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The Abused Verb "Identify" (2018-04-02)

Go ahead, pick one. Go ahead, pick one.
Widely shared clipart, March 2018

Among the unfortunate themes of this period of intensive backlash against women, Feminism, anyone who can't pass as white, and apparently the Earth itself, is the rampant abuse of language. I am no fan of George Orwell, in part because of his despicable propaganda piece 1984, designed to encourage defeatism and conformity, and more recent revelations about his practice of spying and red-baiting, but I have to concede that when he created the category label "newspeak" and analysed it in his infamous novel, he was telling no more and no less than the absolute truth. He provides a chilling précis of such practices as insisting words mean the opposite of their common meaning, refusing to define terms or insisting on such nebulous meanings that they can be conveniently rejigged for political convenience. These practices are all too tempting because they can be powerful forces for gaslighting, silencing, and the destruction of open and honest conversation, let alone debate. There are many examples of this in the mainstream media right now, and it is not difficult to run into it being wielded as a clumsy rhetorical bludgeon by people claiming to be "progressives." However, I would like to focus on a key item in this current version of "newspeak," the abuse of the verb "identify."

I headed off to my copy of the OED as per usual to learn about the roots and general history of this word, since it is the case that words change in meaning over time, though in the normal course of things this generally takes close to a hundred years or more, at least in english. The OED duly informed me that the roots of this word are from latin, from "idem" meaning "same" and "facere," meaning "to make." So to begin with, "identify" meant "to make the same," especially by finding enough similarities between two whatevers or whoevers to say, "yes, that is the guy I saw here yesterday," or "that's the plant that'll kill you if you eat it." Sounds useful. Then the follow on definitions include, "establish or indicate who or what someone or something is," "recognize or distinguish," "associate someone closely with, regard someone as having strong links with." This last one has strong connotations of this association and regarding being inaccurate based on the illustrative quotes. Then, "to regard oneself as sharing the same characteristics or thinking as with someone else." The referent in all these cases is not internal at all, but with someone or something else. Which means that the identification can always be contested, which is very useful when you want to claim that some group merely identifies as something, and then declare that in fact they don't exist. Indigenous peoples worldwide are all too familiar with this bait and switch. Look up the Sinixt Nation, or the Native Tasmanians whom people who think they are white are still claiming are completely extinct.

There is also a closely related abstract noun, the ever handy "identity," which my OED reports means "the fact of being who or what a person or thing is," "the characteristics determining this." The characteristics in question are stable, features that enable the person or thing to be consistently recognized. In themselves the features or characteristics need not and more often cannot determine behaviour, except in the most generalized senses. For example, I have two feet and two legs and no issues preventing me from moving them. So if I want to get around, my starting point is walking. The notion of "identity politics" is very popular right now, because it starts from the notion that people who are not upper class, rich males who think they are white must "identify" as what they are, and that "identity" is a completely individualized thing that drives all of their ideas and actions. If only they'd "identify with" somebody or something else, they would automagically develop the ability to "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps" and stop demanding changes to the status quo. After all, a person who "identifies with" someone or something can have their resultant identity contested and even denied by "those who know better." Somehow "those who know better" are are always upper class, rich males who think they are white, similar males who aspire to be just like them, and various highly sympathetic women who think they are white. That's a spectacular, but actually very old abuse of language. It can be traced as far back as colonial settler states defining things like "Indian status" so they can delete whole peoples by what the brilliant historian Barbara Alice Mann refers to as "pen and ink witchcraft."

There is at least one more distortion to consider here, and that is the modified term "self-identify" which is apparently the alternative for speakers who want to set their identifications beyond question. I base this inference on my encounters with fellow students when they draw on this verb, and I can see the appeal, because it is supposed to overcome the potential for the identity at hand to be questioned. Lucy Mcdonagh, one of many brilliant, clear headed working class activists on the front lines everyday, unpacked this verb as follows, "That's what 'self-identify' means: anyone can say they are anyone... So, rich, privileged people can claim to be marginalized." (Here's the source article from Feminist Current, it is worth every moment you spend reading it.) On top of that, people can "self-identify" with just about anyone or anything, no consistency required.

Let's bear in mind here that intensely admiring another social group is not the same thing as being somehow a member of that group. Not even if that admiration leads to a desire for membership that blazes brighter than a thousand suns. As Métis scholars have had to point out a lot lately, who you are isn't about who you claim or who you "identify with" or "self-identify as" but with who claims you. Whether you are accepted by that group, and what you do that reflects your deep respect and love for that group as a member. Insisting that either mode of "identification" overrides this is an illustration of a sense of entitlement, not a sense of reality. Who and what we are is not changeable, much as we may want it to be. Our intense feelings of admiration, sympathy, or even (heaven forbid) ownership, can't change what we are.

But if destructive notions of entitlement and ownership aren't in the way, it is quite possible to identify systemic oppression, and take action against it. That may well mean working against the systemic oppression of some group that in a moment of confusion a person claimed to "identify with" or "self-identify as" when they intended to express their empathy and commitment to do right by that group they admire. For the ones who abuse the terms "identify," "identity," and "self-identify" in an effort to appropriate and oppress the groups they claim to be, those are the contributors to the systemic oppression, not its opponents. A word to the wise.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2018
Last Modified: Monday, May 29, 2017 2:03:23