The right to self-identify

>> Thursday, July 01, 2010

The other day, you may recall, wrote a piece responding to a Ron Rosenbaum column in Slate. Afterwards, I kept coming back to something, this particular quote from John Wilkins:

[Atheism] tries to co-opt Agnosticism as a form of "weak" Atheism. I think people have the right to self-identify as they choose, and I am neither an atheist nor a faith-booster, both charges having been made by atheists (sometimes the same atheists).

There's an interesting point in there that comes up a lot and is taken for granted even though it's dead wrong: that "people have the right to self-identify as they choose." It's rubbish.

First of all, it doesn't mean what the people who say it think it means. The word "right," if you want to be technical about it, describes an enforceable relationship between individuals or individuals and their government. Consider Wikipedia's definition as a convenient starting point:

Rights are normative (e.g. legal, social, or ethical) principles of freedom or entitlement. That is to say, rights are rules about what is allowed of people or owed to people, according to some legal system, social convention, or ethical theory. The concept of rights is often fundamental to civilized societies, and it is of vital importance in such disciplines as law and ethics, especially theories of justice and deontology.

There's obviously no legal right to self-identify as you choose, or (to be more precise) whatever rather how you may identify yourself with regards to the state is so limited by how you are permitted to act as to make self-identification essentially meaningless. You may, to cite some obviously silly examples, feel you have the soul of a police officer or the heart of a gynecologist, but pull over a speeding motorist or start offering women physicals without being actually employed as a police officer in the jurisdiction or licensed to practice medicine, and you likely end up in jail. Similarly, you may feel your sense of self-worth is so full and encompassing that you would like to self-identify as a non-taxable religion or tax-deductible charity; good luck with that.

Rights between individuals is a murkier subject, but as a practical matter it has to be acknowledged that one's rights against individuals must be legally recognizable to be meaningful. "What?" you might ask. Well, put it this way: your right not to be hit in the head is only meaningful if it can be enforced. It's possible that everyone around you will be so kind as to implicitly recognize your right and self-enforce, but what are you going to do if social convention fails? It's also possible that your right may be self-enforceable insofar as you are so feared for your own propensity towards violence that people are afraid to hit you in the head, but in this situation what keeps you from violating everybody else's putative right not to be hit in the head? Combining these, perhaps everybody agrees informally not to hit each other in the head because such is the path to chaos, but this isn't so much a matter of "enforceable rights" as it is a matter of tacit agreement among the parties that being hit in the head has dire consequences for all concerned and let's not do it.

Where a right not to be hit in the head becomes meaningful is when one can appeal to the higher social order if it happens. The form of the appeal isn't really that important--in our society, the general form of the appeal is the filing of criminal and/or civil charges with a judicial system and demand that the perpetrator be punished or make compensation, but it could just as easily be a tribal meeting where it is agreed that head-hitters are to be shunned or exiled. The point is that there is some sort of official recognition that the right exists at all and a mechanism, however simple or informal, for enforcement.

Who or what enforces a "right to self-identify"? Good luck with that.

What people who say things like "people have the right to self-identify as they choose" mean, I think, is "you're not the boss of me and can't label me or tell me who or what I am!" Which possibly sounds good, except that's not true and doesn't work either.

Consider, for a moment, the disgraced British historian David Irving. Irving rose to some fame as an author of World War II histories and what were, at the time, regarded as important biographies of Hitler and other Nazi leaders. However, several people, including Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, noticed that Irving possessed what started as a tendency to minimize Hitler's involvement with or responsibility for The Holocaust, which metastasized into outright denial that it happened at all, blaming any deaths of Jewish concentration camp inmates upon health problems created by Allied bombings. Dr. Lipstadt called Irving out on it and he sued her for libel--and lost. Irving returned to prominence briefly in 2006 after an Austrian court convicted him for "trivialising the Holocaust" under Germany's anti-Nazi laws and sent him to prison.

Now, the reason for that unpleasant background is this--more unpleasantness, I'm afraid--Irving has publicly self-identified himself as not a bigot, not a racist, not an anti-Semite. As he was losing the Austrian criminal trial, he even briefly recanted (sort of) and said he thought maybe the Germans did kill "millions" of Jews but not necessarily all the ones claimed and he still didn't think Hitler knew about it. So Irving has self-identified himself, and one supposes we should take him at his word if he had some "right" to do so or (at least) if we shouldn't label him against his wishes.

Then again, Mr. "Not-A-Racist" has been observed teaching this, which he also chronicled in a diary that was entered into evidence at the libel trial, to his young daughter:

I am a Baby Aryan
Not Jewish or Sectarian
I have no plans to marry an
Ape or Rastafarian.

