The Democratic Alliance is the major opposition group in South Africa. It's a party that was historically made up of white liberals. In its 2009 election manifesto the party declared that it stood for a society in which:
...everybody has the opportunities and the space to shape their own lives, improve their skills and follow their dreams... People are not held back by arbitrary criteria such as gender, religion, or colour...
That's your standard liberalism. Liberalism claims that our human dignity depends on our ability to autonomously self-determine who we are and what we do. Therefore, predetermined qualities like our ethnicity or sex are thought of negatively as potential impediments to a self-defining life.
The problem is that this assumes that our "dreams" exist at a purely individual and self-determined level, i.e. that who we are as men or women, or as Afrikaners or Zulu, doesn't matter.
But not everyone in South Africa is a white liberal, so that assumption hasn't gone unchallenged. Former president Thabo Mbeki labelled it a "soulless secular theology" that was based on an atomised view of the individual.
Ryan Coetzee is the Democratic Alliance strategist. He has written a column
in response to Mbeki's claims. It's an interesting piece as it shows a white liberal trying (unsuccessfully) to fit in a group identity within a liberal ideology. Coetzee tries his best to make concessions but he doesn't get very far.
Coetzee sets out the debate with this:
...during the 1980s and 1990s there was a detailed and sustained debate between liberals and communitarians concerning the liberal conception of the self, which does not need repeating here. Suffice it to say that it is perfectly possible and indeed desirable for liberals to hold a view of an autonomous self grounded in society without ceasing to be liberals.
The communitarians were a group of academics, some of whom made similar criticisms of liberalism to the ones I make. They did push liberals onto the back foot, but without changing any fundamentals.
Anyway, what Coetzee is saying is that he thinks it possible to retain the liberal view of an autonomous self whilst still, as the communitarians urged, having that individual grounded in a particular society. The liberals had not paid much attention for some generations to that communitarian concern.
Coetzee goes on to argue that liberals believe that despite the influence of predetermined qualities like our biology and our environment, individuals are unique and can choose "who and how to be".
Traditionalists would agree that individuals are unique and that individuals do choose aspects of how they live, but we would not make such a blanket assertion that it is an individual thing to choose who and how to be. Some of that is given to us. For example, if we are men, and attempt to realise that part of ourselves, then not every way of being is equally masculine. We will be naturally oriented to some ways of being rather than others. Similarly, if we have a moral conscience, and can recognise aspects of a pre-existing objective morality, then we will be oriented to some behaviours over others. And our ethnicity is not usually something that it is in our hands to choose. A Japanese man can choose to live in exile, or to make little effort to support his tradition, but he cannot suddenly make himself not Japanese in ethnicity.
Coetzee then makes a partial concession:
...individuals have a variety of identities, including group identities, and that these are perfectly legitimate. They are not atomized centres of consciousness with no connection to others: a person may be an Afrikaner, coloured, a woman, a socialist, a mother and a lover of classical music, and all these attachments (and many others besides) comprise her identity.
That's a lot better than the usual "ethnicity is a fetter" type of liberal argument. But note that some key aspects of identity (our sex and ethnicity) have been placed at the same level as an artistic taste (lover of classical music).
I'll take the concession, though, given that in many liberal societies a white identity is considered illegitimate. But as we'll see, the limited concession isn't enough by itself. Coetzee goes straight on to make this qualification:
....while individuals may be in part the product of biological and environmental forces, they are still able to exercise choice and thus can decide their identity and attachments for themselves, at least in so far as they feel alienated from the identities imposed on them by their history and environment. The woman described above can choose not to be Afrikaans, not to identify as coloured or as a socialist. She can even choose not to identity as a woman...
It's an insistence that identity has to be autonomously self-defined. And if you think that autonomously self-defining yourself is the key aspect of your human dignity, then your bias will be toward not accepting the predetermined aspects of your identity, i.e. you'll think yourself greater in dignity if you reject an identity as an Afrikaner or as a woman.
Second, it's odd to take the approach that we must decide for ourselves whether we are to identify as a man or as a Japanese. These things are so constitutive of who we are, that to deny them would mean failing to fulfil important aspects of self. Yes, a woman "can even choose not to identify as a woman" but that would be denying something that you already are.
