Ethics of Identity

The ethicists take those hanging bits of paper with questions by the public and use them as stubs for articles or ideas for programs at The Ethics Centre. I wonder if they might pick mine.

I’d been expecting a topical discussion about identity politics but we only touched on that. Happily instead, we got a crash course in the philosophy of identity at Friday night’s sold out Ethics of Identity talk by Patrick Stokes. It was a very welcome opportunity to sit, listen and think. Lots of questions were posed:

  • If you took a stocktake of all the things that exist, ever existed and will exist, how would you find yourself in that inventory? What markers would you use to search for yourself? Are these markers what make you, YOU?
  • Describe your whole life in just three sentences? What info do you choose to keep and what do you edit out?
  • Is it our memories that make us who we are? Or is it our physical bodies? Our brains?
  • How do constraints affect identity?

Stokes poses more questions along with some explanations in his recent article, Putting the ‘Identity’ into Identity Politics. It’s a good read for anyone interested in unpacking identity and understanding the debate around identity politics a little better. Most interestingly for me, it echoes a lot of what is heard in discussions around cultural diversity in the arts and media. Here’s just one example re the identity politics debate:

On the one hand we have proponents of identity politics (defined in the article as “[the] politics [that] seeks to give political weight to the ways in which particular groups are marginalised by the historically shaped structures of society”. On the other hand we have proponents of liberalism, who although share the goals of social equality and social justice, have a very different approach to these goals. Again from the article: “The liberal approach to social justice sees the demand for political equality as emanating from a shared human dignity. As such, it de-emphasises difference.”

Does this sound familiar? Have you ever heard a friend or colleague (or well meaning arts administrator) utter the words “I don’t see race/colour/difference. Everyone is the same and equal in my eyes”. It sounds kind of noble but it is inherently racist. Benjamin Law explains why it is so, totally brilliantly, in his chapter in Tim Soutphommasane’s book, ‘I’m not Racist but…’. Law writes: “Honestly, you don’t see race? What happened? Did you develop a terrible ocular disease? Did you put your head in an oven? Did magpies attack you face and eat your corneas? Smugly insisting you’re colour-blind just allows you to ignore how – or why – 19 percent of Australians experienced bigotry in 2014, an increase from 2012. And being colour blind gives you the ability to evade the fact that there are few non-white faces on Australian prime-time and breakfast television”.

What I got out of attending this talk was an expanded view of what encompasses identity as well as the validation that identity (from whichever side of the fence you look at it) is complex, layered, fluid, perpetually constructed and co-constructed, while at the same time effected by socio-cultural and historical constraints. It is multi-dimensional and intersectional. It’s inherent in how we experience privilege, entitlement, access and belonging. Or perhaps more to the point – how we don’t.

The other take away from the talk was the questions posed to the audience and those hanging on the Vox Box itself – some brilliant conversation starters right there.

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