The Quest for Individualism

A blogger named arvan has written an interesting outline, promoted on DailyKos, of the ever-perilous society vs. individual debate within the context of gender and sexuality identity.

You may not agree with everything written there – I know I don't – but please do go read the full post. (Read 'thru' or 'over' the obvious vitriol, if you can.) There's a lot to process here, but we'll divide it into its two constituent debates:
  1. the role of social constructs in demarcating identity
  2. the emergence of individualism under liberal democracy

Sex, Gender, Sexuality: The Snipe Hunt of Identity

This post is on a website, sexgenderbody, dedicated to sexual identity, so it should be excused for its narrow focus. We, however, should not be. Sex, gender, and sexuality are profoundly important frames we use to categorize different identities, but they are not the only ones and, dependent on circumstances, not the most important. Ethnicity, race, age, nationality, and class are all frequently used. Ideologies, whether political, theological, ethical, or economic in nature, can also be used.

One aspect of identity that greatly intrigues me is the problem of geographic identity and its apparent scaleability. For example, when asked, "Where are you from?" my answer changes dependent on my current geographic location and my perception of the interlocutor's own geographic identity. For example, in Europe I might answer "the United States," but in California I might answer, "Sacramento." And if the answer elicits a knowing response, like widened eyes, I might follow up with, "Are you from NorCal?" If the interlocutor is, I might scale my answer down even further and answer, "I'm from Elk Grove." I predict that this dynamic is universal among humans but very unique between them. No two people have exactly the same geographic identity.

Do any of those other forms of identity cited above also exhibit such scaleability? That we cannot answer here yet, but I wanted to demonstrate the vast, almost incomprehensible complexity of identity problems, and sex, gender, and sexuality identity problems are especially vexing.

For something that seems so fundamental to ourselves and the societies we inhabit, it's actually a very young area of study. Sex, or the biologically motivated identity, is of course the earliest identified. The oldest known piece of artwork is a venus, a representation of the female form, provocatively simple in design. But our biology is determined by our genes, hormones, and proteins, chemical components we've only been scientifically aware of for a century. Our understanding of how they work is incomplete.

Gender, meanwhile, is a newer concept that engages the social and psychological parameters where sex leaves off. Transsexuality, when a person's gender and sex expressions don't match, is a common topic, but fashion and costume are really where it's at. In most cultures, including our own, we express our gender largely through our clothing. Our gender may, in turn, be influenced by clothing in a sort of chicken-and-egg dilemma (i.e. Which came first, the tomboy or the clothes she wears?).

And, of course, sexuality is the most talked about identity today, particularly among liberal and progressive audiences. While our sex and gender may have some interaction with other people, sexuality is actually determined by our relations to (or with?) other people. Being gay, straight, or bi all require someone else, who comes with their own sex and gender identity dynamics, exponentially complicating the mechanism described above. Asexuality, abstinence, and virginity are determined oppositionally to those other identities by the absence of another person. They are often left out of identity discussions. (Note that the site's poll, which asks visitors to describe their current relationship, features the option "Other," but not 'None.')

Here's the thrust of arvan's thesis regarding such matters,
Most of us employ a mixture of group identity terms as self identity. We use language, which we did not invent, to describe who we are. Often, we did not even choose the words we use (i.e. fat, skinny, smart, gay, man, woman, tall...and so on). Labels, judgments, names, terms - all consisting of language.

It is society, in this model, that decides how 'best' or fully to recognize someone and define them.

And I find this model to be accurate and compelling. I agree that we, as self-actualized independent persons, primarily build our identities using ready-made building blocks provided by society. All the better to fit in. arvan, however, goes a little further,
The words we speak and print are substitutes for things that we use to communicate. The words 'gay' or 'straight' are not people. Each of us is our own self, made up of different atomic mass, independently operating, existing and thinking. We don't even look or sound the same from one person to the next, based on differing values and sensory perceptions. 'Gay' or 'straight' mean different things to different people and they mean different things simply if the label is applied after or before two people meet for the first time.

Okay, I'm not going wade into a Derridean debate about the obfuscatory nature of language. I will, however, offer this point of contention: if the socially constructed labels people use to create their own identities are "substitutes," then there is no such thing as individuality, at least not after the act of identification. That is, individuality is an inexpressible paradox.

Enlightened Individuals and Benighted Asses: Democracy Leading to Self-determination

Here's where arvan lets loose with the political invectives, peppering the conversation with "bush/cheney," "swelling the ranks of poverty," and a helpful headshot of that lovable Nazi doofus, Sgt. Schultz,
The dynamic between self identity and group identity is mirrored in the competition between self-determination and herd/mob behavior. This struggle has been in the mainstrstream conversation for over 200 years, because it played out in the struggle for democracy and liberty in the United States.
A bit U.S.-centric perhaps, but not necessarily incorrect. arvan continues,
For [their] time, the [Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights] were revolutionary. Everyone's frame of mind was in the collective...parish, village, family, clan, tribe, kingdom and so on. They took group definitions 'out onto the skinny branches' where they were dangerously close to being more about the individual than the group - by asserting that in some ways the group must recognize the individual.

