Saturday, January 21, 2006

More to offer?

Are identity, belonging and tradition important? Consider the following comments by Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, a prominent Australian psychologist. Writing in support of the idea of national service for young people (Herald Sun, 18/1/2006), he observes that,

one of the main developmental tasks of adolescents is to figure out who you are. Once you’ve done that it’s much easier to set goals, develop strategies to reach them and begin the journey

He notes further that,

a constant theme in youth policy over the past few years is the desirability of building resilience, that capacity to face, overcome and be strengthened by adversity ... A key component of resilience is a sense of belonging...

He then discusses the advantages of young people being,

actively mentored by older men and women who understand and can demonstrate the value of tradition, ritual, teamwork and discipline

So a leading psychologist believes that identity, belonging and tradition are important for the healthy development of young people. But how do you best foster these qualities?

In most societies gender and ethnicity are critical factors. Gender, for example, not only contributes powerfully to a sense of who a person is, but it helps to provide a purpose in action and a code of behaviour. Ethnicity places us within a tradition with its own ideals, to which the individual feels strongly connected.

Professor West of Suffolk College has described the effect of a traditional ethnic nationalism on the sense of identity and belonging of an individual as follows:

... the sense of identity is so strong that it is an inseparable part of the personalities of most of the individuals in the group. People are born and raised to conceive of themselves as being a part of the nation, and rarely lose that self-conception in the course of their lives. There is a feeling of pride and a deep sense of loyalty associated with it.

So if you wanted, say, an English boy to develop healthily during adolescence it would be helpful if you encouraged him to feel connected to his own ethnic tradition and to a masculine identity. But this is not, in fact, what Western societies tend to do. Western societies generally encourage adolescents to abandon a loyalty to the (mainstream) ethnic tradition and to traditional gender identity.

To put it bluntly, if the English boy were to show ethnic pride or a belief in a distinctive masculine identity he would very likely be accused of “racism” or “sexism”.

Why? The answer has to do with the theory of liberalism, which is the dominant form of belief amongst the Western political class. Ironically, gender and ethnicity are unacceptable within the logic of liberalism, precisely because they are so important to self-identity.

Liberal theory claims that our very humanity depends on the fact that we have a freedom to choose who we are and what we do according to our own individual will and reason. But this means that anything deeply embedded in our nature will be seen negatively as an oppressive limitation on our freedom to choose our own individual “self”.

Do we get to choose whether we are male or female? No. Is being male or female important to our self-identity? Yes. Therefore, traditional gender identity constitutes a problem for liberalism in which we are supposed to choose for ourselves the important things about our own lives.

So liberals have mostly claimed that gender identity is not in fact a natural and hardwired part of human nature, but an oppressive social construct to be overthrown. Just last year a Swedish minister, Jens Orback, announced that,

The government considers female and male as social contructions, that means gender patterns are created by upbringing, culture, economic conditions, power structures and political ideologies.

So Swedish boys will not grow up in a climate in which masculinity is considered an essential part of their identity, but will instead be taught something along the lines of masculinity being an outmoded patriarchal construct which is oppressive to women.

Liberalism, then, cannot offer ethnic or gender identity to the young because such forms of identity seem “unprincipled” within a liberal ideology. What then can liberalism offer?

A liberal society can certainly offer “voluntary associations”, such as service clubs or sports clubs, because we individually consent, as an act of our own will, to these commitments.

In his article Dr Carr-Gregg limits himself to the liberal view when he suggests “national voluntary service” as the way to “reconnect” young people and spare them from a “psychological wasteland”.

It would be better if we began to reject the underlying liberal theory which artificially forbids us from enjoying the stronger, more traditional forms of self-identity and connectedness.


  1. My late parents must have been wrong and I must be wrong because the theories must be right because the left says so.
    No they are wrong I am right.

  2. Bobby.n, thanks for the comment - your contributions to the site are most welcome.