Humanities & Social Thought Non-Fiction

The Administration of Identity Vs. The Experience of Identity (A Series, Part 1 of 4)

I want to talk about the difference between what we experience and what we study about experience. On this topic, many will feel that I should provide evidence and build a persuasive argument. There is certainly a place for that, but it aint Facebook, it aint in a personal essay, and it sure as hell aint on my front lawn. The thought that drives this essay could be summed up as “peoples is peoples and feels is feels.”

I have a friend who complained on Facebook that her male colleagues refused to go through doors she held open for them.  She asked her Facebook friends to help her come up with a retort, because these men were promoting the patriarchy by insisting on outdated, sexist chivalry.  What followed was a lively discussion among many women, all of whom implicitly agreed that the point was to call these men out for being sexist. Let us assume that in the way “micro-aggressions,” or small interactions, contribute to larger narratives, men not walking through doors women hold open for them does indeed promote patriarchal norms that are oppressive to women (this could be argued, but let’s not argue it here). While it would seem at the outset that the way forward would be to deconstruct this sexist act and through this determine the best course of action, including how best to respond, this process actually has very little to do with experience, and much more to do with administration and policy making. The administration of identity and the experience of identity are two very different things that need to be treated differently. The question of how to respond to a man who won’t walk through a door you hold open for him is different than the question of how to minimize the number of micro-aggressions against women.  You are not a category (women) and he is not merely a representation of all sexist micro-aggressions.

If we were to respond to this situation experientially, though, we might see something like this-

W: It bugs me when I hold open the door and you don’t walk through, because it makes me feel like you don’t [take me seriously/see me as your peer/like me very much].
M: Sorry! I was just trying to be polite.
[M proceeds to walk through the door]

In this instance, we are talking about experience, and not about large movements that come out of the academy and activist frameworks. Despite the fact that nobody said “micro-aggression,” “patriarchy,” “sexism,” or “feminism,” this was an example of two people addressing all of these things, from an experiential perspective. This is what actually living is actually like, which is separate from the study of living.  What the experiential perspective demands of us is emotional honesty.  It is my on-the-record opinion that it is easier to accuse someone of being sexist than admit that someone has hurt your feelings. But relying on administrative wrongs (those patterns of actions or policies which have been institutionalized culturally that promote injustice) abstracts oneself into a mere category, at which point, there’s no individual to have hurt or to have wronged, there’s only the idea of a particular group of people. You can no longer retort anything at all, because a category can’t talk. Moreover, it is in fact just as sexist, if not more so, to erase the female self in order to make an argument about oppression against females.

All of this is true, I think, and grounds for speaking from a personal place when you feel hurt, angered or alienated by someone else’s actions. But the most important reason to live life as oneself and not as some broader abstraction is that the point of the whole mess, just about everything there is, is the strange and wonderful beauty that is you encountering the world. You are the individual, inherently deviant from the categories to which you belong, you are the only thing like you this world will ever see.

Live that. Experience that.

By jtp

Joanna Tova Price has a lot of heart.

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