The Shelf Life of the Self: Arendt on Identity Politics

Demands for separating one’s public and private identities are neither new nor simple. As the argument goes, many a political philosopher have claimed that to engage in worthwhile and productive politics, we must shed our private identities to better see, so to speak, the concerns that need a more universal outlook. Thus, to better communicate and deliberate upon political questions within a polity, say a nation, the citizens need to view themselves as citizens alone sans any group affiliation based on gender, religion, race and caste. This is not to snub the importance of social identities in general but only in so far as they affect our political judgement. On the other hand, the response to such a proposal has predictably highlighted the benefits, both political and moral, that one’s private identity has on their political participation. After all, the walls between the identities are not quite as impervious to each other as the philosophers are making it to be. Our individual selves are more than just a simple addition of our social, cultural and personal experiences. How we think about political dilemmas is often and quite rightly influenced by what we anticipate from a rival social group. A female advocating the freedom to make reproductive choices is not just assessing the positions of the stakeholders involved, as Arendt’s call for ‘enlarged mentality’ would require of her. The said female also has to keep in mind the gender hierarchies at play around her.

Arendt was famously non-feminist. She believed that the transposition of the private and the social identities into our political identities can destroy the very fabric of political communication and thus, political judgement. To resolve political dilemmas facing our society, Arendt believed we needed the exact opposite of what identity politics has to offer. Our private and social selves come with a shelf life. They end where the political begins. According to Arendt, the politicization of personal and social identities brings to the fore a self-defined and accepted discrimination that takes us away from the equality that politics demands of us. To think representatively, we need to not only be treated as but also feel like political equals.

While identity politics does well to highlight a history of suppression, it also contributes to a further strengthening of political cleavages that prevent us from ever going back to the ideal state that was disturbed by the suppression. Identity politics causes harm to inter-sectionalities because it forces us to choose between conflicting identities. But more importantly, it conflates the many dimensions of our self with the identity that we have thus chosen to speak through, politically. This conflation results in a demonization of everything that does not conform to our sense of identity, resulting in a fear of the unknown (of which Martha Nussbaum has talked about in the Monarchy of Fear). In the creation of this battleground, we forget that the other side is human. Just like us. And it is easy to not think about our moral obligations to each other when the enemy has been dehumanized and reduced to a label.

Arendt on identity politics deserves much greater scrutiny. Especially because of the overwhelming reliance of social cleavages but current political leaders. The era of identity politics has given us a society with walls that mask themselves as political ideologies but are nothing more than a refusal to recognize that the other side is human too. An essential step in Arendtian judgement is to accept the inherent and equal worth of each individual, irrespective of their social identity. We would do well to find common grounds in our humanity, first.

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