In the latest issue of city newspaperMartin Guri describe the “cult of identity” behind the transformation of American institutions. Much of what we call “awake,” he writes, is part of a new religious craze that reveres “identity” as a sacred value.
When universities present “anti-racism” as their most pressing educational goal, for example, or impose beliefs of diversity, equity, and inclusion, or quash heretics and subject them to forced penance, they are followers of the cult of identity.
This cult, Gurri said, is not based on any reasonable or consistent philosophy. Instead, it “consists of a series of platitudes and stereotypes invariably leading to gestures of repudiation and calls for the ritual purification of society”.
The English word “cult” was first used in the 1610s to refer to “worship, homage”, and then in the 1670s as “particular form or system of worship”. according to the online etymology dictionary. More contemporary meanings of “cult” are offered by Merriam Webster: “a religion considered unorthodox or false”, or simply a “system of religious beliefs and rituals”.
It is therefore no exaggeration when Gurri compares the transformation of society by the “cult of identity” to the religious conversion of an empire or a nation.
“In the extent and speed of the institutional embrace,” he wrote, “nothing like this has happened since Constantine’s conversion.”
He goes on to describe the cult as a religious phenomenon that required profound conversions:
Conversion resulted in drastically different experiences, depending on where you are in the social pyramid. From below, at the level of the young professional and student, the cult provides a vision of truth and a source of meaning in a romantic struggle against the systemic evil represented by the rest of us. From above, at the level of senior government and corporate officials, conspicuous adherence to the cult is a tool of control.
The dance between generations has been awkward. Young activists are eternally seeking to identify and attack injustice, usually revealed by the utterance of certain taboo words. They live in a world of weakened religious and family ties, and their idea of community is a website. The cult of identity fills an existential void and uplifts young people to be the vanguard of vengeful virtue in a sinful world. This cohort is driven by the need to purify, that is to say, by negation bordering on nihilism.
Older types of settlements, on the other hand, have seen their influence and authority crumble over the past decade. Of this vertiginous fall from grace, Trump was only a symptom, not the cause. The digital age will not tolerate the steep hierarchies of the 20th century: these will either be reconfigured or broken. Stripped of the splendor of their titles, bewildered elites searched for a principle that would allow them to keep their distance from the public.
Despite its success and power, the cult is contradictory and lacks transcendence
Despite the religious fervor of its adherents, however, Gurri notes two signs that the cult is struggling.
The first is its striking contradictions. It claims incompatible ideals. First, he argues that anyone can become anything effortlessly: a man can become a woman, for example, or a migrant can become a citizen, just by saying so. “Everything is a personal choice,” he said, “with life reduced to extreme utopian individualism.”
Simultaneously, however, the sect holds that the most important fact about any individual is the identity group to which he belongs, which is static and inviolable. Identities are “the only significant human unit…whose borders are fortified and must be defended at all costs”.
“Every conversation starts with the words ‘As a gay person’ or ‘As a Latinx,’ because group experiences are considered immeasurable.”
More so, “All products and tokens of the group must be protected from desecration. White boys should never grow dreads or sing the blues: it’s “appropriation, not admiration, and the minimum penalty is a virtual web whiplash.”
The second attack on the cult is its spiritual void. Although the cult of identity has many characteristics of a religion, it lacks sublimity:
If identity offered adherents a rising new vision of human relationships, as Marxism and Christianity did, it could overcome its contradictions. But I have described worship in terms of platitudes and stereotypes for a reason: it has all the trappings but none of the spiritual content of true religious faith. Nothing about it transcends or flies away. Even the social aspect is mediated by the superficial narcissism of the digital world – you get more buzz in the sports arena, where fanatics at least come face to face.
From the outside, the identity looks like light porridge. Very little is required of true believers. They are already arriving in a state of grace. Total obedience is required of all others. We are corrupt beyond redemption and can only be detoxified by our submission.
Platitudes about justice, once challenged, disintegrate into mere slogans. The groups that supposedly define our identity are crude stereotypes. Nobody ever shouted “Latinx or death!” or “LGBTQIA power!” from the top of a barricade. Nobody will ever do it.
If the cult of identity doesn’t cause anyone to storm the barricade – or pick up the cross – chances are their days are numbered. But its detractors should remember that awakening is a spiritual warfare.
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