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Visible Identities & Invisible People

It seems at times that American discourse is so engrossed in the intersectional categories of people (e.g., “that gay BYU student”), that we hardly see the unique person underneath the label anymore.

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquidsand I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imaginationindeed, everything and anything except me. 

-Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Questions of identity figure prominently in so many of the discussions and stories over which Americans grapple todaysometimes in the foreground, and almost always in the background, at a minimum.  That is true for ongoing debates about race in America, as it is for the many other political conflicts roiling America.   

So when Elder Jeffrey Holland in his address to BYU recently criticized the use of a graduation podium to reveal an unnamed student’s sexual orientation, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see many people believing this student was being attacked for his sexuality. In a similar way a few months ago when a BYU professor publicly compared a student to a Book of Mormon anti-Christ, in the uproar that followed many took for granted that the student being “attacked” didn’t just happen to be gay, but was being attacked because he’s gay. 

Do you notice the difference? Are you even capable of seeing the difference, or does his identity loom so large in your concept of him that it’s inconceivable to you that it was something other than his sexual identity that prompted the response? 

If you can’t, you’re not alone. It wasn’t possible for many to see Elder Holland’s criticism as anything but a rejection of this unnamed student’s identity, rather than a disagreement with the manner and place the disclosure was made. In this view, sexuality is so core there isn’t a location or topic where sexual orientation isn’t worthy of discussion and celebration. Just as, months prior, none of the BYU professor’s criticism touched on the topic of human sexuality, it was simply not possible in the eyes of many for this professor to interact with a self-identified gay man without his interaction being about that man’s gay identity. One can’t help but wonder whether attaching such significance to sexuality—or any other aspect of human experience—  might not be further isolating those who may already feel culturally stigmatized. 

Let’s see if we can step back and look at this more carefully, and consider whether this serves the culturally stigmatized, or those of us who care about them and seek to support them. Is it healthy that any single facet of human identity should have so much power over our self-conception and interpersonal relationships? And in what ways might that be rendering us so psychologically brittle? How have we come to make sexual orientation and other experiences into the central defining elements of identity in the first place? What is lost, and what is gained, by subsuming any individual into this construct?

We see how predominant identity categories have become by how they dominate even minor interactions. For example, in the past few weeks, one of us was told that we could not comment on fat-shaming because we were not fat, and another of us was told we could not comment on gender issues because we were not trans. Like Ralph Ellison before him, John McWhorter talks about the subtle way certain of his faculty colleagues bring race into interactions with him, even when he feels they are irrelevant or even distracting to the matter at hand.

Is it healthy that any single facet of human identity should have so much power over our self-conception and interpersonal relationships?

Identity, as it relates to the politically and culturally charged categories of sexual or gender identity, is based on relatively recent innovations in self-conception.  Carl Trueman explains why interactions like John McWhorter’s, and ours, are increasing in frequency. Trueman ascribes it to the gradual emergence  of the “psychological man” or “expressive individual” from the Rousseauian concept of an authentic pre-cultural self:

This self is today one of primarily psychological construction. We think of ourselves in terms of our inner convictions, our feelings; we consequently interpret the purpose and meaning of our lives in line with this, seeing, for example, happiness in terms of an inner sense of psychological well-being …

In earlier ages, personal meaning was something discovered by individuals through being educated in how to locate themselves within established external structures such as family, church, or nation. With the psychological turn, however, these things come to be seen as potential hindrances to personal authenticity.

Because the self is now roughly equated to one’s inner psychological state, it naturally follows that “human flourishing is found primarily in an inner sense of well-being, that authenticity is found by being able to act outwardly as one feels inwardly, and that who we are is largely a matter of personal choice, not external imposition.”

However, the fact that one’s sense of self is taken to be psychologically determined does not mean that it’s any less beholden to external forces. It appears, in fact, that the opposite is true. Recent demands for people’s subjective identities to be acknowledged, accommodated, and even celebrated by the public demonstrate this. In Canada, refusing to use someone’s preferred pronouns can result in jail time. The Equality Act in the United States would make it illegal to refuse males admittance to women’s locker rooms and sports competitions so long as that male—however transiently— claims a female identity. The point here is not to debate these specific measures, as much as to demonstrate the degree to which this particular ethos of individual wellness requires public recognition of one’s self-conception.

Because people now conceive of themselves in psychological terms, our interactions become fraught with therapeutic demands. In his new book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Trueman explains, 

Satisfaction and meaning—authenticity—are now found by an inward turn, and the culture is reconfigured to this end. Indeed, it must now serve to meet my psychological needs; I must not tailor my psychological needs to the nature of society, for that would create anxiety and make me inauthentic …

The era of psychological man therefore requires changes in the culture and its institutions, practices, and beliefs that affect everyone. They all need to adapt to reflect a therapeutic mentality that focuses on the psychological wellbeing of the individual.

In other words, it is impossible to interact with someone without either affirming or attacking their self-proclaimed identity. This goes beyond the ways we normally show respect for individuals as fellow human beings. This requires us to defer to the particular, unshared, self-determined aspects of their personhood. Failure to do so is tantamount to inflicting existential harm. Identities, it seems, are quite fragile. 

The more politically or culturally sensitive the identity, the greater the risk for harm. This is in some ways a feature and not a bug. In exchange for the precarious sense of a self whose psychological well-being is beholden to interpersonal and public validation comes the tremendous moral power to require such validation; even, as we have seen, under threat of law. In more mundane exchanges, failure to adopt attitudes or opinions which comport with the demands of marginalized identities makes it perfectly acceptableeven heroicto be de-platformed or fired. Fragile identities confer the power to compel or expel members of the dominant culture.

