A Few Thoughts on Identity, Morality, Politics and Liberals

To know who I am is a species of knowing where I stand.

— Charles Taylor

Part One

In the early 1980s, which now seems a few lifetimes ago, I began offering a  college seminar course titled “The Politics of Personal Identity,” quickly dubbed “POPI” by students. It was designed as a capstone course and limited to twelve seniors. Most of the identity groupings  around today were addressed in readings, films and guest speakers.  During the final weeks of the course,  each student was responsible for giving a 45-minute oral presentation: “Who Am I? What Do I Believe? Why Do I Believe It?” This was followed by a lengthy period of questioning from the other seminar members and myself. Each of our guest speakers gave presentations on this topic and I presented my own on the last day of class. Germane to this was an exploration one’s political beliefs and their consequences was the critical component of the course and in what follows below.

Before exploring identities like race, gender, class, ethnicity and others, we attempted to establish a framework by including the work of Canadian philosopher and political activist Charles Taylor and specifically, his pioneering ideas on the politics of identity.1

For Taylor, “Selfhood and the good, or in another way, selfhood and morality, turn out to be inextricably intertwined themes. We are selves only in that certain issues matter to us. What I am as a self, my identity, is essentially defined by the way things have significance for me… We are selves only in that we move in a certain space of questions, as we seek and find an orientation to the good.” By his light, “Who I am” is most crucially this space of moral orientation “within which my most defining relations are lived out.”

And this isn’t just a strong preference or attachment. It means that people are saying that if they were to lose this commitment or identification, “they would be at sea, as it were, they wouldn’t know anymore, for an important range of questions, what the significance of things was for them.”

There is a sense of the ‘self’ that conveys to these beings of requisite depth to their identity or those who at the very least are struggling to find one. Others, who we judge as shallow, also have commitments but we see them as conventional and not the result of deep searching. And, as Taylor notes, those without any framework at all are pathologically amoral.

An important corollary is that one must include oneself in the mix because as Erich Fromm wisely counsels, “Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself” means nothing unless we realize that the discovery of my own self is inseparably connected with the discovery of any other self.”2

We also read some work by the character actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, including this passage about how to act in a morally responsible way:

My daily obligation was, first and foremost, to learn how to make a correct
And careful study of the world. If I didn’t know what the world was like, how
Could I know what action to take?  And so it turns out that morality insists upon accuracy —
painstakingly steady and researched.3

I hoped that Shawn’s words would resonate with the students, most of whom had also taken my intro course: International Politics: How the World Works, the bookend course to POPI.  I was gratified that virtually all of the seminar participants made the connection and often referenced the intro course. (Note: I’m painfully aware of the immense difference between an intro course with two sessions for fourteen weeks to examine a subject versus the forced, frustrated and  episodic nature of most exchanges about politics on Facebook and elsewhere.)

And further, one cannot be a self strictly on one’s own. For starters,  who did I interact with that helped me achieve self-realization? Who are those around me right now who contribute to my self-understanding? Beyond the standard sources, how widely have I searched? Is there evidence to support my conclusions or am I relying only on tradition, feelings and the accepted authorities? How has the “community” or culture withIn which I identify, affected my moral stands? Finally, it’s virtually impossible to have a sense of who/where I am without some grasp of how we got there. This can be painful and tempting to avoid, especially as one advances in age and possible regrets loom. Taylor asks us to consider what type of life is worth living?  “E.g., what would a rich meaningful life, as against an empty one, or what would constitute an honorable life or the like?”

In sum, my argument was that there’s a virtually seamless web connecting knowing ourselves, knowing how the world works, and knowing that something needs to be done — starting with oneself. Uncertainty, deliberation and experimentation about the specific course of action don’t detract from the wisdom found in the Asian proverb “To know and not to act is not to know.”4

Part Two

If we can answer to ourselves “This is where I stand,“ we have a fundamental moral orientation that has grown out of a careful examination of how the world works and we possess an identity that permits us to define what is important to us and what is not.

If we have serious uncertainty about ourselves and what is of value to us, our very identity is called into question. And here, I think, is Taylor’s most salient point:  “To lose this orientation, or not to have found it, is not to know who one is.”  In short, an identity crisis occurs because qualitative distinctions about how to live our lives are missing. Taylor notes that we also know people who we consider terribly shallow who also have their own sense about what’s important but who haven’t thought very deeply about the world or the origins of their conventional ideas.