Coetzee then makes this strange claim:
This is an optimistic and empathetic vision of what it means to be a human being. If we are mere representatives of larger entities (the middle class; Muslims; Africans; whatever) then there would be nothing about others to respect or with which to empathise. Indeed, there would be no other people (as we use and understand the term) at all – just ciphers representing abstractions.
This is an example of how liberal thought can be very alien to non-liberals. Surely I can identify ethnically as, say, a Frenchman and still respect a Bolivian for a whole range of qualities: being a good father, a good Christian, having masculine bearing, showing commitment to his own tradition, working productively etc.
Perhaps Coetzee really believes that if we identify with a communal tradition that we so merge into an abstracted mass that we lose all individual qualities. If that is what liberals think, then they need a good lie down on a sunny Queensland beach. If anything, individuals in traditional Western societies were more self-confident in asserting themselves rather than less so. Was Shakespeare just a cipher representing an abstraction?
Coetzee does give an example of what he fears. He criticises the "coconut" accusation levelled at some blacks by other blacks:
Blacks who think or behave or sound “like whites” are not real blacks, they are “coconuts”. The idea that one can be black, and think what one likes, and still be black, is anathema. In other words, the idea that you can self-identify as black and then define for yourself the meaning and significance of that identification is anathema.
Perhaps it's true that the "coconut" jibe is used to coerce some blacks into remaining within black norms. But there are norms generated in a variety of ways in every society, including liberal ones. There are norms of behaviour within social classes, for instance. In liberal societies, there are very strong norms about what makes you a good person or not, and what is correct or incorrect to say or believe. Norms can have a positive effect or a negative one, depending on what they are and what they push toward.
So we shouldn't be frightened of the existence of norms - they're always going to be with us. What matters is their quality. And nor can we do as Coetzee suggests, which is to define for ourselves the meaning and significance of an ethnic or sex identity. If that were possible, then such identities would have very little significance. If I could just make up what it means to be masculine, then that would be a merely invented, subjective identity which would not connect me to anyone else or to anything outside of myself.
That's not to say that the individual doesn't act upon such identities. Generally, we look to what's best within our tradition, or within masculine or feminine qualities, and try to draw on those things; and that means that there will be some individual variation and some changes in culture over time.
Here's something else from Coetzee:
We in the DA are a collection of complex individuals with many identities. We are not a collection of race or linguistic or religious or cultural groups that are immutable and that define the individuals in them, rather than being defined by the individuals in them.
It's the same problem. We are allowed to belong to a group as long as the group doesn't somehow define who we are; it is only allowed to work the other way - we have to define for ourselves as individuals what identifying with the group means. But that makes belonging to the group less meaningful. Say I identify as a Catholic. If every Catholic self-defines what identifying as a Catholic entails, then you've reduced the sense that there is a real essence to being a Catholic.
The truth is that we are
partly defined by being a man or a woman, by being an Afrikaner or a Zulu, by being a Muslim or a Catholic and so on. And although these identities are not strictly immutable, nor are they up for self-definition either.
Finally, Coetzee has an odd way of justifying social solidarity:
What makes solidarity possible for liberals is not the idea that other members of my group are facsimiles of me. In this conception of things, no solidarity (identification, care or compassion) is possible anyway, because there is no other with which to identify or empathise. In this (collectivist) conception of things, solidarity is really just self-interest masquerading as compassion for others who aren’t really other at all.
First, he assumes that solidarity means compassion and empathy rather than loyalty, a feeling of relatedness, or working toward common ends. Second, he seems to believe that you can't show compassion or empathy towards someone you are more closely related to because that would just be self-interest. That leads to his striking conclusion, that you can only experience solidarity with those who are most alien to you.
Coetzee supports this statement by Richard Rorty:
In my utopia, human solidarity ... is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people. Such increases in sensitivity makes it more difficult to marginalize people different from ourselves ...
So solidarity with your own group is impossible because the very notion of solidarity has been redefined to mean compassion for people who are alien to you.
Now, having compassion for people who are other to you is a good thing. But it's no use for Coetzee to say that it's legitimate for people to have a group identity and then:
a) insist that there are no larger essences to these identities that help to define the individual, but that the individual himself defines what these identities are
b) redefine solidarity as something that only applies to those outside of the groups you belong to.
If liberals are going to declare group identity to be legitimate, then they have to commit to a philosophy which makes it possible for these groups to survive over time. Coetzee has not done this and so his concession to the communitarians isn't as significant as it might initially appear to be.