Mr. "Not-A-Racist" also said in a public speech:

I am not anti-coloured, take it from me; nothing pleases me more than when I arrive at an airport, or a station or a seaport, and I see a coloured family there—the black father, the black wife and the black children. I think it is just as handsome a spectacle as the English family, or the French family, or the German family, or the South African family, or whatever. I think that is the way that God planned it and that is the way it should be. When I see these families arriving at the airport I am happy (and when I see them leaving at London airport I am happy).
But now we have women reading our news to us.

If they could perhaps have their own news which they were reading to us, I suppose, it would be very interesting.

For the time being, for a transitional period I'd be prepared to accept that the BBC should have a dinner-jacketed gentleman reading the important news to us, following by a lady reading all the less important news, followed by Trevor McDonald [a now-semi-retired BBC anchor who happens to be black] giving us all the latest news about the muggings and the drug busts....

After getting out of prison, Mr. Irving--who self-identifies, I believe, as not being an anti-Semite, spoke to The Guardian in 2007:

Mr Irving says that his views on the Holocaust have crystallised rather than changed. He says that he believes the Jews were responsible for what happened to them during the second world war and that the "Jewish problem" was responsible for nearly all the wars of the past 100 years: "The Jews are the architects of their own misfortune, but that is the short version A-Z. Between A-Z there are then 24 other characters in intervening steps." Mr Irving was due to address a meeting in Coventry last Friday - although that event was disrupted by protesters - and held another meeting at his home on Saturday. He plans to speak in Halifax and Birmingham as well as at several unnamed universities.

There has been progress: Irving now feels that there was a Holocaust (though he's "not going to use their trade name" for it) against something like two-and-a-half million Jews by Heinrich Himmler, who operated behind Hitler's back (naturally).

Mr. Irving has a "right" to self-identify, does he? Really?

Because I think I'm entitled to say there's a contradiction between the labels he applies to himself and the things he actually says he believes--sometimes within the space of a few words or paragraphs. And so I really don't have a problem saying that Irving is a bigot, a racist and antisemitic; you can take Mr. Irving's self-identifications and my opinion that Irving is, in fact and contrary to what he sometimes says, a bigot, and read Mr. Irving's statements and research him for yourself and decide whether his public self-identity trumps my assessment.


I am reminded of a thing I recently saw--I don't have a link to the clip--in which Penn Teller took issue with somebody calling teabaggers racists, because to describe somebody as a racist is to look into their heart. I found Teller's rant inane because it seemingly failed to consider how easy it can be to look into somebody's heart when they're wearing it on their sleeve. Carry a racist sign, use racist language, associate with people carrying racist signs and using racist language and refuse to disavow them or only disavow them tepidly and belatedly after people have called you to account--what else am I to think, frankly? One supposes that the blanket label might be unfair to some individuals; then again, those individuals might take an opportunity to disentangle themselves from their foulest and loudest peers. I don't say the teabaggers are racists because I disagree with their economic agenda, I call them racists because I've seen pictures of them carting around signs depicting the President with a bone in his nose and seen video clips of them saying things like, "We're going to take our country back" that are, in my part of the country, pretty well-known code phrases usually heard coming from the mouths of Dixiecrats and Klansmen and people who bookend their opinions with phrases like "Some of my best friends are" and "I'm not a racist" and "Nothing against Those People...."

I don't want to belabor a point I think I've made. Certainly you can self-identify however you see fit. Just don't expect me or anyone else to honor that request if your other words or actions belie the image you've chosen for yourself. It works both ways--I certainly don't expect you to take my word for who I am if I break it.


Nathan Thursday, July 1, 2010 at 9:20:00 PM EDT  

In all fairness, we all have elements of our self-identity that are delusional. Then again, most of us don't go out of our way to announce our delusions so publicly.

And the whole thing about "rights" is a much more wide ranging topic. I don't think it means what most people think it means.

vince Friday, July 2, 2010 at 11:44:00 PM EDT  

You can call yourself Napoleaon, but it doesn't mean you are, in fact, ole nappy himself.

Hitch Sunday, July 4, 2010 at 11:19:00 AM EDT  

I think that people have the right to self-identify. I don't think that people should frame another person's position. That happens way too much.

I personally largely reject self-labeling. It's not helpful in my mind, but serves to distract and conflate. And we have long debates about labels rather than about the original arguments.

Eric Sunday, July 4, 2010 at 2:49:00 PM EDT  

Hitch, it's not so much about framing another person's position as it is about calling a spade a spade. Or, as another cliché has it: if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck....

To say that one has a "right" to self-identify beyond a free expression right to make the announcement is to imply, I think, that one is entitled to be recognized for what one says he is. But the fact somebody may say he's "x" doesn't entitle him to be believed--and that's really the point.

One certainly shouldn't mis-characterize another's position, nor put words in another's mouth--but that's not really what we're talking about, I don't think.

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