Identity is Trumps
February 26, 2009
In the comments to a recent post, I came across an assertion that I’ve faced a couple of times in recent weeks. The assertion is that homosexuality is part of one’s identity. “It’s who I am” is a favored assertion in our culture today for all sorts of things, not just homosexuality. As far back as January 1997, Father Richard John Neuhaus observed the development of this argument and its effect on churches (I think the logic extends beyond church life):
In some churches, the new orthodoxy is most aggressively manifest in feminist and homosexual (or, as it is said, “lesbigay”) agitations. These, however, are but the more conspicuous eruptions that follow upon a determined denial of the normative truths espoused by an older orthodoxy. Proponents of the new orthodoxy will protest, with some justice, that they, too, are committed to normative truths. These truths, however, are not embodied in propositions, precedent, ecclesial authority, or, goodness knows, revelation. They are experiential truths expressing the truth of who we truly are—”we” being defined by sex, race, class, tribe, or identifying desire (“orientation”).
Identity is Trumps
With the older orthodoxy it is possible to disagree, as in having an argument. Evidence, reason, and logic count, in principle at least. Not so with the new orthodoxy. Here disagreement is an intolerable personal affront. It is construed as a denial of others, of their experience of who they are. It is a blasphemous assault on that most high god, “My Identity.” Truth-as-identity is not appealable beyond the assertion of identity. In this game, identity is trumps. An appeal to what St. Paul or Aquinas or Catherine of Sienna or a church council said cannot withstand the undeniable retort, “Yes, but they are not me!” People pack their truths into what Peter Berger has called group identity kits. The chief item in the kit, of course, is the claim to being oppressed.
Nobody denies that there are, for instance, women, blacks, American Indians, and homosexuals beyond number who do not subscribe to the identities assigned their respective groups. This, however, does not faze those in charge of packing and distributing identity kits. They explain that identity dissidents, people who do not accept the identities assigned them, are doubly victimized—victims of their oppressors and victims of a false consciousness that blinds them to the reality of their being oppressed. Alternatively, identity dissidents are declared to be traitors who have been suborned into collaboration with the deniers of who they are. The proponents of truth-as-identity catch the dissidents coming and going. They say their demand is only for “acceptance,” leaving no doubt that acceptance means assent to what they know (as nobody else can know!) is essential to being true to their authentic selves. Not to assent is not to disagree; it is to deny their humanity, which, especially in churches credally committed to being nice, is not a nice thing to do.
This helps explain why questions such as quota—ized representation, women’s ordination, and homosexuality are so intractable. There is no common ground outside the experiential circles of identity by which truth is circularly defined. Conservatives huff and puff about the authority of Scripture and tradition, while moderates appeal to the way differences used to be accommodated in the early church (before ca. 1968), but all to no avail. Whatever the issue, the new orthodoxy will not give an inch, demanding acceptance and inclusiveness, which means rejection and exclusion of whatever or whomever questions their identity, meaning their right to believe, speak, and act as they will, for what they will do is what they must do if they are to be who they most truly are. “So you want me to agree with you in denying who I am?” By such reasoning, so to speak, the spineless are easily intimidated.
Thus, we see that pronouncing “It’s who I am” effectively ends a debate, whether or not that assertion is true. The underlying message is “So you want me to agree with you in denying who I am?” In other words, no logic or objective argument will work, because no one will deny his own identity. By moving one’s sexual desires into the category of identity, one effectively shields those desires from any moral questioning, and removes the issue from the realm of objective discussion. In an objective discussion you can say something like “don’t take it personally”; but where one’s identity is at play, it’s always personal.
But I must ask those who fall into the “sexuality is my identity” camp: if someone is a pedophile, is that “who he is”? Can he play the same game? And if not, why not?
I would encourage all of us, homosexual or heterosexual (or otherwise), to avoid linking behaviors and desires to identity. First, I can’t think of a valid scientific, logical, or moral reason for deeming one’s behaviors and desires to be part of one’s identity. Your identity is that which makes you “you”. Behaviors and desires don’t make you “you” because you are still “you” even if your behaviors and desires change.
Second, linking identity to behaviors and desires is dangerous. We all have evil desires of various sorts, and adopting these desires as part of our identity, never to be denied, eventually addicts us to that evil. Is someone with a genetic disposition toward alcoholism inherently an alcoholic? Is that person denying “who he is” by completely abstaining from alcohol? Of course not. Even when alcoholism is facilitated by someone’s DNA, it’s not “who they are”.
Likewise, no one “is” a pedophile in the quintessential identity sense, even if that person has to endure (and control) disordered desires for his whole life. (And in case I need to say it: I am not equating homosexuality with pedophilia, though both are types of sexual desires.) It would be even more tragic for that person to allow pedophilia to define him. That he must control his desires in the name of morality for his whole life does not make him oppressed or less of a human, and society does not need to validate his sexual desires for him to be whole.