Identity is given to us before we get much choice in the matter, and then often shapes our whole lives. Is there any hope for seeing our species more holistically, and living more fully as individuals, too?
Humans are a messy species. Around a million years ago, our ancestors underwent a fusion of two chromosomal pairs, crunching us from the 48 chromosomes of our primate cousins to the 46 of our hominin line. Some 900,000 years ago, our ancestors also faced a genetic bottleneck, which possibly reduced their species to some 1,000 members for another 100,000 years. Today, our genes carry signs of Neanderthals and Denisovans from waves of interbreeding in early lineages, and our world bears records of architecture from well before modern humans, let alone our first written histories of this world.
In something as innocuous as blood type, we still see the precarity of natural selection: some human blood has a protein that makes surviving pregnancy especially hazardous if there’s a misalignment between fetal and parental type. Unlike most mammals, human reproductive systems also don’t cater to the fertilized egg; it has to run a gauntlet to survive to implantation before it’s flushed out (which it often is). Survival for our species has never not been an ordeal.
But the biochemistry that carried our ancestors to our current form didn’t have to work perfectly. The theory of evolution simply describes the process of genetic transformation over time, sometimes gradually and sometimes in a flurry of mutations gaining species-wide dominance, as natural selection and environmental catastrophes shape which species members live long enough to procreate.
In other words, there’s no consciousness to evolution, nothing in nature rooting for a given “team” or result. We’re first working drafts, rather than impeccably designed.
And it is indeed a wonder that we’re here at all.
Nevertheless, in our current formation, we tell such stories about ourselves, many of which contradict the messy history of our genetic journey. The interbreeding lines. The bottlenecks. The drastic chromosomal mutations. The many, many eras of hominids living more or less in balance with the rest of this vibrant world.
And in many of these latest stories—so late in the long, rich tapestry of our species’ lifespan—identity matters. Who we “are” is wrapped up, not in this strange winding tale of modern hominin evolution, but in much more recent divisions between thousands of human demographics.
Our species is a family now over eight billion strong, on one tiny lifeboat of a planet.
But we have still found such ways to hold ourselves apart.
The complex obligations of identity
Many of us are born to communities with an express interest not only in passing on specific genetic traits, but also in passing on whole, rigid ideas of demographic belonging. Before a child can choose where they want to belong, some of the most critical facets of identity are decided for them. Where they can live. How safely they will live. How soon they’re probably going to die.
Where you’re born immediately grants you certain civic and mobility rights—and denies you others just as quickly, based on arbitrary, labyrinthine rules in different sovereign states, which can change over time.
The color of your skin and form of your genitals, along with any limb difference or other congenital variation will also mark you out for different levels of safety. Depending on the community into which you were born, you might even have your genitals cut at birth, or other body parts pierced soon after.
You may be added to the ranks of a specific religion before you can talk.
People might want to kill you for belonging to that religion before you can talk, too.
You will be treated a certain way based on cultural expectations for your gendered and/or caste-based role. Your education will be shaped around the same.
You will be named as belonging to specific national identities, your “birthright”:
As if knowledge of your ancestors lives in your blood, waiting to be called out.
As if you have an automatic obligation to the recent lines from which you come.
As if all these factors have a right to decide the value of your life, in turn.
Advocacy by identity
The modern history of human identity and its political importance can take any number of starting points: tribal warfare in the ancient Middle East and India; the differentiation between new and old faiths early in our Common Era; the entitlements outlined in contract law leading up to and stemming from the Magna Carta; demographic debates emerging from European colonization of the Americas; the many battles fought for racial, ethnic, and gender equality in the industrializing West.
But when it comes to our current social contract, a more relevant starting point might be the wave of neoliberal public policy that started in Chile in the 1970s, then spread about the world. In this pro-market approach to governance, we still carved out ways to advance human rights, but through private “interest groups” in a sea of other lobbies and corporate enterprises also petitioning the government for redress. We’ve been living for decades in a “marketplace of ideas”, rather than any more proactive public discourse about best how to protect and improve human life.
Sometimes this state of affairs is blamed on activists reacting to the status quo, for fixating on defensive legislation that explicitly protects “their” people from further systemic abuse. But if the government will only protect your rights once it accepts the legitimacy of your identity claim, then there are only two roads forward: push for a completely different form of government, one that doesn’t operate with this conditionality around human rights, or push for personal recognition within its marketplace of ideas. The latter certainly feels more feasible to some.
And yet, we did not have to take this path as a species. Not so long ago, we were even starting to dream in an entirely different way. In 1948, with the creation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, we established a way of thinking about humanity meant to protect us all, full stop. Without knowing your specific identity. Without knowing if your local government accepted your demographic’s history or culture.
Fundamental human rights. What a concept!
And one that we have struggled to put into practice ever since.
Roadblocks to shared humanity
The trouble is that, on a very basic level, we enjoy our tribal divisions. Whether it’s a story of national or migratory identity, or of coming from a long line of strong, brave men and women, or of people who share our creed having died for their faith many centuries ago, many of us see the performance of demographic differences as essential to our experience of being human.
And that would be fine, on its surface, if many of these identities didn’t also require that everyone else abide by our personal premises, too. If one’s practice of masculinity requires that no other male person perform gender differently; or if one’s practice of national identity requires that no one sharing the same land disagree over obligations to the state; or if one’s practice of faith requires that no one else hold a different opinion about one’s god or religious texts…
Well, then we have a problem, don’t we?
