Identity fragments

In an essay at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova sketches out a conception of identity as a collection of fragments which is, paradoxically, being repressed and sanded down by identity politics:

Paradoxically, in our golden age of identity politics and trigger-ready outrage, this repression of our inner wildness and fracturing of our wholeness has taken on an inverted form, inclining toward a parody of itself. Where Walt Whitman once invited us to celebrate the glorious multitudes we each contain and to welcome the wonder that comes from discovering one another’s multitudes afresh, we now cling to our identity-fragments, using them as badges and badgering artillery in confronting the templated identity-fragments of others.

[…]

This inversion of intent only fissures the social justice movement itself, so that people who are at bottom kindred-spirited — who share the most elemental values, who work from a common devotion to the same projects of justice and equality, who are paving parallel pathways to a nobler, fairer, more equitable world — end up disoriented by the suspicion that they might be on different sides of justice after all, merely because their particular fragments don’t happen to coincide perfectly. In consequence, despite our best intentions, we misconstrue and alienate each other more and more.

I found myself nodding along until I reached this line:

The censors of yore have been replaced by the “sensitivity readers” of today, fraying the fabric of freedom — of speech, even of thought — from opposite ends, but fraying it nonetheless.

I am a big fan of sensitivity readers.  Let me try to articulate why.

If our identities are full of fragments – irregular, unpredictable, jagged – then it’s inevitable that we’re going to hurt each other occasionally as we reach out to connect and touch.  We can’t prevent it.  This leaves us with three options:

We can stop trying to connect to each other.  This is the saddest of all possible options, and I reject it entirely.

We can try to remove the fragments that seem most different and most dangerous.  This is the self-repression that Popova is speaking out against, and I agree that it’s not ideal.

Which leaves us with a third and final option: we can communicate with each other to try and warn about our various jagged edges and to help nourish and heal when we accidentally stab each other.

This, to me, is what sensitivity readers do.  They begin the conversation about accidental harm early on in the process, before much damage is done, and give the author a chance to change course – not to sand down their edges, but to find a better place for them, a way of connecting without harming.

Note here that it’s not the jagged edges that are a problem.  It’s the pain those edges cause when they connect with others.  Similarly, it’s not my white skin or my cisgendered body that’s a problem.  It’s the way my skin and my body influence my interactions with others.  I feel no need to be ashamed of my skin or body, but I have a responsibility to act thoughtfully so as not to hurt others with them.

I have always been an instinctual individualist.  For a long time, my knee-jerk response to anyone asking me to change myself was a stubborn ‘hell no‘.  And I remain wary of being pressured to conform for no good reason or worse, being coerced to.  But when you see your place in the world, and the ways you can adapt yourself to make life brighter and richer for everyone, then “changing the way you act in order to fit in” can be a profoundly beautiful and individualist act.

Feeling good vs doing good

Back in college, I based my Division III (senior thesis) research on a set of empathy studies by Nancy Eisenberg.  Eisenberg’s line of research hinges on a distinction between two different kinds of empathy: empathic concern, the ability to recognize and care about the hurt others feel, and personal distress, the experiencing of the other person’s hurt yourself.  Counterintuitively, personal distress is not positively associated with helping behavior.  In fact, it may even decrease the likelihood of helping, if there’s an easy escape route away from the empathy-provoking situation.

There’s a related line of research by June Tangney into the difference between shame and guilt.  As Tangney and Jessica Tracey summarize:

Shame is an acutely painful emotion that is typically accompanied by a sense of shrinking or “being small,” and by a sense of worthlessness and powerlessness. Shamed people also feel exposed. Although shame does not necessarily involve an actual observing audience to witness one’s shortcomings, there is often the imagery of how one’s defective self would appear to others. […]
Guilt, in contrast, is typically a less painful, devastating experience because the object of condemnation is a specific behavior, not the person as a whole. One’s core identity or self concept is less at stake. Rather than feeling a need to defend a vulnerable self-image under attack, people experiencing guilt are focused on the offense and its consequences, feeling tension, remorse, and regret over the “bad thing done.”

Just as empathy-induced personal distress may get in the way of helping behavior, shame-induced distress may play a causal role in antisocial behavior.  Research has found that a tendency towards shame responses rather than guilty responses predicts recidivism.

Some people advocate for emotion-free, ‘rational’ decision-making.  Others refuse to repress their emotions, and draw strength from their anger, their fear, their hope, their pride.  For me, the distinction between personal distress and empathic concern, and between shame and guilt, provides a way of reconciling these two approaches.

I embrace my emotions, but try to see them as separate from my identity: what I feel doesn’t change who I am.  This distance helps me to respond to my emotions more appropriately.  When I get angry, I ask myself: “Why am I angry?  What is provoking this anger?  Will taking action X address the problem that is provoking the anger, or will it just be cathartic?”  This helps me to make choices that I’m less likely to regret.