“Identity politics has got to stop. We have got to give up our ‘endless preoccupation with a FRAGMENT of identity. Identity comes from consciousness which transcends all these divisions of race, ethnicity, and gender. There is no sense of CONSCIOUSNESS ITSELF’ anymore.” So says Camille Paglia on a YouTube recording of “Dose of Truth” in October 15, 2017.
On the one hand, I thoroughly agree with her that popular thinking misses the picture as a whole. Our attention is limited. Knowledge, and all the data that passes for knowledge, is overwhelming; so we pick targets. Those tend to be self-directed, even if they are “progressive” and advocate peaceful coexistence. I love it when hostility is muted and divisions are blurred. I want peace for Burma and human rights for Palestine. I want racist monuments in America removed from public spaces and American racism recognized and renounced. I don’t think it’s possible to overcome divisions of race, ethnicity, and gender without identifying ourselves within those communities and waking up.
I think Paglia is right: these days, because of our focusing on areas of concern to the exclusion of a holistic vision of reality, what we have are fragmentary perceptions. This reduction of interest began as a reaction to the immense universal trauma of World War I-II and the paranoia that fractured the world during the Cold War. Only a cataclysm of that magnitude could have destroyed the massive theological and philosophical search for a comprehensive approach that integrates everything that can be concluded about God and us. In philosophy the search was on for the concept underlying everything we can know. By the end of the international military battles in 1945 interest in universal truth was being replaced by searches for relevance. The trauma of war loomed as a miasmic aftermath. Conflict and chaos claimed the collective unconscious, so people agreed that immediate individual existence was what could be maximized.
This led to 4 generations refining strategies for resisting cohesion beyond those things that might be expedient to optimize existential priorities. Interest groups are the largest effective political entities. Even governments have reduced objectives, now looking for achievable benefits rather than anything approaching “the general welfare of the people.” Governments are put together, in fact, by interest groups with single objectives.
The consequences of this myopic vision have been serious: fragmentation of political units and outbreak of localized conflict (even ethnic cleansing), polarization of societies, and unremitting discord. Rather than optimized existence, people have desperation muffled by cycles of relief as some terror diminishes (as when a vaccine mitigates a pandemic, or intervention ends a genocide). “That’s better,” a sigh, and a wan smile. Forgetfulness is the antidote because it’s all the cure there is right now.
Paglia is right. This is not as good as it could be. She is right that we need to regain more than fragments of our identity. She thinks we need to get back to an educational program that enables us to understand who we are, beginning not with 1619 or the birth of Christ, but all the way back to Neanderthals and Humanoids. We need to study our enslavement by archetypes, and how to identify ourselves as complex beings.
Paglia says that the way to do this reclamation of “consciousness itself” is to reform education to assess the big picture, because acquiring our identity is a result of becoming conscious. Then, she says, we’ll be on a better path.
Paglia must be wrong, however, when she suggests the immediate end of campaigns to improve conditions of those oppressed by racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. Paglia is a famous feminist, after all. But she is on record arguing against a wide range of gender rights, especially the right of young adults to dispute their birth-sex. She opposes the demolition of traditional roles of men and women.
That is the clue that we’ve been here before. The reason education has moved away from philosophical and historical focus on how we got here from the very beginning, is that the philosophers and historians beginning way back then could never quite make it to today where people live and die. Those who compose these philosophies and histories miss the junctures where civilization abandoned people. Today’s “identity politics” are correctives. We cannot afford to take a great collective leap into the past, even if we could do it.
Individuals can and should make the effort to acquire an understanding of consciousness. Consciousness is a basic and essential human function. It remains doubtful to me that historical reassessment is a way to an “ah-ha” breakthrough into Consciousness Itself. I’m opting for another avenue that does not involve renouncing all we have learned about how to be advocates.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.