Violations of anyone’s human rights should be the concern of all, no matter one’s identity. Our shared humanity requires it.
It is a very good thing that we live in a society where so many people feel free to declare themselves in identity terms. In doing so they are calling attention to personal characteristics, many of which would never have been publicly spoken of in the past — such as being transgender, indeed often celebrating the very characteristic they were expected to be ashamed of in the past, such as their gender or race. How much better that we can openly avow who we believe we are! How much better it must feel than the constant denial of self that so many endured in the past and that many still do. And the benefits often go far beyond simply feeling better. The conditions under which people who so identify live can be significantly improved by their collective advocacy for reform and the publicity they receive in response to it. “Whatever the identity anthem they choose to sing,” to use the lovely phrase of columnist Michele Norris1, the values of openness and promotion of dignity are advanced by these assertions of self.
It is not all good news, however. There can be downsides to these assertions of identity. These may flow from an overly rigid adherence to a certain identity, one which may blind a person to her broader possibilities and lead to a certain loss of self. Others may flow from the narrowness of some of the identities so claimed and the resulting exclusiveness of the identity groups formed.
I am sure that trans women of colour do walk a particularly difficult path, for example. But it does not follow that defining the group you identify with as such — as opposed to the broader queer community – is the most efficacious way forward. It is a great thing to be able to hoist your flag and rally others who identify similarly. But if you define your identity group too narrowly you may risk missing out on support that would otherwise be there for you and your issues.
Advocacy for narrowly defined groups can also appear to remove the human rights dimension of these calls for reform, making it easier for opponents to the changes sought to characterize it as simply expressions of self-interest which, as such, are easily dismissed.
Perhaps most seriously in the long run, the emergence of the identity movement seems to have displaced the human rights movement which, while grounded in The International Declaration of Human Rights issued in 1948, crystallized in North America in the 1960s civil rights movement. The disintegration – perhaps only temporary – into many narrowly defined demands for change undermines the most powerful of human rights insights: that we are all harmed when one of us is harmed (without justification). We are losing, hopefully not for the long run, the insight that an attack on someone on the basis of who they are and not what they’ve done is an attack on our shared humanity, on the very idea that each of us is equally entitled to pursue our own ends, that each person is an end in his/her/their self/selves.
There can be no denying the psychological satisfaction of singing your identity anthem, standing proudly with your own kind. If you have been largely denied this comfort, to experience it can come as a true blast of liberation. I grew up a girl in a supportive but nevertheless male-dominated family. Amongst only brothers and having a well-educated but stay-at-home mother (think 1950s cliché here), there was subtle but nevertheless clear male domination to the atmosphere at home. It was OK as a girl to exhibit some stereotypical male attributes – for example, be good in math – but to go looking for other girls with the same interests would have been thought both weird and probably not to one’s advantage. One was not to call attention to how one was in any way deviant from the mainstream’s sense of appropriateness.
But as the women’s movement grew through the late 1960s and into the 1970s, it became easier and easier to be a woman with somewhat unusual ambitions. And when opportunities arose to express solidarity publicly with women on human rights issues – access to abortion and equality rights in the workplace, for example – it was a joy to take advantage of them, to sing my identity anthem in the way that a 16-year-old girl in first-year engineering – where my post-secondary education began – could never before have dreamt possible.
Not all identity commitments bring lasting comfort
One of the perils of identifying with a narrowly defined group is that you run the risk of misunderstanding yourself. This certainly sometimes happens to women – we can misconstrue the significance of how we feel at certain points in our lives. (This is more likely for women than men, I suggest, because women live more cyclical lives, lives that have more obvious stages – such as child-bearing versus post-child-bearing – than do those of men.) For example, we can mistake the overwhelming intensity of new motherhood as being definitional of us, letting that role dominate our picture of ourselves for the rest of our lives, or at least long periods of it, and so limiting our choices, our possibilities.
It is a truism that we all are and, as we age, have been many things, that is, that we have many identifying characteristics. That I am a woman is foundational of course for me; my experience and thus understanding of the world is a function of that fact. And as is true for many women, when my children were young, being a mother was of paramount importance. For a while – a few months probably, but it may have been longer – I felt there were only two types of people in the world – mothers of young children and others. There was us and there was all the rest, largely oblivious to our burdened state. Later I expanded the scope of that identity from mother to parent but there were still only two types of people – parents and not-parents. Then our children got older, and I got over that phase.
Most women do not get stuck in that one phase of life because, for one thing, things change – i.e. the children grow up – and, for another, most of us do not live in exclusively female groups and thus are necessarily aware of life outside our group – however dim that realization may be on our most difficult days.
The hazards of losing yourself to your so-called identity are probably much higher for people who strongly identify with groups that are more cut-off from people outside their group. For example, some very bright kids get caught up in gangs thinking that because they are from the same racial or ethnic community of the dominant gang this is who they are, where they belong, or at least where they feel they have to be. Their risk of misunderstanding who they might “really” be or could become can be high indeed. Perhaps gang membership can serve a useful purpose at some point – offering a ready-made identity when a young person is at a real loss as to how to fit in – but to confine your image of yourself as such can have perilous consequences both in the sense of misunderstanding yourself but also in terms of actual life outcomes, such as criminal convictions, injury or even early death.
