Notes on Freedom

Category: Public sphere

Gay/bi/top/bottom…fake identities and the structuring of public life

One of the first questions gay men ask each other is: ‘Are you a top or a bottom?’ A person’s preference of sexual position becomes what one is: a top, or a bottom. The question of subjective preference in the context of a relationship becomes hardened into different categories of people – as if, one gay man said, ‘two entirely different species of gay male humans’.

A similar process is at work in many other areas of life. Indeed, it is such stereotyped categories of identity which to a large extent provide the structure for social life now. These categories both form personal identity, group individuals together, and structure their relations to one another and to other groups.

We can see this in the process of electoral campaigning: there is a pink battle bus for women, an Operation Black Vote, Operation Disabled Vote, Operation Muslim vote, and so on. This is the way in which an electorate is categorised and structured: not Labour v Tory, Middle England v Welsh pit towns; not constituencies of interest but categories of individuals.

With the end of the political party and association, some social theorists imagined that social life would be without structure. Zygmunt Bauman talked about the endless ‘fluidity’ of life, individuals moving into temporary and structureless connections with others: his ‘liquid modernity’ is formless and insubstantial. Jean Baudrillard imagined the post-political society as like a ‘mass’, a silent, expressionless and immobile lump which absorbed all meaning.

Yet what has happened is not this, but the emergence of a new social structure based on the category. Society is becoming an interlocking series of boxes, which break down into endless subdivisions. A person is male/female; gay/straight/bi/BDSM; top/bottom; versatile top/total top…and so on.

These categories have a rigid, caste-like quality. Even if you choose to be gay or straight, Muslim or non-Muslim, there is a way in which the category takes on a life of its own and seems to structure you. A study of the relations of top and bottom quoted men saying: ‘I sort of fell into this image of myself as being a very aggressive bottom’; ‘There’s a mindset about being a top’; ‘I hate to say it, but I’m a bottom … I don’t like to be identified like that because I feel it turns me into something all the way from my feet up to my head.’

Having chosen a box, they found that the box then ‘turns me into something’; it took away some of their individuality and made them a stereotype of a person, as well as determining their relations to others along stereotyped lines. The identity category, like the old social structures of caste, or feudal estate, is experienced as something foreign and external to the individual, as determining them.

This is quite different to the relationship of the individual to a  political party or association of which they are a member. As a party member, subjective interests are channelled into social forms, and in turn structured by them. An individual is part of the living body that is the association: one makes and is made by it. In the life of a voluntary association, the individual and the social group are in constant relation, forged by one another.

The category is more like a box: a box as an external form within which the individuals sit as separate items. It is a social form based not on dynamic interrelation between individuals, but on some common quality possessed by them: a genus. These categories have the appearance of something very private and personal to the individual – their sexuality or preference – but in fact they are ossified and hardened, and take over the inner life.

As part of a category, one’s actual personal and subjective life is eclipsed. You start to become your category, and to relate to others not as yourself but through it.

It is striking how the different identity groups are so hostile towards one another. The gay/lesbian/bi/trans community is taken up with fractious bickering between the different sections; a jostling for priority, and arguments about who is ‘included’ or ‘excluded’ in any particular initiative.

This can even reach the level of ‘trans’ people demanding that lesbians ‘accept them as sexual partners’; and lesbian feminists in turn defending the ‘safe space’ of their toilets against these trans invaders. The question of who has sex with whom, and which toilets people use, takes the strange form of a negotiation between tribes, as if sex again is a matter of endogamy or exogamy. There even appears to be a certain hostility between ‘tops’ and ‘bottoms’.

This hostility has a different quality to past relations of social antagonism between, say, different professions, classes, or religious sects. In these cases, the antagonism was the consequence of the internal life of the association – it reflected the extent to which the interests of the association came into conflict with those of others.

By contrast, today’s identity categories lack this genuine internal life and real social existence: they are not an association but an aggregation of individuals. In a way, therefore, a category only comes to life in conflict with opposing categories. What one is is therefore defined primarily in the moment of conflict, set against what one is not.

A person is increasingly only really ‘trans’ or ‘Muslim’ when they are complaining about Islamophobia or the ‘lack of trans representation’. Only in the moment of opposition is a category-identity constituted – albeit in a shallow and stereotyped fashion – which is why these conflicts seem to be sought out as an opportunity for self-constitution.

This explains why individuals who have almost nothing to complain about spend all their time complaining. People have an opportunity to be who they want, love who they want, follow the religion they want – yet they seem to be prisoners to their labels, and locked in relations of mutual hostility with different labels.

The proper war now is not between the fake categories of identity, but of people against the categories. ‘We have to stop letting these titles wear us’ writes one gay man; another calls the divisions ‘stupid’: ‘whatever happened to love, chemistry and falling for a person?’

