Leaders who move with grace through identities

The image of Martin Luther King is seen during the unveiling ceremony of a statue of slain civil rights leader on the grounds of the Georgia State Capitol, on Aug 28, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

Lebanese-born writer Amin Maalouf made an interesting point about identity: Other people often pick ours for us. The anti-Semite elevates the Jewish consciousness in the Jew. The Sunni radical elevates Shi'ite consciousness in the Shi'ite. "People often see themselves in terms of whichever one of their allegiances is most under attack," writes Maalouf.

The people who exclude us try to reduce our myriad of identities down to one simplistic one. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen calls this process "miniaturisation". You might be an athletic Baptist Democratic surgeon with three kids and a love for Ohio State University but, to the bigot, you're just one thing: your faith or skin colour or whatever it is he doesn't like.

The odd thing is, people are often complicit in their own miniaturisation.

We live in an atomised, individualistic society in which most people have competing identities. Life is more straightforward when you're locked into one totalistic group, even if it's imposed on you. When you're disrespected for being a Jew, a Christian, a liberal or a conservative, the natural instinct is to double down on that identity. People in what feels like a hostile environment often reduce their many affiliations down to just one simple one, which they weaponise and defend to the hilt.

Today, the world feels like a hostile environment to… well … everyone. I had assumed that, as society got more equal, we would all share a measure of equal dignity. But it turns out that, without an obvious social hierarchy, we all get to feel equally powerless.

It's human nature that we feel our slights more strongly than we feel our advantages, so we all tend to feel downtrodden these days. White males and Zionists feel victimised on campus. Christians feel oppressed by the courts. Women feel victimised in tech. The working class feels victimised everywhere. Even singer Taylor Swift apparently feels victimised by celebrity.

Group victimisation has become the global religion - from Berkeley to the alt-right to Iran - and everybody gets to assert his or her victimisation is the worst, and it's the other people who are the elites.

The situation might be tolerable if people at least got to experience real community within their victim groups. But as political scientist Mark Lilla notes in his essential new book, The Once And Future Liberal, many identity communities are not even real communities. They are just a loose group of individuals, narcissistically exploring some trait in their self that others around them happen to share. Many identity-based communities are not defined by internal compassion but by external rage.

How do we get out of this spiral?

The first step is to just get out. Turn the other cheek, love your enemy, confront your opponent with aggressive love.

Martin Luther King is the obvious model here. "Love has within it a redemptive power," he argued. "And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals… Just keep being friendly to that person… Just keep loving them, and they can't stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning… They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they'll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love, they will break down under the load."

The second step is to refuse to be a monad. Maalouf points to the myth that, " 'deep down inside' everyone, there is just one affiliation that really matters". Some people live this way, hanging around just one sort of person, loyal to just one allegiance and leading insular, fearful lives. In fact, the heart has many portals. A healthy person can have four or six vibrant attachments, and honour them all as part of the fullness of life.

The more vibrant attachments a person has, the more likely she is to find some commonality with every other person on earth, the more interesting her own constellational self becomes.

The world isn't only a battlefield of groups; it's also a World Wide Web of overlapping allegiances. You might be Black Lives Matter and he might be Make America Great Again, but you're both Houstonians cruising the same boat down flooded streets.

The final step is to practise equipoise. This is the trait we should be looking for in leaders. It's the ability to move gracefully through your identities - to have the passions, blessings and hurts of one balanced by the passions, blessings and hurts of several others.

The person with equipoise doesn't feel attachments less powerfully, but weaves several deep allegiances into one symphony. "A good character," wrote political scientist James Wilson, "is not life lived according to a rule (there rarely is a rule by which good qualities ought to be combined or hard choices resolved), it is a life lived in balance." Achieving balance is an aesthetic or poetic exercise, a matter of striking the different notes harmonically.

Today, rage and singularity are the approved "woke response" to the world - President Donald Trump or Senator Bernie Sanders. But you show me a person who can gracefully balance six fervent and unexpectedly diverse commitments - that will be the one who is ready to lead in this new world.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2017, with the headline 'Leaders who move with grace through identities'. Print Edition | Subscribe