I didn’t tell the class that several faculty turned down my request to speak and expressed uneasiness about the topic. I couldn’t help wondering if this was because they’d never really thought through questions of identity.  A college professor can hide behind a role and never need reveal his or her beliefs. In any event, for me, this threw into sharp relief a critical issue  that also became a discussion topic in the seminar. That is, with the exception of some red diaper babies, most of us who define ourselves as radicals were once liberals. By virtue of searing historical experiences, patient veterans of past struggles, contact with other cultures, reading outside the mainstream and just plain luck, we ended up embracing a radical political viewpoint.

My hypothesis and cautionary note to younger people is that the older one gets the harder it becomes to rethink one’s identity and question beliefs in which one has a considerable material and psychic investment,  without risking Taylor’s aforementioned identity crisis. The danger of peering too deeply, especially in mid-life or beyond, is the prospect of discovering that one has lived a trivial, insubstantial life that hasn’t been the prelude or harbinger of anything meaningful.

And the personal cost of not doing this is really incalculable. This is because the prevailing economic and social forces within which we live deny us the experience of genuine love, life’s most rewarding experience and in Fromm’s words, “The only sane and satisfying answer to the problem of human existance.”  Fromm, who died in 1980, isolated the dilemma for out political reality,  “The principle underlying capitalist society and the principal of love are incompatible.”

It’s  been my observation that in the face of this reality, many people  adopt “liberal” beliefs and behaviors that they hope this will stave off or neuter the gnawing discomfort that Fromm is correct and what this will mean for their personal political identity. Here’s a short list:

—  The world is complicated and not black and white.
—   But I’m colorblind.
—   Vote Blue, No Matter Who.
—   People are greedy.
—   We need compassionate capitalism”
—   Remain convinced that the Democratic Party can be reformed
—   Talk about “giving something back“
—   Distance themselves from  longtime friends who strongly disagree with them
—   Display “Hate Has No Home Here” yard signs.
—   Listen to NPR, PBS News and even CNN to reinforce their views
—   Buy into Russia-gate
—   Embrace non-violence, the rule of law and incremental change
—   You’re stuck in the 1960s!
—   The perfect is the enemy of the good
—   The U.S. isn’t perfect and has  faults but look at (fill in the blank).
—   Drives a Prius and believes that individual recycling is the answer to climate change.
—   Always supports the lesser of two evils.
—   The problem is unregulated capitalism
—   Get outside of your comfort zone and look at the other party’s website to get the full picture.
—   Women and minorities deserve an equal opportunity to become corporate CEOs.
—   But the Supreme Court!
—   We can’t we just all get along?
—   We need more people willing to cross the aisle.
—   Knowledge about MLK’s political maturation begins and ends with “I Have A Dream.”

I take no pleasure in taking this a step further but I sense it needs saying in order  for leftists to make more productive use of their time and energy. Australian political analyst Caitlin Johnstone has listed several reasons why liberals hate and fear leftists. Here are just four of them:

First, because as noted earlier, one’s worldview is an important component of one’s identity and “exposing its flaws and one’s hypocrisy can feel like a personal attack”

Second, because if the leftists are right “everyone who taught them everything they thought they knew is wrong.”

Third, because change is scary.

Fourth, because the aforementioned “psychological discomfort known as cognitive dissonance actually hurts, and those who provoke it can often be perceived as the cause of the pain.”5

Finally, we know “the self,” especially in a hyper-individualistic, empathy-anesthetizing,  neoliberal capitalist culture, can become detached from the collectivity and less appreciative of the communal nature of life. There’s strong incentive to disavow one’s own role  and complicity in the suffering of others here and abroad and failing to help make the world safer for loving our neighbors. Over my lifetime (I’m 76) I’ve watched this occur countless times, especially recently. However, it’s neither inevitable nor excusable, especially if one’s had the luxury of time, travel, education and access to varied sources of information. It’s really never too late to begin the process.

  1. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989). []
  2. Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York: Bantam Books, 1956), p.49. []
  3. Wallace Shawn, Appendix to Aunt Dan & Lemon (1987). []
  4. Gary Olson, Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain (New York: Spring Publishing, 2012), See, especially, “Dangerously Empathic Samaritans,” p. 6-10. []
  5. Caitlin Johnstone, “Why Liberals Hate Leftists,” September 26, 2020. []
Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. He can be reached at: olsong@moravian.edu. Read other articles by Gary.