Our civilization has been suffering a long-drawn-out and debilitating nervous breakdown since, paradoxically enough, its triumph over Soviet communism in 1989. It is almost as if the Cold War acted as a discipline on a frivolous and self-indulgent West, forcing us to keep our vices and appetites under some sort of control, so that when the Soviets removed that discipline by suddenly collapsing, we went on a spree—economically, financially, socially, and above all psychologically. The economic consequences of the spree, notably the large burden of indebtedness we have created for ourselves, are the most obvious and painful (even if technically soluble) problems we face. But the social and psychological consequences are the most puzzling.
They include such things as: an extreme partisanship in the political identities of most ordinary citizens to the point where they tell pollsters they could not marry, date, or work happily alongside people from another political party; the multiplication and enforcement of pronouns, both the familiar he/she, him/her and also new self-chosen ones, in academic and business life; widespread attempts to censor, banish, and drive from employment people whose views (often commonly held views, even majority ones) are said to make others feel ‘unsafe’; the emergence in most Western countries of ‘protected classes’— usually ethnic or sexual minorities as defined by state bureaucrats—who enjoy certain legal, economic, and other advantages in law; the rapid spread of a ‘gender ideology’ that holds a ‘biological’ male can be a real woman if he feels that is his gender identity; carrying that gender ideology to the point that biological males who identify as women but have been found guilty of rape can be assigned to women’s prisons; that the losing Remainer side in the UK Brexit referendum could solemnly accuse the victorious Leavers of having deprived them of their ‘European identity’; and most recently that a radical ideology that calls itself Critical Race Theory and ‘anti-racist’ was using such pedagogic methods as separating children by race in the classroom and encouraging them to see one another as privileged or oppressed, and that this sort of thing was being taught in junior and senior high schools across America until a rebellion of parents halted —for now— the anti-racist bandwagon.
Episodes like these give the impression that the West, especially the United States and Britain, has, under the influence of ‘Wokeness’, become one vast psychiatric clinic confining people driven mad by politics, for their own good and ours. Moreover, I could have given many, many more examples of this mania. What is the common link between them? Let me suggest the word ‘identity’. The West is suffering from an identity crisis both as an entire civilization and in all its constituent blocs from nations and religions all the way down to ‘the poor bloody infantry’. The mania even has a name. We call it identity politics.
We became discontented with the idea that our identity was simply something handed down to us by our parents, society, sex, class, nation, race, and then took for granted as we grew up
As it happens, I got very interested in the question of identity about thirty years ago when it was just beginning to intrude into politics as the Cold War receded. My first thoughts, published in the distinguished cultural review, The New Criterion, attempted to define what the debate on identity was all about. It was clear at the time that a ‘postmodern’ concept of identity was advancing in psychology, the neurosciences, the media, the theatre (Pirandello), film (Woody Allen’s Zelig), the world of culture generally, and above all in the universities, among the intelligentsia and the young. This was the theory that the self is almost infinitely malleable and that we may choose our identity rather than simply receiving it from others, from our genes, our parents, and our overall environment. As the subjectivism promoted by social left-liberalism advanced, we became discontented with the idea that our identity was simply something handed down to us by our parents, society, sex, class, nation, race, and then took for granted as we grew up. Would it not be more dignified and more worthy of us if we thought of our identity as a rational choice?
There was also a subtle temptation in these questions: if we could choose our identity, might we also be able to choose the obligations to those who had brought us into the world and installed their ideas and tastes in our heads? What exactly was the basis of these obligations?
After all, we had not chosen to be born. But we could choose to be free by rejecting that identity and its obligations.
In this atmosphere the case for the traditional or religious view of identity— whether the soul or Freud’s trio of id, ego, and superego—received less and less support. It was true, of course, that many of the most important elements in our identity— our nationality, our religion, our language, even our political opinions according to the psychiatrists—were purely accidental effects of being born in a particular family, region, country, and time. Why should they be central to our being?
From the traditional standpoint, however, that poses little or no problem. It is a feature, not a bug. Art is man’s nature, said Burke, since man is a social animal who draws upon social materials in building his identity. That in no way constitutes an unnatural imposition by society upon the individual identity.
The social elements in our identity are the means whereby our individual gifts and qualities, good and bad, are made manifest to the world. We could not do without them if we tried.
What is still more important, we ourselves play a part in that construction. As we grow older, we grow increasingly discriminating in the use we make of the social elements of our identity. We reflect upon our condition and circumstances—which is why, incidentally, we cannot be successfully conditioned, as Kenneth Minogue pointed out—and we may reject particular things that our parents transmitted to us. We may change our religion, or emigrate and assimilate to a different culture, or vote against the party our family always supported, and do all these things without feeling that we are rejecting our identity wholesale.
