Tuesday, 3 March 2009

891 - The Civil Rights of Identity

Following this post I've grown more and more certain that there is a fundamental rights issue, concerning identity, related to our freedom, as human beings, to choose to define ourselves by labels, or not.

The civil rights movement has in the past fought for equal rights regardless of sex, race or gender. Totemic battles over voting rights for women, the abolition of slavery, and Gay Pride movements, have come to symbolise wider struggles, some of which have lasted centuries. There is now, in Britain as elsewhere, a battle over our future obligation to carry ID cards. This battle could be a lone stand, or it could be totemic of a wider struggle. I suspect the latter is true.

The following is a quote from Susan Greenfield's book on i.d., about the world she anticipates is breaking upon us as a result of information technology. Note the tone:

Perhaps future generations will live instead, in the fast-paced, immediate world of screen experience: a world arguably trapped in early childhood, where the infant doesn't yet think metaphorically. It's a world, remember, that lacks the checks and balances of the adult mind: reality can blur easily with fantasy, since there is no read-off against past conversations, thoughts or events. It is consequently a frightening, exciting, unpredictable and above all emotionally-charged world - a world of immediate response rather than one of reflective initiative. (p.180)
The implication of this passage, as I read it, is that although sensual, deliberately choosing such a life would be irresponsible, unreflective. The word Susan Greenfield uses later is reckless.

The book concerns me, because, as Greenfield herself explains early on in her book (p.ix), as an eminent scientist and a Baroness, she has contributed to debates in the House of Lords with, presumably, the aim of informing Britain's future cultural and legislative direction. And it is worth pausing to consider who would be impacted by any attempt to redress widespread neurologically-related irresponsibility. Over the course of the book, drawing on medical studies, Greenfield provides a list of people prone to recklessness:

1. Children;
2. Schizophrenics;
3. The neurologically damaged;
4. Those in romantic love;
5. Others prone to psychotic episodes;
6. The sleep deprived;
7. The obese;
8. Takers of drugs, such as cannabis, that promote, or replicate dopamine in the brain;
9. Sportsmen and women and others who engage in physical activities that alter temporarily the mind;
10. Future-generation users of screen-based technology;
11. Those genetically predisposed to take risks.

Because I recognise myself in the description above, and also its similarity to the description of hunter-gatherers provided by Hugh Brody in his book, The Other Side of Eden, where the lack of checks and balances recognised by the Western World derives from a fundamentally different set of cultural experiences, to this list I would add:

12. Those who have achieved a degree of maturity, having processed conflicting fundamentalist worldviews,
13. Indigenous Hunter-Gatherers and those who endeavour to live inspired by them.

That's a fair few people. And although Greenfield does not treat them all equally, she does define them against a perceived adult norm.

The fundamental problem to me is that Greenfield's 'adult norm', full of checks and balances, and shaped by the twentieth century schooling system, not to mention four-hundred plus years of the printed word, sounds simply like the Modernist worldview. And her list of the reckless (with the inclusion of my two additions) is a combination of everything the Modernist worldview disproves of, from infantilism, to addiction, to wild romanticism, to mental disturbance, to the uncivilised, to the hedonistic, to the not strictly scientifically positivist, to the postmodern and geeky.

We live in a world of tribes, and we currently deal with those we take issue with by labelling them. It's okay, they're not our tribe, so we know they are not like us. We're happy, should someone choose a label for themselves, to consort with them, our own sense of identity intact. We're even happy if others define themselves against the label we give them, like Jimmy Dean, or Doctor Horrible. That's the modernist way.

But I meet, and hear of, growing numbers of people who are not happy to be labelled. There is the teenager on the metro who is uncomfortable with being an '-ist'. I understand this is a common attitude amongst Generation Y. There are Christians in the evangelical tradition who reject the 'Christian' label - I suspect this is true across many religions. There are movements in psychology away from the labelling of syndromes. In an age where work is transitory, growing numbers of people distrust the badge of their profession as the mark of who they are. I know of people who do not like to be defined by their marital status, as most forms in Britain currently require.

I'm not calling for the abandoning of tribes, of identities, of labels. I am calling for the freedom to choose whether to be labelled or not. We were not born pre-packaged. We should be free to choose how we define ourselves, or even if we define ourselves at all.

If this freedom is not fought for, or retained, we set up a world of categories and divisions. Systems like i.d cards will formalise them and restrict... what? Hunter-gatherers may give us a clue. These peoples live in a data-rich, unexplained world - the one Greenfield fears, in the form of new technologies, is coming for us all. And guess what? They evolved - we evolved, because we are they - precisely to be able to do so.

Labels direct our freedom to respond to life, in tune with or counterpoint to it, whatever it throws at us, be it uncommon experiences, the ability to participate in mass movements, the chance to risk all for a dream, or for someone we love, the mass-democratisation and new experiences embodied in screen technologies. But we need, surely, to be free to leave those labels behind, take time out, perhaps permanent time out, to be fully human, because they can also restrict our freedom, or exclude us.

If I am right, a struggle is already in progress between those who seek to identify themselves and others, and those who retain the right to remain uncategorised, and not to categorise others. In fullness of time this civil rights movement will be won by those who admit a way for the two worldviews to live together permanently and peacefully, or for one or the other to fade away naturally. This is about fundamentalists and liberals, in all spheres, and a world where both can co-exist.

May I suggest that one way to circumvent the logic traps of modernist civil rights thinking, which might risk labelling one or other side as 'good' or 'bad', would be to speak in stories, and dreams, like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela?


hectoria said...

Do you have to be reckless to be creative?

Steve Lancaster said...


Maybe not... and actually (I'll blog about this later) I'm being won over by Susan Greenfield's argument - which interestingly culminates in a chapter called 'Being Creative', that I've not read yet...

Perhaps there are two ways of being creative - nurturing over a long period (like parenting), which is not at all reckless; and taking risks. Evolution and revolution? Two poles of creativity creating a spectrum along which we choose to position ourselves?

What interests me, in the list, is the way that recklessness makes me one of a large, relevant and to greater or lesser degrees persecuted group of strange bedfellows.

What do you think?

hectoria said...

Agree that it's all about where we choose to position ourselves (& every day is & can be different). So that's where the caution & the risk jingle with each other.I do still think that reckless in the form of letting go does aid creativity.

Steve Lancaster said...

Hmm. To clarify re: Susan Greenfield - the book is not saying all recklessness is bad, but it is saying that it has to be managed (p.273). I therefore think that asking the question 'Who qualifies as a manager, and what if their idea of acceptable risk is not the same as mine?' is a valid one. And I do think, therefore, that the civil rights battle I'm talking about is very very relevant indeed.