I like a lot of this interview with Vanessa Veselka:
This identity obsession is a really strange modern thing, where we get our identities reflected back and marketed to us in such a particular way that there’s such a sort of ka-ching moment for taking on an identify. Taking on an identity feels like an arrival, and it feels like a solution in certain ways.
We see things now like: “I am a vegan.” I’m a really bad vegetarian. Sometimes I’m such a bad vegetarian, I’m not a vegetarian. I constantly move on this spectrum. But this idea of “I am a vegetarian,” is much different than “I usually don’t eat meat.” There’s so much weight that comes with it.
Rumpus: It’s black and white.
Veselka: It’s black and white. It’s a line you never cross. I see this as cultural signaling. It’s cultural signaling to try to find who you are in the world and who matches you. It’s just another courting ritual, like the blue feathers and the funny shiny rings that the birds bring around. It’s not that different. But part of that becomes alienation, and separation, and intolerance, which is nothing to strive for.
…The dark side of identity politics circles is that you use these kind of totems, expressions, and billboards of who you are to avoid talking about anything—rather than to get closer. It’s actually to say, Don’t ask me anything because you can see what I am by what I’m wearing. You can see what I am by the totems I carry.
There’s very little communication in that form. In some ways it seems like it’s meant to alienate people within a culture of a certain similarity rather than bind them together.
Rumpus: What about Buddhism? Is being a Buddhist an identity for you? Is that something you fully embrace?
Veselka: I haven’t taken refuge vows. I’ve come close at different times. For me, it’s not an identity and I think that’s exactly why I haven’t taken refuge. I can’t say I’m a Buddhist for the same reason I can’t say I’m a vegetarian.
Rumpus: Because it builds up more walls?
Veselka: I think it builds up walls, and I also think I just can’t do it and have integrity because I’m not 100% anything. There’s no way for me to say that and feel like I’m speaking honestly. I would feel like an imposter. That is a bit of my own nerdy puritanism, or something like that, that 70% is not there. The truth is that there are days I am 100% Buddhist, there are days I am 10%.
You could, of course, say that there’s nothing at all wrong with striving for some consistency between one’s principles and actions. But I know what she means about the limiting effects of strong identification with a group, a cause, an ideology. I’m vegetarian for principled reasons, but I don’t strongly identify with it, at least not in the sense that I feel myself to be morally superior to carnivores or that I honestly believe that we’re slowly but surely progressing toward a glorious future when animals are all treated humanely and the environmental impact of using so many resources to produce meat for wealthy nations is negated. I call myself an atheist because I do think it’s as clear as can be that nothing worthy of the name “God” as a distinct entity exists, and because I think it’s an extremely hard-won cultural freedom to be allowed to openly disbelieve, one worth asserting and protecting; yet I don’t think that religious/mystical belief will ever die out, and I’m deeply pessimistic about the brave new rational world many hardcore atheists look forward to. And I’ve said many times here that I could never fully identify as a Buddhist, no matter how much Buddhist ideas have influenced me.
Perhaps it would be helpful to think of identity as being more chameleon-like — we adjust our sense of self depending on our circumstances and the company we keep. Most people would probably have an instinctive reaction to call that shallow and superficial, but is that just another lingering inheritance of the Socratic/Platonic notion that we all have a unique essence to which we must be true for integrity’s sake?