I must here acknowledge an important intellectual debt to two dear friends and distinguished political theorists, the late William and Shirley Letwin (of LSE and Cambridge respectively) on this topic. Writing in Policy Review at the time, Bill Letwin observed:
‘The environment is not an objective fact which can be assessed accurately by an objective observer. Instead, each individual largely shapes his own environment by emphasizing some of its aspects while ignoring others, by interpreting its manifestations according to his own beliefs, and by directly acting upon it.’
And making the same point more colourfully in her book The Anatomy of Thatcherism, Shirley Letwin wrote: ‘A human being in possession of his faculties is never merely potter’s clay. He is himself both potter and clay because he necessarily decides what to make of whatever happens to him.’
In other words, the traditional concept of identity as something inserted into us from outside since childhood and therefore taken for granted is incomplete; it is not a purely external phenomenon at all but something that we continually shape, reshape, and adapt as we go through life. The potter continually reshapes the clay; identity has a natural core that incorporates its experiences but is not determined by them.
It is this concept of a natural (i.e., taken for granted) core of identity that the modernist theories of identity reject—and to counter which they nominate a variety of replacements. All these attempts begin by attempting to discredit the notion of this identity core. For one school of theorists, notably Marxism, liberation consists precisely of freeing yourself from its ‘false consciousness’. But that is not enough. They also propose inserting an authentic self into the vacant space behind our eyes—authentic because rationally chosen and consciously shaped by us. The principle upon which this new identity can be selected is the best thing of all. Thirty years ago, I ascribed it to America’s greatest living psychologist of the day, Tom Wolfe, in his essay ‘The Me Decade’. It began life as an advertising slogan for a shampoo: ‘If I have only one life to live, let me live it as a blonde.’ The charm of this principle for constructing a new identity is that it is almost infinitely accommodating. It enables us to say to ourselves: if I have only one life to live, let me live it as … well, I leave it to you, gentle reader, to fill in the blank space.
To the old question, ‘Is there a ghost in the machine?’, therefore, we could now answer: no, but there is a consumer. And that consumer selects his new identity, along with its own distinctive pronoun, from the vast range of moral possibilities that the modern world throws up.
Now, all of that sounded highly theoretical when I wrote about it first thirty years ago. No one then would have imagined students and young intellectuals taking the theory to the extent of believing that their sexual identity, indeed their biological identity of male or female, was entirely a matter of their own arbitrary choice. Yet we see exactly that happening today in some of the best universities in America or the world. Moreover, the choice of the identity-bearer, however seemingly arbitrary or absurd, is then enforced on his fellow-students or lecturers by college administrations who insist we all address him or her by whatever neologism he or she has invented to express their new identities.
In addition, as Richard Neuhaus observed in a different context, ‘Once orthodoxy is optional, it sooner or later becomes prohibited’.Professors who resist this new fashion in elective identities and continue to refer to students as ‘him’ or ‘her’ (and related atrocities) are threatened with serious penalties, including the loss of their jobs. This must be especially tricky for anyone of precise expression because the rules governing the protection of new identities change unpredictably, often violate the rules of grammar and syntax (‘they/them’ for someone with a ‘non-binary identity’), and are beset with contradictions.
For instance, it is held to be morally wrong to assert that someone who is a man biologically but a woman by choice and surgery is not genuinely female. At the same time as sexual identity was becoming a voluntary matter in the thin disguise of gender identity, however, sexual orientation was being decreed to be a hard-and-fast certainty that brooks no alteration or objection. It is a secular mortal sin to argue that someone who is gay might be able to change his sexual orientation to heterosexual by either religious commitment or psychiatric treatment. Indeed, so-called ‘reparative therapy’ which promises to do just that is now outlawed in some jurisdictions— generally the same jurisdictions that encourage and even finance sex-change operations. Desire is fixed, it seems, but not the object of desire. Harvey Fierstein’s defiant hymn to a gay identity, ‘I Am What I Am’, must be replaced in the gender fluid age by ‘I’m Not What I Was’.
But if personal identities as seemingly fixed as one’s biological identity are malleable, then surely collective identities of nation, religion, and political party must be still more so. After all, there may be disagreement about the degree to which a personal identity is socially constructed, but there can be no real doubt that a national, religious, or class identity is a social and collective one. That belief was the foundation of several ideologies in the twentieth century which sought to replace the taken-for-granted national identities of Europe, Britain, and the US with new post-national identities that looked beyond the nation to new collectivities rooted in ideology—ideologies like fascism and communism in which race and class respectively replaced nation as the basis of a new imperial and ideological identity.
