The Lebanese-born writer Amin Maalouf made an interesting point about identity: Other people often pick ours for us. The anti-Semite elevates the Jewish consciousness in the Jew. The Sunni radical elevates Shiite consciousness in the Shiite.
“People often see themselves in terms of whichever one of their allegiances is most under attack,” Maalouf writes.
The people who exclude us try to reduce our myriad identities down to one simplistic one. Amartya Sen calls this process “miniaturization.” You may be an athletic Baptist Democratic surgeon with three kids and a love for Ohio State, but to the bigot you’re just one thing: your faith or skin color or whatever it is he doesn’t like.
The odd thing is, people are often complicit in their own miniaturization.
We live in an atomized, individualistic society in which most people have competing identities. Life is more straightforward when you’re locked into one totalistic group, even if it’s imposed upon you. When you’re disrespected for being a Jew, a Christian, a liberal or a conservative, the natural instinct is to double down on that identity. People in what feels like a hostile environment often reduce their many affiliations down to just one simple one, which they weaponize and defend to the hilt.
Today, the world feels like a hostile environment to … well … everyone. I had assumed that as society got more equal we would all share a measure of equal dignity. But it turns out that without an obvious social hierarchy we all get to feel equally powerless.
It’s human nature that we feel our sleights more strongly than we feel our advantages, so we all tend to feel downtrodden these days. White males and Zionists feel victimized on campus. Christians feel oppressed by the courts. Women feel victimized in tech. The working class feels victimized everywhere. Even Taylor Swift apparently feels victimized by celebrity.
Group victimization has become the global religion – from Berkeley to the alt-right to Iran – and everybody gets to assert his or her victimization is worst and it’s the other people who are the elites.
The situation might be tolerable if people at least got to experience real community within their victim groups. But as Mark Lilla points out in his essential new book, “The Once and Future Liberal,” many identity communities are not even real communities. They’re just a loose group of individuals, narcissistically exploring some trait in their self that others around them happen to share. Many identity-based communities are not defined by internal compassion but by external rage.
How do we get out of this spiral?
The first step is to just get out. Turn the other cheek, love your enemy, confront your opponent with aggressive love.
Martin Luther King Jr. is the obvious model here. “Love has within it a redemptive power,” he argued. “And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. … Just keep being friendly to that person. … Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. … They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load.”
The second step is to refuse to be a monad. Maalouf points to the myth that “’deep down inside’ everyone there is just one affiliation that really matters.” Some people live this way, hanging around just one sort of person, loyal to just one allegiance and leading insular, fearful lives. In fact, the heart has many portals. A healthy person can have four or six vibrant attachments and honor them all as part of the fullness of life.
The more vibrant attachments a person has, the more likely she will find some commonality with every other person on earth. The more interesting her own constellational self becomes. The world isn’t only a battlefield of groups; it’s also a World Wide Web of overlapping allegiances. You might be Black Lives Matter and he may be Make America Great Again, but you’re both Houstonians cruising the same boat down flooded streets.
The final step is to practice equipoise. This is the trait we should be looking for in leaders. It’s the ability to move gracefully through your identities – to have the passions, blessings and hurts of one balanced by the passions, blessings and hurts of several others.
The person with equipoise doesn’t feel attachments less powerfully but weaves several deep allegiances into one symphony. “A good character,” James Q. Wilson wrote, “is not life lived according to a rule (there rarely is a rule by which good qualities ought to be combined or hard choices resolved), it is a life lived in balance.” Achieving balance is an aesthetic or poetic exercise, a matter of striking the different notes harmonically.
Today rage and singularity is the approved woke response to the world – Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. But you show me a person who can gracefully balance six fervent and unexpectedly diverse commitments, and that will be the one who is ready to lead in this new world.