Are we creating emotionally resilient human beings who can differentiate between their ideas being criticized—or even their character—and their own innate worth?

Whatever punishment or discouragement cancellation poses to its targets, the power to incriminate comes at a further cost: Wholeheartedly inhabiting a politically favored identity is harmful to the individual himself. While this does allow a member of one of these groups to seize the ring of power and bend others to his will, it also renders him not just invisible, but also suspicious, isolated, and psychologically vulnerable. More broadly, it leaves contention and suspicion everywhere its influence reaches. Linking psychological well-being to the concept of identity—which identity must be continuously validated at the societal level—creates a situation in which one may expand opportunities for validation only by increasing one’s emotional sensitivity and widening the pool of potential harms. The deleterious effects this poses to one’s mental health are taken up in The Coddling of the American Mind.  Speaking of their experiences with university students, Lukianoff and Haidt write:

Their beliefs about their own and others’ fragility in the face of ideas they dislike would become self-fulfilling prophecies. Not only would students come to believe that they can’t handle such things, but if they acted on that belief and avoided exposure, eventually they would become less able to do so … Many university students are learning to think in distorted ways, and this increases their likelihood of becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt.  

In other words, even as we seek in good faith to empower people politically and socially by validating their experiences as members of marginalized identities, we simultaneously reinforce a worldview wherein the mistakes and misunderstandings incidental to meaningful exchanges with our fellow human beings become existential threats. Our good-faith efforts to be sensitive end up empowering and encouraging victimhood. It’s psychological sabotage disguised as affirmation.  We’re turning normal human interactionsinteractions with the potential to increase our connection and to experience the world from a shared perspectiveinto a minefield of potential mishaps sure to offend individual and public sensibilities. We’re not affirming people, we’re psychologically crippling them.

Writer Freddie deBoer recently observed

The foundational assumption of the LGBTQ movement of today is that people in those communities are permanently and existentially weak; any insult or injury to them, no matter how small, will inevitably be a life-altering trauma. They are considered devoid of resilience and incapable of recovery. They are portrayed, by their loudest allies, as lost little children, wounded by language, utterly vulnerable at all times to those who could derail them with a bad look. This is not progress.

Do the people Venmo-ing a former student (currently attending one of the most prestigious universities in the country) so he can buy stiff drinks because Elder Holland criticized the setting of his graduation speech consider him a fully formed, mature human being who has the psychic resources to adequately manage internet controversies? Can we acknowledge that someone has been censured without seeing it as violence? And without convincing those who feel hurt that the world is a Manichean minefield made entirely of allies and enemies? Are we creating emotionally resilient human beings who can differentiate between their ideas being criticized—or even their character—and their own innate worth? 

The final tragedy of psychologically and politically constructed identities is apparent when you consider that throughout this article, we have never used this student’s name. We haven’t had to—who he is is entirely irrelevant to the controversy, subsumed in the larger narratives of persecution, victimhood, and oppression.  Where does he come from, what is he studying, what does he hope to do for a career, what is his family like, what other relationships does he value in his life? What are his hobbies and interests?

All of these things are irrelevant, even distracting, in furthering the purposes for which his identity has been deployed. The individual in all his wonderful uniqueness has been erased; he has become invisible. Like Ellison’s invisible man, he has become a mirror reflecting back our own prejudices and indignations. An individual’s erasure in the service of an identity is no less tragic for being voluntary. We must take care that when we mourn with those who mourn, we do not encourage them to assume roles as ideological pawns or stock characters in our own morality play. Two-dimensional identities fall to pieces like glass because they are glass

If you belong to a historically marginalized category, must you assume an identity defined by it? If not, wherein lies your true identity?

When members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are baptized, we covenant to take upon ourselves the name of Jesus Christ and always remember Him. We are, in a very real sense, assuming a new identity intended to supersede all others. This identity is not meant to reflect the internal state of our being at any given moment, but to reflect the image of our Savior, in His glorious completeness. The unchosen aspects of our identitysuch as race, orientation, gender, or classbecome part of a more transcendent self rooted in the virtues we do choose. Part of what makes an identity rooted in Christ meaningful is the fact that it must be placed above and before the other identities competing for our allegiance—deliberately and sometimes painfully.

Additionally, the beauty of voluntarily assuming an identity rooted in Christ is that it’s an identity intended to be shared with all mankind. This doesn’t erase our individual differences, but it gives us common ground in the essential aspects of our self-understanding. This commonality builds connection and reduces isolation. The shared covenant unites and embraces all. The only way this works, however, is if we do in fact give Christ our first and foremost allegiance. Whatever identity or facet of identity we prioritize over Christ has the potential to isolate us from Him and our brothers and sisters. Rather than getting lost in the narrow agendas and politicized identities that always accompany the modern concept of self, an identity rooted in Christ promotes the full flourishing and final realization of all of our glorious, individualized potential. This is how the everlasting gospel invites all of us to find our true selves.

About the authors

Meagan Kohler

Meagan Kohler is a Latter-day Saint wife, boy mom, writer, and occasional philosopher. She also writes on Substack at Mirabile Dictu.

Jeff Bennion

Jeff Bennion is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He co-founded North Star International in 2007, and has written for several publications on the topics of sexuality, faith, and marriage.
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