Recent elections have shown that traditional national, religious, and political identities have revived in Europe
Nor have those impulses disappeared in the last thirty years. We see the same impulse to replace nationhood with something else in the ‘Europeanism’ of the European Union, in the multiculturalism of the United States and Canada, in new post-national loyalties shaped by globalization and global governance, and even in jihadism (which, viewed from a certain standpoint, is Islam’s umma transmogrified into a new post-national global identity). These new post-national identities are even seen as ‘inevitable’ by post-modern intellectuals who argue nations and nationalisms are withering away and will need replacement institutions to take on the tasks they have traditionally performed. The Woke revolution in the US is among other things an exaggerated leftist multiculturalism that proposes to replace the existing United States rooted in classical liberal constitutionalism with a new America based on race-conscious (‘anti-racist’) institutions that intervene systematically to ensure equal outcomes between ‘privileged’ and ‘oppressed’ ethnic and other group identities. That would promise conflict even if it expressed the outlook of a broad majority. But it does not. Recent elections have shown that traditional national, religious, and political identities have revived in Europe and the US in response to post-national and multicultural attacks even though the intellectual consensus was that such identities were at best nostalgia and at worse fascism of one kind or another. Conflicts, therefore, are likely to multiply.
Indeed, in all the cases where self-chosen new identities have made their appearance, conflicts appear and spread along with new identity groups. Hence the phrase ‘identity wars’—which are sometimes waged by groups which to outsiders seem very close to one another, for instance, the pro-trans feminists and ‘gender critical’ ones. The long second paragraph of this essay gives numerous such examples. In some cases—as for instance the case of America’s Woke revolution—level- headed people predict ‘a moral civil war’.
That prompts the question: why do people want to change their identity in the first place? Unsurprisingly it appears they do so because they are very unhappy in one way or another and blame their unhappiness on their status in life. That is completely understandable and legitimate if their status is the cause of their wretchedness. An obvious example would be a slave who believes—reasonably enough— that he cannot ever hope for contentment, let alone prosperity, as long as he remains a slave subject to the whims of someone else. Such tragic people still exist in our world, and we should be more active in seeking their release from an imposed identity that all but ensures their unhappiness. But most of those who believe their original identity guarantees their permanent wretchedness—some are listed in the second paragraph—do not fall into such a clear-cut category. They fall into several categories of unhappiness which should receive our respect and sympathy, of course, but not necessarily our endorsement.
Some are suffering from mental, emotional, or sexual unhappiness which they think a change of sexual identity would remedy. At the time of writing, an unusually large number of girls and adolescent women are self-identifying as being in the wrong body and asking for life-changing sex-change treatments the importance of which they cannot possibly understand. Some bitterly regret this later and feel anger towards those who made the change seem easy or natural, and towards official and clinical rules that mandate an affirming therapeutic response to requests to ‘transition’ to another sexual identity. Mature people have the right to make this kind of choice and if sensible, they will insist on its consequences being fully explained to them. But the testimony (and suicide rates) of many of those who have done so suggest that for most the change of gender identity has not solved as many problems as they hoped, while introducing new ones. We should not protect those contemplating such a deep transformation of their lives and persons from a frank analysis of its dangers out of a decent desire not to hurt their feelings. They deserve tender concern, yes, but honesty too, and the offer of compassionate help that is open to a wider range of diagnoses and to less life-damaging therapies.
Likewise those who swap their inherited national loyalty (and passports) for commitment to what Orwell called a ‘transferred nationalism’ like communism or fascism are almost always investing far too much faith in politics and ideology (even when their new identities do not disgrace them by their crimes as fascism and communism did). Less dramatic cases of transferred nationalism as, for instance, passionate Remain voters after Brexit, find themselves living in a kind of internal exile They despise their own country and embrace savage criticisms of their own government from European political leaders whose political ideas and attitudes would often horrify them if expressed by a politician in their native land. They risk ending up with an identity that is severed from everyday politics, devoted to impractical dreams of reversing history, and seeming to hope for their nation to fail in everything. That makes them unpopular and everyone else resentful. Multicultural and post-national elites are perhaps in a worse position of encountering such disappointments even when they succeed in imposing their new Utopia. Supposing that Utopia flourishes practically, at least for a time. Still, its architects will be frustrated that their subjects never develop the patriotic loyalty to this new and improved polity that they believe it deserves. That in turn makes them hostile to their fellow-countrymen who have failed to embrace the destiny that they (and history) had chosen for them. All in all, invented identities tend both to disappoint those who have adopted them and to provoke conflicts with others who remain attached to their taken-for-granted patriotisms.