This is a claim both to be yourself, and to form meaningful relationships and associations with others. The war of people against the stereotyped and boxed forms of social identity would be the salvation of both the individual and the collective association – not to mention romance.

The censorious student and the corrosion of character

The growth of censorship in universities (highlighted this week by spiked) indicates that something fundamental has changed in human character in the past decade or two.

For the new generation of young adults, opinions are not things they hold privately as a matter of conscience, nor are they developed through argument and debate. Instead, opinions appear to be integrally bound up with their identity and sense of self. They experience the encounter of opposing views almost as a threat to their existence, as an unravelling of the self: as ‘unsafe’, ‘dangerous’, or causing ‘severe distress’.

This week a comedy act was cancelled after the threat of a picket from some women who disagreed with her views on ‘sex work, religion and trans issues’. The comedian wasn’t going to talk about prostitution, yet it seems that the female students objected to the presence on campus of a person with a different view to their own. For a campus to be ‘their’ campus, for that person to feel as if they belong in an institution, they attempt to keep off those who present a counter-point to these views.

The invitation of external speakers becomes a process fraught with risk: the National Union of Students has produced a guide on ‘managing the risks associated with external speakers’, with a lengthy and legalistic filtering process before a bearer of opinion can express themselves in the public space of the campus. The ‘safe spaces’ in universities are muted, restrained, free of conflict and the encounter with opposition: student unions ban items exuding a charge of controversy, including ‘racist’ sombreros or the ‘sexist’ Sun newspaper, as well as critical ‘hand gestures’ or sarcastic applause.

This means nothing less than the unravelling of the modern individual: the individual who forms opinions in the process of debate. In the late 1600s and 1700s people began to view the conflict of opinion as productive, and argued that it was in the contest between ‘for and against’ that truth could be discovered and one’s own view developed. In 1684, Basnage de Beauval argued for religious toleration on the basis that truth resulted from the ‘confrontation of dogmas’; the ‘opposition between two parties’ serves to ‘pressure and excite’ one another to virtue (1). He saw conflict as like a ‘sting’ which keeps one awake and shakes away ignorance, and argued that disputes between learned men were ‘advantageous and useful for the public’.

By contrast, in the Medieval period the moment of conflict of opinion was seen as singularly destructive, of both the individual soul and civic life. It was thought that heretical opinions undid the social bond: the moment of conflict undid the order of things, the unified trinity of faith, law and state. Social relations could only be constituted through a single faith and worldview: to relate meant to be of the same mind. The heretic dissolves the social bond, argued St Thomas Aquinas (2). Those who tolerated difference, it was argued, were those who did not really care about truth or the inner life (the pragmatism of the Roman Empire), or those who for reasons of weakness were temporally unable to constitute a proper social order.

So now, again, the self unravels when faced with the opposition of another, and the battle against ‘heretics’ is a fight to maintain one’s own integrity.

Yet this new censorious self appears to be a fragile sort of thing, lacking deep foundations in inner conviction or conscience. The opinions students and others are defending do not seem to have much private or authentic character, which is perhaps why they are so prickly. It is the instability of identity which means that people are unsettled by alternatives.

Opinions are bonded with the self, but this is not the inner core of the self, and more a shirtsleeve or a lapel. A YouTube video shows a speaker at the University of Galway trying to make the case against a boycott of Israel, drowned out by a student dressed in the colours of a Palestinian flag shouting ‘Fucking Zionist fucking pricks […] Get the fuck off our campus now.’  The student’s position seemed to be something like the shirt he wore: thin and constituted only in the view of others, which is why he might seek out the public occasion at which to stage this aggressive performance.

Therefore, the new generation also lack that other dimension of modern character: the inner dimension of conscience. The reflecting, private conscience, elaborated by John Locke and others in the 1600s, experiences opinion and truth as inner and personal, a conviction. This feeling of conscience developed in private spaces – private worship, private discussion, inner reflection. The public sphere of people debating and opposing one another presumed the inner world of conscience; conscience provided the space where a person’s opinions were grounded and the point to which they returned. The inner conviction is the counterpoint to the more transitive, provisional character of views developed in public debate, whereby an opinion held today can be changed tomorrow in the face of new evidence.

In today’s students, we see how these two dimensions of modern character have collapsed into something much more one-dimensional. Opinions are bound up with something like the outer shell of the self, which is neither developed through public engagement, nor is it privately developed or held.

The new dialectic is not between the public and private sides of the self: it is between the virulent hostility of someone screaming ‘get the fuck off our campus now’, and the ‘safe space’ of inexpression where individuals exist side by side in their separate shells.

That is, instead of private reflection and public debate, there is rage, and silence. Which should make us fear for the public sphere of the future.

(1) La Tolérance, Julie Saada-Gendron, Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, p71

(2) La Tolérance, Julie Saada-Gendron, Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, p21

%d bloggers like this: