choosing wisely between
DENYING IDENTITY AND NATURAL LAW
ROBERT J. LEWIS
An identity would seem to be arrived at
by the way in which the person faces and uses his experience.
insider response to someone who denies his religion or ethnicity
– where the best of reasons explain but do not exculpate
-- is to label the person a coward. The indignant accuser, for
whom the poltroon represents the lowest form of humanity, with
a thumping nod to Kant's categorical imperative that pronounces
one’s action or position correct if it lends itself to universal
law, finds the denier guilty of abetting the enemy at the gate,
and makes the denial the principle upon which a people’s
vanishing point gains traction.
Of course not everyone has the luxury of denying his identity. If the hater's goal is to eliminate all members of a black ethnic group, short of undergoing costly group depigmentation therapy, denial is not an option. But when it comes to ideas and the many isms we are all familiar with (communism, fascism, corporatism, all religions), since our allegiances are an accident of birth, as we mature and become familiar with foreign ideologies and belief systems we can choose to opt out of our inherited circumstance in favour of another. This is not to be confused with denying one’s origins. If I have been raised as a Catholic, Muslim or Jew and convert to Buddhism, I will always, psychically, be as I have been raised, especially if I have been persecuted or prejudiced against. However, if the conversion takes place early in one’s formative years, one’s acquired identity and psychic identity will be one and the same.
What is important to note is that all the world isms are arbitrary cultural constructs; that is they are the issue (not of the gods) of man, and most of them have been around for less than three millennia, a mere blink of the eye in the spectrum of time. Human nature, on the other hand, is not arbitrary; it is coeval with the species. Despite the remarkable heterogeneity of world culture, all human beings share the same nature which they cannot opt out of. At best, they can attempt to refuse it when it is in their best interest to do so.
If among my core values, I deem non-negotiable the one that says my life is worth more than any arbitrary belief system, as a duty owed to that value, circumstance might oblige me to deny my identity in order to avoid persecution and/or preserve my one and only life. And while I will be held in scorn and opprobrium by the group from which I have disaffected, whose members are prepared to sacrifice their lives in its defense, I will be favoured by nature whose first command is to survive. In nature, species, in the manner of the chameleon, that can change their colours in order to avoid becoming a predator species’ next meal are the ones that survive and propagate.
So on the one hand, from our earliest years we are inculcated into believing that our community’s culture and beliefs are sacrosanct, and (implicitly) that the integrity of the group’s cherished way of life prevails over the individual, while nature holds that life (being-in-the-world) is the highest value, which leaves man, a product of both nature and culture, caught in the crosshairs of a conflict where taking sides or no side at all generates consequences.
Not all identity disaffection is a result of being the target of hatred (internalized as self-hatred) or persecution. I can rationally opt out of my political or religious affiliation if I no longer subscribe to its core values. If during the course of my life I come to believe in equal opportunity for women which my birth culture frowns upon, I can decide to renounce my present membership in favour of another whose values are more commensurate with my own, taking into account that disaffecting will result in a radical reconfiguration of both friends and foes.
If in order to save its life an entire people defect from religion X such that it disappears from the face of the earth, what will not disappear are those very same beliefs now living under a different flag or appellation. If X believes in a Christian God and converts to Islam in order to save his family, his private beliefs will remain intact even though his community identity (concentrated in the word designation ‘Christian’) will have disappeared. When the Greeks conquered Persia, the latter disappeared in name but the culture did not.
relieved if its pejorative significations, is a first response
to imminent threat or demise. Throughout history it has
been a very useful and oft used stratagem of persons persecuted
for their political and religious beliefs but who understood that
staying alive was the best guarantor of core beliefs that for
reasons of expediency required a change in outer appearance.
Who are we to judge the homosexual whose group as a whole is reviled, who denies his identity (convinces his persecutors that he is heterosexual) in order to find peace of mind and/or save his life. If one is born into community that, however irrationally, is loathed, is it not an instinct to modify one’s behaviour to be relieved of the hatred or try to defect to a more favourably viewed group?
How should we judge Woody Allen’s titular film character Zelig, who in the course of his daily modifies his personality and world view in order to optimize the continuously changing circumstance of his life? Zelig enters relationships only in so far as they bear on his happiness and well-being, a position that requires no defence in the court of natural law whose position on authenticity just happens to be diametrically opposed to the philosophical one. Then again, what kind of relationship can one have with someone who has no true centre, or one that is unstable, whose loyalties are determined by perceived advantage, who wilfully misrepresent the truth when it is in his interest to do so. Every politician, in the manner of Zelig, owes his success to the many selves he is able to project in order to appeal to the long list of special interest groups upon which his election depends.
Given the unprecedented global phenomenon of the mixing of unlike cultures, and our species-specific intolerance towards those who do not share our beliefs, and the general arbitrariness of all isms, one would think that before signing up to sacrifice one’s life (or taking another’s in the name of ), the idea or belief itself should be held to the highest scrutiny.
Throughout history, group pressure has coerced millions into believing that it is their sacred duty to defend their religion or political affiliation – to the death. Seduced by the noble cause and heroic gesture, as soon someone decides to put his life on the line for his God or government, he confers on it an aura of authority and legitimacy that conveniently removes it from cross-examination; and when others en masse get swept up in the righteous fervour, a tsunami is unleashed, crushing everything in its path opposing the idea that when stripped of its hype and cant often turns out to be the predictable means to the end of someone’s raw craving for power.
the cause for which millions sacrificed their lives, petered out
after a mere century. It was an ism that in a very short historical
period proved to be incompatible with human nature. It collapsed
under the dead weight of its unfounded, illusory pre-suppositions.
If it should come to pass that there is no God, or One that doesn’t correspond in any manner to man’s conception of Him, what will we say, how will we judge the multitudes who sacrificed their lives for a fiction, for an arbitrary mental construct that wilted before the hard facts of its insufficiency. In The End of Faith, Sam Harris writes: “Religious faith represents so uncompromising a misuse of the power of our minds that it forms a kind of perverse, cultural singularity – a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible . . . Religious faith allows the unknown, the implausible, and the patently false to achieve primacy over the facts.”
In the Milky Way galaxy, one of billions of galaxies, there are 250 billion stars. The distance from one end of the galaxy to the other is one hundred thousand light years. It takes our galaxy 230 million years to execute one complete one orbit. Before this incomprehensible immensity that should silence us all, are we to believe, without a byte's worth of data, that the Maker of all this expects us to attend mass on Friday night, not to open the light switch on the Sabbath, to pray to Allah five times a day, and will chastise us if we don’t? And yet that is precisely what most people believe, compelled by an unexamined urge to be vitally connected to an idea. The much storied story of man is the eternal recurrence of the impotence of reason to expose the transient nature of ideas whose dominion is directly related to being able to decommission man’s faculties of judgment upon contact.
Not until we, in our accusation, learn to make the blood on our hands the catalyst that bids us to acquaint ourselves with the tragic history of ideas that have come and gone like may flies, will we begin to suspect as the height of folly the humungous human sacrifice flawed ideas have engendered.
If, in the
end, history is simply a compilation of winners and losers, we
should note that among the winners are those, who, in the face
of scorn and opprobrium, dared to deny their religious and/or
political affiliation. Positing life as the highest value, they
-- cowards by the majority's reckoning -- lived to see another
day and their kind multiply.
Whether or not there is something instructive to be said for that, which is the task of this small essay, is left to the reader to decide.