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Identity: Descriptive vs. Prescriptive


We live in an age dominated by identity. Progressive politics revolve around identity concepts, on the precept that all politics are identity politics.

This piece is in no way a denouncement of identity politics. Instead, it’s meant as an examination and possibly clarification of certain ideas and problems I have noticed.

At their best, identities are descriptive. That is, a person adopts an identity–by which I mean a specific word–because they believe it describes them well. An identity term has group significance because of its ability to accurately describe all the members of a group to which it is attached. Whatever else gay men (for instance) may be, they are always gay men.

Ideally, identities are adopted voluntarily. The individual seizes on a word that they believe gives an accurate picture of who they are, or at least describes an important aspect of themselves. In reality, however, it’s not uncommon for identities to be ascribed to others without their permission or blessing. Race is a perfect example of this. Black people may or may not want to identify as black, but by virtue of living in a society that has a construct of racial identity, they cannot escape the fact that they will always be considered black.

This wouldn’t be a problem if identities were purely descriptive in practice, but they aren’t. Instead, they are more often prescriptive–meaning people make assumptions about what those identities entail without regard for the individual. Stereotypes are the most typical example of identity prescriptivism–blondes are unintelligent, black people are criminals, gay men are effeminate, and so on. The stereotypes don’t have to be negative, although benign or positive stereotypes are nevertheless problematic because of their prescriptive nature. Instead of allowing individuals to assert their own identities, identities are imposed and burden the individuals to which they are applied with baggage in the form of poor assumptions.

I doubt I need to elucidate on why such stereotyping is bad, regardless of the intentions of the stereotype.

What I have found is rather less spoken about, however, is the tension that these identity concepts exert on individuals within the group, and on individuals who are experiencing instability in their personal identities.

The former is a common source of conflict. Within any identity group, there is inevitably debate and discussion over who truly belongs to that group. This can be a productive vehicle of self-examination, but can just as easily (and perhaps more often) be a tool of oppression. Those who can police membership within a group hold power over those who lack such influence. Incidentally, the evolution of the LGBT acronym into its numerous variants–I believe the current form is LGBTQIA, which stands for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual”–is the result of such conflicts and discussion. The original acronym was not considered inclusive enough, and has evolved over time. LGBT is, in most cases, still the standard label, and debates are still ongoing as to whether LGBTQIA should be widely adopted or modified yet further in order to fully encompass all gender identities, sexual and romantic orientations, and other forms of identity that fall outside of the heterosexual, cisgender norm.

To point to a real-world example of this conflict, there are feminists who don’t believe transgender women are “real” women–or perhaps not women at all. This is a position I strongly disagree with. But the point is that this is an effort to police who can have a particular identity, namely: who gets to be a woman. If one sees such turmoil as much ado about nothing, then you have probably never experienced any serious doubts, discomfort, or real distress over your own identity. To the individuals who experience them, these struggles are very real.

Such identity-policing is easily destructive. It seems to stem from a desire to protect the group identity by determining who is outside the group and then enforcing those boundaries. When there is conflict over where the boundaries should be set, the group may fracture and new identities may be formed, or one interpretation of the identity may be deemed illegitimate in favor of another interpretation. Charitably, it can be a case of good intentions gone awry. Removing the benefit of the doubt, it is merely another way of reenacting the same old bigotries through different lenses and modes of conflict.

Moving on to the latter source of tension–tension within the self–I’ve seen the effect it’s had on people in my own life. I’ve seen individuals struggle to determine exactly what identity best fits them, only to become distraught that they fail to tick certain boxes or somehow feel like outsiders or impostors. One specific type of experience I’ve witnessed a number of times has revolved around medical diagnoses. For better or worse, diagnosis-as-identity exists. Broadly, there is a disabled community that is defined, obviously, by the experience of being a disabled person. Within that community are endless subgroups–the autistic community being one such group.

Imagine you were diagnosed as autistic, and so you began digging deep into what autism is all about. You read the experiences of other autistic people, nodded along, absorbed endless details about what it’s like to be autistic and saw those features within yourself. Over the course of years, you came to integrate this identity into yourself. The identifier of “autistic” ends up second only to your gender, and perhaps it’s really on the same level. It becomes crucial.

Now, imagine you are given the news that you were likely misdiagnosed and you aren’t autistic at all–indeed, you never were. Your entire sense of identity, of who you are, has been disrupted. The search for self begins again, but not before an agonizing process of deconstructing the “false” identity you’ve spent years building.

I must be clear that this is not something I’ve experienced myself, only something I have seen others go through and watched their personal turmoil as they attempted to come to grips with such a profound disruption. The process seems deeply painful. Anxiety and sometimes lengthy episodes of depression accompany it. Having an identity to hang one’s sense of self on becomes so important that lacking such a marker can make one question their worth and reasons for existing. I have a difficult time seeing this as anything but deeply harmful.

I don’t think doing away with identities or identity politics is any kind of answer, though–certainly, as a straight white male, I’m the last person who should ever suggest such a thing. But it seems there are occasions and individuals for which the concept sometimes runs away with itself, and where it can do more harm than good. Perhaps it is easy to forget, at times, that an identity is not who you are, but merely a description that happens to fit certain aspects of yourself. If, at some point, that description no longer applies, it does not make you a non-person, or make you less valuable. At the same time, I recognize the need to feel that kind of belonging–to feel that you are not alone, that there are others like you, who have known the same struggles and felt the same pain. That is the real value in a group identity–the strength gained from that shared experience.

If you are someone who has experienced these struggles yourself, you have my utmost sympathy and I sincerely wish you the best. As for the rest of us: it would be a good idea to think twice before policing the identities of others, lest we contribute to these problems. The higher up the privilege ladder you are, the more careful you should be.

I will close by admitting that I’m not entirely sold on posting this in the first place. I’m very wary of it being taken as some kind of attack, and it’s certainly possible that I’m behaving like a clueless outsider, in which case I’ll gladly accept criticism and work to improve this piece as much as I can. Mostly, I just wanted to call attention to certain struggles I’ve seen and explore the concept and purpose of identity a bit more.

Photo by DaveBleasdale