And while it is obvious, it may well be worth noting that one can be factually wrong about one’s identity. A Russian friend had been brought up to believe that her East Asian physical features were a product of a Japanese ancestor. She invested pretty heavily in this understanding of her roots, going so far as to learn to speak Japanese. Later in life she learned her father had deliberately – for what he thought were sound geo-political reasons at the time – misled her as to her Asian origins: they were Chinese, not Japanese. She had been proudly flying the wrong flag all those years.
The gains that have been made
Although there are dangers to making too much of what one understands to be one’s identity, or to adopting an overly narrow one, there can be no doubt that much beneficial social change would not have occurred, or would have come about much more slowly, had activists not sought out their own and banded together to advocate for measures designed to improve their group’s lot. Advocates for the disabled, for example, have clearly advanced their causes by assembling powerful lobbies for their particular needs — for an obvious example, wheelchair access. This is not to say that enough has been accomplished. It is just to acknowledge that progress has been made by groups that have pushed their agenda without always getting, or even always courting, support from others.
It may be that the disabled are not a good group with which to illustrate this point, as while many disabled people either literally or figuratively cannot because of their disability speak for themselves, many have family members and other people close to them who are fully capable of advocating for their causes. Disability groups are populated not only by the disabled but often by their near and dear. The parents of disabled children are often extremely effective advocates for the kinds of change their children need. In fact, while not all of us are disabled most of us are not so distantly related to someone who is. And with the greater freedom to identify as someone with a characteristic that was previously never spoken of – for example, having a developmental disability, or being gay – now we know about those friends and relatives who share those identities.
Many people have said that it was only when they realized someone in their family was gay that they came to understand the need to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Of course, we hope that people can recognize injustice without that personal connection but there is no doubt that such a connection can assist greatly in people coming to see the light.
In this respect women are in a somewhat similar boat to the disabled. Yes, of course, there are and have been for many years exclusively women’s groups which have been a source of great comfort and solidarity to untold numbers of women. In many cases, these groups have had profound impact on the course of social change. Think here of the suffragette movement, which ended with women getting the vote.
But, as already noted, most women do not live or associate solely with women and in many cases those of other genders have been devoted allies in women’s struggle for fairness. Fathers especially have often been strong champions of their daughters’ right to an equal chance at success. The experience of living as a woman is – for most women – inevitably closely observed and to some extent as good as shared by others. Not all those others are always as helpful as they might be to the cause of justice for women – indeed, some (including some fathers) are a very large part of the problem, think here of sexual abuse within the family, for example – but many are of considerable support and assistance indeed.
The persistence of racism
But not all identity-asserting groups have fared as well as women and the disabled in their struggles for substantive fairness. Some of the “isms” that result in damagingly discriminatory behaviour have proven more intractable than others. In the US the obvious example is the racism that both permitted slavery to take hold and was exacerbated by it.
We should reflect on the fact that in the third decade of the 21st century there is still a need for many to be reminded that Black lives matter. With the failure of both the human rights movement and the civil rights movement to bring about substantive justice, it is understandable that many people of colour but especially Black Americans – out of frustration, rage or despair – might conclude that standing on their own is the only way forward.
But I would suggest there simply has to be room in advocacy for fellow-travellers even though they don’t share that one characteristic – be it gender, race, ethnicity or another – with which you so strongly identify. Yes, people need an opportunity to be with their own. Women, for example, often benefit from opportunities to meet on their own if for no other reason than because men tend to dominate in mixed groups. But define who you are too narrowly and apply that definition too ruthlessly and you will exclude people who could be of immense support and help.
In the wake of hateful attacks on Asian Americans (and some Asian Canadians too) inspired it seems by the Chinese origins of the virus that causes COVID-19, it has sometimes appeared as if the victims of these crimes can only rely upon people from their own community to speak up. But the failure of others to express support may be as much a function of feeling that their objections should not crowd out those of people from the victim’s community, or that their voices are not even welcome, as of indifference.
In an op-ed in The Washington Post, columnist Jennifer Rubin rips into members of the House of Representatives, writing that it should not have been left up to Representative Grace Meng to respond to another representative’s remarks which seemed to endorse anti-Asian violence.2 Rubin writes: ”It should not have been up to Meng to denounce him. When someone spews such bile, it is up to everyone on the panel to halt the hearing, denounce the comment, demand an apology …” Of course this is true, but it can seem – however wrongly – to people from outside a given community that it is not their place to speak up, that in some sense what has happened is not their problem.
This is an awkward point to address because it is probably not all that often that the support of non-community members – “others” – is outright rejected. But in various ways that message, or something akin to it, is conveyed. From fears of being accused of cultural appropriation to claims that only “we” can tell “our” stories, the outsider may well conclude their support is not welcome.