In my original article I suggested there were three reasons for these failures. First, invented identities are stark and impoverished compared to taken-for-granted ones. They reconstruct the personality in accord with some politico-ideological ideal and produce a one-dimensional man—New Soviet Man, for instance, an examination of whose moral character can sustain nothing more complex than a cartoon or a socialist-realist painting. In short, they are not real identities for real people, and are therefore unlikely to sustain a happy and fruitful life. Second, they are precarious and can be lost if not supported artificially or from outside. I cited the case of John Stephenson, a Paddington-born man of uncertain ethnicity, who became Sean MacStiofain, the chief of staff of the IRA in the 1970s, and went so far as to join a hunger strike. That secured his identity as an Irish nationalist firmly enough until he abandoned the hunger strike, ceased to be any kind of Irishman, and disappeared from history. Third, they are parasitic, evangelical, and adversarial towards real identities. As the late Kenneth Minogue pointed out, the first impulse of someone who has thrown off an old identity and embraced another is an evangelical one. He wants to tell everyone that once he was blind, that now he sees, and what he sees is that his old identity was an imposition and a fraud and that their identities still are.
Hence, new identities tend to attack and seek to replace their counterparts among existing identities. Gay and feminist identities will define themselves by opposition to the traditional sexual identities of male and female. These they decry as socially constructed, consequently false and oppressive—heterosexism in the approved jargon. Likewise, the Euro-nationalism of Brussels is constantly engaged in polemics against its rivals—the traditional patriotisms of France, Britain, and other European countries which it blames for past wars, racism, and all the fashionable vices. And so on, and so on.
Not long ago, feminists of all kinds supported ‘safe spaces’ for women such as rape crisis centres that exclude men. With the rise of ‘gender theory’ that has changed
What I did not foresee, however, was the degree to which new identities, once launched, would divide, and multiply into ever-smaller entities engaged in mutually distrustful politics and mutually destructive conflicts. The most extreme example of this (so far) is the so-called ‘feminist wars’. Not long ago, feminists of all kinds supported ‘safe spaces’ for women such as rape crisis centres that exclude men. With the rise of ‘gender theory’ that has changed. Most feminists endorse the theory’s claim that ‘trans women are women’ and demand their admission into ‘women only’ protective spaces on that basis. They go so far as to support the participation of ‘biological males’ in women’s sports (even though the latter have physical advantages over biologically female women) and even in women’s prisons. Other feminists, known now as ‘gender critical feminists’, though strongly sympathetic to ‘trans’ rights’ in general, resist these changes strongly on the grounds they dilute the social protections for women gained by feminism since the 1960s. In addition to the likely end of women’s sports and a possible increase in prison rapes, this dispute has provoked a bitter attempt by the majority feminists to drive their ‘gender critical sisters’—now condemned as TERFS (or Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists)—not only out of politics, including membership of the UK Labour Party, but even out of universities, publishing, and employment generally.
Thirty years ago I ended with this thought:
‘Hence, in numberless ways, the multiplication of chosen identities leads to endless social conflict. When modern psychologists and modernist writers began deconstructing what they thought was the prison of a rigid and unreflecting identity, they doubtless thought they were liberating the citizens to stroll about in free and equal relationships without bumping into the barriers of race, gender, ethnicity, and class. What they were doing in reality was laying the foundations of a low-intensity moral civil war.’
Looking today at our present situation, however, I am not at all certain that I was right in predicting this moral civil war would be ‘low-intensity’. Identity politics is more passionate than that. And it recognizes no borders whatsoever.
John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review in New York where he served as editor-in-chief for ten years. He was a special adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street and later assisted her in the writing of her two volumes of memoirs. He has held a wide variety of senior editorial positions in the media on both sides of the Atlantic. He is the founder and co-chairman of the Atlantic Initiative, an international bipartisan organization dedicated to reinvigorating and expanding the Atlantic community of democracies, launched at the Congress of Prague in May 1996 by President Václav Havel and Margaret Thatcher. Until 2011, he was the executive editor of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty in Prague. Currently he is the president of the Danube Institute, Budapest, and an associate editor of Hungarian Review. His latest collection of essays The Woke versus the West: Awkward Questions for a Progressive Age was published in 2020.