Then we have a world where a personal love of identity can be materially harmful to others. If your identity involves an obligation to hate another simply for existing, or to oppress them, or to seek vengeance upon them for past wrongs done to those in your demographic… well, that’s not a situation easily resolved.
Worse yet, our neoliberal paradigm for human rights activism has made it easier than ever for the assertion of identity to be seen as a sign of automatic expertise: as if any demographic is ever a monolith or hivemind. As if the mere act of holding a given identity makes one fully informed on all related themes. And as if having an identity forced upon you, via your genital make-up, skin color, or ethno-religious and national association from birth, should ever obligate you to become an expert in every data point relevant to demographic defense.
Sometimes, mind you, this push to treat people with X identity as automatic experts is well-intentioned: just also horribly misguided and counterproductive. Olúfémi O. Táíwò wrote a few years back on “Being-in-the-Room Privilege”: a way in which people who manage to participate in powerful spheres of society can easily be made to forget the intersectionality of identity. The only Black man in a given academic space might be called upon to speak for All Black Experience, for instance. In the process, this person and their well-intentioned colleagues can all easily forget the cultural factors that separate one experience of this identity from the experiences of many who could never be “in the room” to speak for themselves.
Instead of identity opening us to a greater defence of all human rights, then, it can just as easily be weaponized to close us off, by allowing people in power to feel as though their work is done so long as a few folks are “in the room” already, to represent the rest of human life.
In political theory, this phenomenon has also led to what’s called a “race to the bottom”, or Marginalization Olympics: a misguided belief that if one can find the most marginalized person to uplift, one will surely have found the most enlightened human being, the person best situated to provide policy for a better world.
The cruelty in this marketplace gamification of identity is that it refuses, by its very premise, to honor the full humanity of any marginalized people it seeks to uplift. Instead of allowing people who have endured whole lives of neglect, abuse, and exclusion from “fundamental human rights” to have trauma, to be uninformed about all relevant alternatives, and even to move through the world with overwhelming anger and rigidity, this superficial form of uplift expects the downtrodden to be saints. Perfect victims, enlightened by their suffering.
And if they’re not? If they make any errors along intersectional lines along the way? Oh, how swift the backlash then becomes, among policy makers who were generous enough to make space for them at the table in the first place.
Clearly they were lost causes.
What a waste, to try to uplift and “civilize” such human beings.
Religion, nationalism, and other rigid stories
When a country finds itself at war, or when a religious group goes on the attack, or when the government targets specific identities, there is often great pressure for everyone connected to related labels to “show up” for their group. To take a side, and have an informed opinion, and otherwise make a stand as soon as possible. After all, don’t they “owe it” to others of their faith, their ethnicity, their ancestry, their political grouping? If someone has killed someone else for an identity you share, how dare you sit by and not support your group’s response.
In this way, times of war, state persecution, and related identity-based violence always come to us as direct attacks on a competing desire to see ourselves as individual witnesses to the cosmos, and also as part of a family eight billion strong (or more, if one extends one’s thinking across time, and includes other sentient critters here on Earth). As much as you might want to spend your time alive cultivating wonder, it only takes a few people who value in-group identity more than shared humanity to ruin this possibility for everyone.
Only very recently have we been able to learn as much as we now know about the greater cosmos beyond this pale blue dot, and also about the tremendous genetic journeys our ancestors moved through to bring us to this flicker of current life at all.
Only very recently have we been able to study our impact on our environment, and to make plans to try to heal the damage we’ve done to our ecosystems along the way.
And yet, 75 years ago we also ambitiously imagined an approach to human rights that we’ve struggled to enact ever since. One might even suggest that we’ve lately lost the spirit of “play” that our ancestors had (at least, according to the thesis of The Dawn of Everything, a work of speculative anthology we covered in Humanist Book Club), in favor of a bureaucratic paradigm that prioritizes defending the rights of specific identities piecemeal: as secondary considerations in constant competition.
We are still so vulnerable, in other words, to others deciding what the shape of our lives will be, based on identities often imposed on us without our agreement at birth. If you are born as X, someone from Y will want to kill you for it. If you are born as Z, someone will do everything to ensure you never have a chance to thrive.
What an utterly depraved waste of this gift of life.
In the face of it, at least, the deep history of our species offers some small comfort: our lineage has survived worse bottlenecks and disasters. That doesn’t do much, though, for those who didn’t make it through those crisis points—and all who will not now. All the human life we have needlessly lost in the last two weeks alone.
In a better world, a world that our species has this incredible capacity to dream up at all, we would be using our great wealth of resources for communal betterment: to optimize the ability of every human being to be an individual first, and as an individual to enjoy both the wonders of life and the marvel of being part of a species, a family, as immense and wide-ranging as our own.
But in the world we have instead, the best we can often do is to remember each other’s individuality. To champion the fact that no demographic is monolith, and that no individual within any group should ever have to be a perfect expert on, or spend their entire life committed to, a cause based on an identity they did not choose.
If you know one person with X identity, you know one person with X identity.
And that’s a great start.
7,999,999,998 more, give or take, and maybe we’ll finally have the understanding necessary to advocate for fundamental human rights that actually serve us all.