Losing the human rights dimension of the cause
If people come together to fly their flag and sing their identity anthem their motivation can of course sometimes be purely celebratory, but it is usually because they have issues they want to raise, there are things they want changed. If the perspective advanced – the articulation of demands – is too narrow, i.e., is made in terms that others cannot understand, then the human rights dimension of the issue may be lost, the human rights plot may be lost.
To urge reform on a human rights basis is not merely a matter of trying to gain advantage . . . It is an effort to make change so that human dignity is enhanced and barriers to achieving dignity are removed.
Human rights go to fundamental fairness, to denials of dignity. To urge reform on a human rights basis is not merely a matter of trying to gain advantage, such as a tax break. It is an effort to make change so that human dignity is enhanced and barriers to achieving dignity are removed.
Many, many of the issues raised by identity groups are at their heart human rights issues but they are increasingly often not formulated as such. When narrowly defined groups push their agenda in terms that speak only to the injustices they suffer without placing those harms in a broader context, it may seem to many outside their groups to be arguing only for their own self-interest, for change that will simply aid them and for which there is not a broader matter that could or should touch them.
Effective human rights advocacy is both specific and general – it ties the exposure of concrete abuses and the need to end them with the principles of dignity and fairness that underpin the human rights project.
Take the many current calls for police reform. Some – I suspect many – people not of colour may have trouble relating to critiques based on allegations of institutional racism on the part of the police. Specific instances of bad cop behaviour they can literally see on video, but the broader systemic problem they may well think is exaggerated. But if the issue of structural racism is placed within a human rights context – in terms, for example, of denial of full citizenship, or denial of the equal benefit and protection of the law – then more may be accomplished.
As is true of many of our public institutions, there is no doubt that better policing is needed. But how do we achieve that? If the issues specific to certain groups are placed in a broader context, then more may be accomplished because the call for reform is intelligible to a broader range of people. That intelligibility is crucial: the language used has to be understandable to the broader community. “Defund the police!” sounds like a call to eliminate policing altogether. Virtually no one sincerely endorses the complete end of what we know of as policing. So, what is actually meant must be made clear so that potential allies can come on board.3
I understand, I think, that a large part of the impetus to narrow definitions and the reluctance to reach out beyond the identity group stems from past failures of the broader human rights movement. Some people clearly benefitted from that movement – for example, the disabled and women, perhaps for the reason I have given, namely that they have naturally occurring constituencies beyond their own ranks. I would say that gays, too, have benefitted from the same. It is not that they have not done huge amounts of work within their identity groups, they certainly have. But because there were some very wise moves to reach out to the non-gay community, for example, by pointing to the significant numbers of gay people in the overall population – Oh, you think you don’t know any gay people! Well, think again – and showing how gay rights issues are aligned with other human rights agendas, for example, that of the women’s movement.
This ability to reach out is no panacea: after all, it’s clear that there are or have been at some point women in all families (because otherwise there would be no families!) but that fact has not prevented some of the worst of human rights abuses. Think here of the status of women under the Taliban.
But it can in other cases help a lot to point out that there are people of nearly all discriminated-against groups in nearly all of our families somewhere, and this includes those who are discriminated against on the basis of race. When you look at me, you can see the colour of my skin but not that of my grandchildren.
Every human rights abuse endangers us all
To treat someone unfairly is to let an arbitrary consideration – such as their gender or skin colour – influence their fate. Women used to be routinely denied the opportunity to apply for jobs requiring strength, such as firefighter. When reasons were given, they were usually put in terms of women not having the necessary strength. But, of course, there are stronger and weaker women. The fair approach – the one ultimately adopted by law in many jurisdictions – was to be specific about what degree of strength was needed and then test applicants – male, female or other – as to whether they could satisfy that standard. Gender was arbitrary; actual measured strength was not. Although many do not, some women do make the cut.
And arbitrary given its very nature – untethered as it is by rational justification – is free to roam in any direction at all.
Violations of anyone’s human rights should be the concern of all, no matter one’s identity. Our shared humanity requires it. But if that does not suffice as a motivation, prudence should, because the next group to be targeted by oppressive arbitrariness could be one’s own. No one is safe unless we all are.
No one put it better than Martin Niemoller:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist.
You know how it goes:
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
Our fates are connected, and not just in the sense expressed in the old adage that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance” and thus you should be concerned about the oppression of others because you could be next. There is evidence from the research on economic inequality that our well-being is tied in very concrete ways, for example, in terms of expected lifespan, to the well-being of others in our society.4)
We need a renewed commitment to the idea that we are all harmed when one of us is: unfairness suffered by individuals from one group – regardless of their identity – is a problem for all.
- See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/03/09/royal-family-saga-is-mirror-america/
For a somewhat provocative piece on the use of specialized vocabulary in the waging of “savage word wars” see David Brooks “This is How Wokeness Ends” The New York Times May 13, 2021: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/13/opinion/this-is-how-wokeness-ends.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage
- See especially Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level (London: Allen Lane, 2009.