Will-o’-the-Wisp

“Zo ben ik dan eindelijk de baan eens op met mensen die volkomen verschillen van  de volksgenoten met wie ik gedoemd ben al mijn dagen te slijten, (..) die in ieder geval van onze beroemdste medeburgers nooit hebben gehoord en voor wie onze vorsten en heiligen absoluut niet in tel zijn, dus zeer waarschijnlijk mensen naar mijn hart.”Willem Elsschot, Verzameld Werk, Het Dwaallicht, p. 695, P.N. Van Kampen en Zoon N.V., Amsterdam, 1957.

[Re-posted from The Old Site, original dated 16-01-2008. If you retain anything from this it is that you really need to read Elsschot, if possible in Dutch so you can see for yourself how inadequate the below translation is. I have had to be editing the below heavily; when I wrote it I had a worse day than even my usual bad average, I fear.]

(Amateuristic English translation: “So I find myself finally on the road with people that are entirely different from my people (with which I am doomed to spend the rest of my days), (..) people who in any case have never heard of our celebrities and for whom our kings and saints do not count at all; most probably then people to my liking.”)

Group identity is making a come-back; one that would make many retired athletes very jealous indeed. Undoubtedly, getting to a personal identity (an own self and an own personality) requires a substrate of group identity. It requires at least a sufficiently sophisticated language in use by a group of people but probably a common language doesn’t suffice. This provides the foundation for the aggressive resistance of ‘The New Right’ towards diversity and multiculturalism and certainly towards multiculturalism as, itself, being somehow foundational to human society.

‘The New Right’ has a point at least as to group identity deserving more respect than people like me would normally be prepared to give. But does this mean that group identity deserves our absolute respect? Does it mean we have to endorse ethnicities or religions as essentially good, or – at least – as unavoidable evils?

I think not. In fact far from it …

Most group identities are not just superfluous, boring, besides the point or nauseating. Most are downright poisonous; specifically those related to peoples, states & Gods. The easiest & most powerful identities that can be created are such as to exclude others and glorify the likeminded. It’s not however so that because exclusionary identities are those that are most proliferated that all group identity needs to be similarly exclusionary.

In an attempt to argue my assertions: first of all, it is not because I need the tool to make the car that the car needs the tool to continue to function and, secondly (working further on the second point above):  it isn’t fundamental to one’s identity to point to (or exclude) what is not part of it (the latter is merely a weak identity, an identity of the exploited).

Put more pragmatically, following Habermas, human beings have a positive common trait: the ability to communicate. This identity is enough to maintain a quite universal notion of self and personality – there is no need to call into play ethnocentric or other diversities. The fact, at least I concede it as a fact, that the actual creation of selves requires the embedding in an actual idiosyncratic culture is not more foundational than the fact that a new generation comes out of at least one idiosyncratic set of genes.  In the latter case gene diversity is as crucial as gene identity – and the same is true in the case of cultures:  we need some form of identity but we need as much cultural diversity if we do not want to stop surviving and stop progressing.

Sure, cultural diversity will continuously kill – and relegate to archeology – the existing cultures to make place for the new cultures. Insofar this cultural diversity is aesthetically pleasing to some – as biodiversity is to some others – there’s an emotion associated to the mummification of old identities. For some this seems good enough a reason to preserve a culture and this is harmless enough (although if push comes to shove we should never force such issues either way) as long as people do not start to think it is good enough a reason to make specific cultures essential things to be protected (and one can easily see how “The New Right” touches here “The Old Left”).

The sad fact is however that this midly misguided preservational interest quickly turns to attacking emerging group identities in order to promote the hegemony of the own – stronger, purer, more traditional, more authentic, … –  obnoxious group identity.

Absolute believers in cultural diversity and believers in the supremacy of specific group identity agee essentially agree that group identity is both unavoidable and important whereas it is merely coincidental and utterly trivial (by-product of the evolution that really matters). This being said, if ever there is a choice on life or death to be made between diversity thinking and supremacy thinking, there should be no doubt whatsoever that it is the former that is to win if we do not want our own selves to perish under group pressure (PoMo, therefore, but only Un PoCo).

The most straightforward thing is not to chase the Will-o’-the-Wisp of group identity and do as Elsschot does (more succinctly as I ever could): find what is similar between what is seemingly unbridgeably diverse. Diversity, relativism and group identity finally will evaporate for the mere reason that it is true that what counts in humanity is universal.

Over time everybody will be able to make the leap of reason.

2 responses to “Will-o’-the-Wisp

  1. Aljas de Paljas

    I think the question arises what “culture” is all about to begin with. Fundamentally all cultures (religions, states) have to be conceived as a false and irrational absolutes that have little or no proof in reality. Given that ultimately people have to live in a certain reality, this can only lead to setting up people against other cultures as the post explains eloquently.
    There must be several thousands of religions and hundreds of states, all of which believe being part of their clan has at least some positive value but really is varying only between mildly negative to brutally murderous (many states and religions have a death toll counting in the millions). Cultural diversity can only be considered the sum of negatives if all of the tendencies are indeed to be respected.

    I laud this post since most political or philosophical debates never seem to focus on this issue, but prefer to waste scarce energy and time on tiny minutia like left vs. right or even the psychological need to belong to a group that has to see itself as superior in order to exist (group think). No culture will ever question this house of cards, just like the society as a whole did not question slavery in earlier times.

    The root of all this misery may very well lay in child raising and the fact that kids are scared to death not to belong to the “culture” of a specific family. Not believing in the family cult can become a painful proposition at an early stage. Since the power structure is absolutely scewed, a notion of “culture” (i.e. false and irrational absolutes) is impregnated as an unquestionable absolute.

    There may not be a lot of hope for current grown-ups since these concepts are simple in nature but brutal in their consequences; reprogramming or our scewed personalities is too much of a task for the large majority. We might have to focus on avoiding mistakes in the education we give to coming generations.

  2. Hey, thanks. And yes! (but don’t be too dark either: any starting point is a good starting point as long as you are not forced to see it as an end point and remain in that place forever).

    Cool Alias!

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