12th of July, anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne when the Pope played chess with most of Europe and his most powerful piece against the Catholic King James VII & II of the recently United Kingdom was the Protestant pretender William of Orange. Confusingly, although apparently a Te Deum (this glorious version from Tosca starts about 2:50) was sung in Rome to celebrate the victory, the commemorations since then have been markedly anti-Catholic. There are other incongruities with the popular version of this history, as James Connolly (who uses the more accurate term Episcopalian for Anglican) points out – among them the embarrassing fact that the oppressors of the Presbyterian “planters” (English and Scots immigrants to Ireland) were not the Roman Catholics.

Before I studied Critical Theory, I was a student of Church History. As Umberto Eco reminds us, all this supposedly modern stuff about who’s who and what’s what was already being debated (because they weren’t stupid enough to deny that there’s a debate, that it’s worth having and that it’s complex) in Mediaeval times. (If you’re interested, it really starts in section 2 HERE.)

If you’re already bamboozled and wondering if I’ll ever get to the point, I already have done. Identity is multiple, contested and transitory. We’re each not just one thing, we can’t force anyone to recognise us as anything (not without a struggle at least) and things change – and so do we.

I’d like to end this cleverly by showing that all the identities I favour are actually rock solid and all the ones I oppose are shaky but I’m afraid it works both ways. My only conclusion (and it’s not very clever at all) is that thinking of Us and Them just doesn’t work – because either there was, or there is, or there will be, so much of Them in Us and vice versa.

Identity politics, or standpoint epistemology if you want to get fancy, has a certain value. Much as my experience of being a paid carer for various client groups and an unpaid carer for both my parents at different times overlaps with some of the skills of motherhood, being male, I never have been and I never will be a mother. But I might be able to use my experience to understand theirs, to some extent, without presuming to know all about it. Or to be one of them. Or to make the mistake that this part of their identity, itself shifting in time and place, sums them up completely. Venturing now into the murky world of politics, from the comparative safety of academic (I mean they’re only trying to sack me for defending the law, what’s to be afraid of?) that’s something to keep in mind. People and demographics groups are not the same thing.

We’re so much more interesting than a single identity.

Fractal branching black and white circular image of a flower

Thanks to Piotr Siedlecki for releasing his image Kaleidoscope Flower into the Public Domain.