As arvan showed above, group-created factors permit individuals to self-identify, and they then do so with gusto. In this case, society wrote documents permitting the process to begin. arvan wants this to continue and apparently for good reason,
The hive-mind or herd-mind can be inefficient, dishonest and manipulative. The herd-mind behavior is assumed to be a coordinate effort by many to achieve a common goal. Even if the coordination is merely a reliance on tradition and allegedly proven ways of success and the common good. The messaging of herd-mind labels and definitions of who people are and what they should be doing, comes from religion, government, advertising, entertainment and corporate culture settings. Dress this way, speak this way, think this way...and so on.


The model of an individual naming one's own self in one's own terms is not a common one - until now. What has been needed is for individuals to stop defining themselves on the group's terms.
(Emphasis is mine.)

To be fair to arvan, I am making the argument seem more extreme than it is. In truth arvan's calling for dialogue and moderation between society and the individual. I can't ignore, however, that the argument requires a rather rude juxtaposition. The danger of socially motivated action is described as the "herd-mind" or the "hive-mind," terms equating the behavior to that of beasts, and lowly beasts at that like wildebeest and bumblebees. The behavior is also described as a mob mentality, aligning it with the self-evident evil of the Bush Administration, the indeterminate crises of "Somalia, Ethiopia, India, Burma, China, Darfur" (One of those is not a sovereign nation-state!), and the absurd stupidity of the aforementioned comedic foil from Hogan's Heroes.

arvan tho sees hope on the horizon,
Social media is a playground for creating new identities on the fly. People are practicing the craft, the thought process, the experience, the creativity and the rewards of creating themselves in their own image - for their own reasons. Web presences in various formats abound with new ones being created daily, from pictures, email addresses, names, avatars, moving characters, sounds and operational / functional creations each serving as a new identity.
Bonus points to the first reader who correctly guesses the origin of my blogging alias, Packherd!

Now, arvan's got a point. Online activity has indeed given us a lot of leeway in our self-identification, although that freedom of movement is a bit illusory. It mostly comes about due to perceived anonymity, and when that anonymity is violated or limited, the self-identification goes with it. The Internet White Knight, for example, is a phenomenon of one anonymous person coming to the defense of other anonymous persons being antagonized in an online forum, like the commenter who chastises other commenters for being too harsh. The moniker implies that the person could or would never be so brazen or chauvanistic IRL. Besides, the Internet White Knight may be of no-account anyway: can a person be attacked or injured when they're anonymous?

Conclusion: the Resiliency of Groups

The question remains: what are the consequences for our democratic society? The authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights were all male, all White, all educated, and mostly slaveholding. As individuals, they shared little in common with us today. Their handiwork was nonetheless engrossed under the pretense of comprehensive, democratic legitimacy. (The signers of the Declaration were duly appointed by their colonies' constituent assemblies; the Bill of Rights were amended to the Constitution by the States' legislatures.) They were creationed by society, not a gathering of individuals.

That society has been having this debate since before it declared its independence. (And the current 'independence' of the United States predates the current 'self-identity' of the United States by more than a century.) In fact, the original debates between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists had nothing to do with individuality. They were debating the proper size of the society; its propriety was not questioned.

Nevertheless, the inherent equality of men, rather than nations, is affirmed in the Declaration, and the Bill of Rights enumerates mostly individual rights. American federalism has never been a hierarchical debate only about the relative strengths of the central and state governments. It is a duel between the Federal and State authorities over which has precedence in securing the liberty of individuals. Consider the Civil Rights movement which set the Federal government's task of protecting the liberty of minorities against the Southern States' resistance against their counterparts' interference in local matters.

Still, its all groups against groups.

arvan's ultimate synthesis of the two debates about identity and self-determination is wobbly:
Neither a society of only individuals or only the group can be viable. There needs to exist a middle ground, where the health of the group and the individual are both supported. Throughout history, the balance of power was tilted toward the group.


Sex-positive groups, blogs and other social meeting points are a place for individuals to practice this new craft of individuals existing in their own terms as a healthy group that can sustain itself and its members. It is a very exciting time that we live in. We are watching the birth of a society built upon the strength of individual identity.

That such institutions will provide the "balance of power" arvan seeks is doubtful. Considering the fragility and complexities of self-identification it is unlikely that it could become so effective as to alter democracy's agenda of social defense. Even the venerable clause "all men are created equal" is a universalization of the colonists' collective thirst for liberty, subsuming the individual into the biggest group of all: Everybody.

No comments: