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Walt Whitman Understood Identity. We no Longer Do

Society has lost its understanding of identity

By Craig Axford | United States

This article needs to open with a warning. For the first few paragraphs at least, it’s going to ask that you remain open to the possibility that two very different and rather controversial men have a pretty good understanding of our current conception of identity. I’m referring here to Bill Maher and Donald Trump. The first rightly finds our present focus on identity problematic while the second exploits his understanding of it for political gain.

After briefly dealing with the comedian and the president, I will be turning to a less polarizing figure whose primary sin is being born a nineteenth century white male. That accident of birth aside, Walt Whitman was, I think you’ll agree, no Bill Maher or Donald Trump. As such, he offers us a way out of our current weaponized view of the self that I don’t really hear anyone else offering, including identity politics most articulate critics.

Maher and Trump have made it this far because our modern concept of identity is inherently flawed and ultimately unworkable from a classical liberal perspective. Maher makes a pretty good living mocking modern notions of identity and ranting about the consequences, while Trump harnesses the energy of identity’s emotional rollercoaster by dismissing its relevance on the one hand and appealing to a traditional white Christian version of it on the other. The whole fight, however, is largely being fought on the authoritarians’ terms.

Identity politics, however well intentioned some its advocates may be, has made it especially tricky for a white male like myself to use any group other than “my own” as an example of anything without risking being seriously misunderstood. Even then, I run the risk of being accused of portraying a group commonly lumped together as oppressors as victims instead. There’s really no room being made available for nuance here, so I’m not going to waste space trying to create any. I’ll just say that if you think this article is about feeling sorry for white guys, you’re seriously missing the point.

With that disclaimer out of the way, consider the fact that contemporary views of identity practically mandate that white straight men behave like caricatures of white straight men. This is a classic catch-22 because acting like “typical” white straight guys is what usually gets us into trouble.

Take sexuality. A straight male (of any race) that directs too much sensitivity or “inappropriate” emotion in the direction of any other men in his life will be considered sexually repressed or confused, or at least confusing, by both straight and gay men alike. If he should find himself drawn to the clothing, music, or art of a different culture a white European male in particular runs the risk of accusations of “cultural appropriation.” If he sticks to the products of his own European culture he’s just another apologist for Western imperialism.

Yet, if a man expresses sympathy for women who have historically been or are currently the victims of scapegoating and oppression, there’s a reasonable chance he’ll find himself on the receiving end of charges of “virtue signalling” from the other end of the political spectrum. If he doesn’t show some awareness for the suffering women have endured he’s just another insensitive lout. In this environment the only truly safe place for a fella to be is home alone masturbating in the shower. The rest of the day it’s best to dress conservatively in a shirt and tie and keep his mouth shut.

But that’s enough about the “plight” of my particular “tribe” — which, by the way, I didn’t pick and try not to spend too much time thinking about. I’d much prefer passing my days endeavoring to see the human race as my peeps, even if I keep bungling it badly. Unfortunately, neither end of the political spectrum seems willing to leave the question of my identity up to me.

This isn’t just a problem for white folks. Everybody else is now caught in the same identity trap. Pick at least one (but not too many, and please avoid the labels that the unwritten rules don’t allow you to pick): male, female, black, white, indigenous, European, gay, straight, bi, trans, other… the list goes on and on. Each choice on the menu — including the various acceptable if rather limiting combinations — comes with a particular checklist that no one seems to have consciously developed, but which everyone appears to know (or intuit) almost by heart at this point. If you’re X, you’re expected to look and behave the part. If you don’t meet these expectations, you’re either lacking in self awareness or infringing on someone else’s cultural turf. Either way you’re making it more difficult for the rest of us to successfully navigate this increasingly cosmopolitan world of ours, so please shape up and live the identity you’ve chosen the way you’re supposed to.

This brings me to Walt Whitman. “Do I contradict myself?” he famously asked near the conclusion of Song of Myself. “Very well then I contradict myself — (I am large, I contain multitudes).” Indeed.

Song of Myself is, in truth, an ode to the human species. It is identity inverted. Whitman does not have an identity per se. He identifies with humanity as a wholeThat’s certainly not what we’re doing today. We’ve weaponized identity. We’ve sharpened individualism to such a degree that it could keep slicing and dicing inclusive humanistic values until the second coming without ever dimming or dulling.

Walt Whitman can sing about himself for page after eloquent page because there isn’t a race, creed, or culture out there he couldn’t find reflected within. He was the appropriator’s poet laureate. No culture belongs to anyone in particular because every culture belongs to humanity. Mix and match at will. That’s what people do. If you contradict yourself now and then, or just seem to, it’s no big deal. Even those people of which he was not aware or that were yet to come he took to be some part of himself.

It is time to explain myself — let us stand up.

What is known I strip away,
I launch all men and women forward with me into the Unknown.

The clock indicates the moment — but what does eternity
indicate?

We have thus far exhausted trillions of winters and summers,
There are trillions ahead, and trillions ahead of them.

Births have brought us richness and variety,
And other births will bring us richness and variety.

I do not call one greater and one smaller,
That which fills its period and place is equal to any.

I, like Whitman, increasingly see myself as containing multitudes. I want to identify with those I meet, not impose some artificial identity of my own upon them. Nor do I concede to anyone the right to impose one upon me. I certainly don’t want to outsource identity to any ideology. I’m interested in the multitudes you contain as much as I am in my own contradictory masses. If there’s a bit of a clash, I’m sure we can reclaim the art of working it out like adults without needing to get defensive.

My belief in the right to marriage has everything to do with human rights and nothing to do with being straight, gay, bi, or trans. My conviction that the workplace should be free from discrimination, harassment, and intimidation has nothing to do with sexual or racial identity and everything to do with the dignity and worth of every single person. Before anything else I identify as a human, because that’s an identity that can’t be weaponized. It also happens to cover any other category we might think up for ourselves or for each other. That keeps things rather simple and straight forward, and we could all use a little more of that these days.

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him on Medium.com

Other stories by Craig that you might enjoy:

Driving Another Nail Into Dualism’s Coffin

While People Are Busy Tearing Down Walls, Some Governments Still Insist On Building Them

At What Point Does A Parent With Alzheimer’s Cease To Be A Parent?


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I'm a US citizen, but for most of the past decade I've been living in British Columbia, Canada. I have degrees in both anthropology and environmental studies from the University of Victoria. I am currently working on a master's degree in environmental management at Royal Roads University. I've been a Green Party candidate for the US Congress as well as an organizer for the DNC. I've also served as the program director for a local non-profit environmental group.

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