Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Kenneth Hoover on Identity, Power and Politics

The focus of several recent posts on this blog have involved the concept of identity as related to Conflict Transformation (which is also a course I'm currently taking).  This has been one of my most enjoyable classes in my grad program this semester.  The book reviews and topics discussed here have been posted because these topics have been integral and parallel to my own thoughts and development this past year.  

                There are foundational tensions at the heart of Kenneth Hoover's book The Power of Identity: Politics in a New Key, and they go to the very core of what it means to be in the world and further to be in relation with; i.e. the full range of what it means to exist as a human.  These tensions take various forms, a couple of which are the us vs. them duality we hear in numerous contexts and the positive vs. negative benefits as applied to the individual when referring to identification with a particular group.  Therefore the tensions are multi-dimensional, multi-layered and complex when we begin to break down the internal and external elements of human identifications and relations. 

Politics And Power As Related To Identity
                Politics as defined by Hoover is also multi-dimensional and multi-layered.  Here Hoover is partly  referring to politics in the "traditional" sense, that is to say in the state or governmental spheres.  But politics according to Hoover is much more; it is essentially any interaction involving situations of power, influence and knowledge (among other factors) which affect relations between - and the concomitant identities of - individuals at the micro level and communities/societies at the macro level. 
                Therefore, the scope of this relatively short book is incredibly large as it attempts to look at identity from the vantage point of many different perspectives and group dynamics.  However, Hoover's great achievement is to instigate appropriate lines of questioning when it comes to the meaning of identity.  This type of questioning is not much different from that which goes into the process of healthy identity formation itself.
Stages of Identity Development
                Integral to Hoover's tensions within the various elements and types of identity is the gradations in identity development, both within societies and communities, and within the individual in relation to those larger groups.  Hoover's statements resonate when he mentions the stages of identity development within the individual, particularly the time in late adolescence which he refers to as "moratorium".    The critical importance of this period is emphasized by Hoover, and with the advantage of hindsight, anyone with a bit of life experience and a healthy sense of identity should be able to recognize the decisions made - conscious or not - during this time. 
                What Hoover means by moratorium is that there is enough development in the individual's mind and just enough life experience (in late adolescence) to begin the process of questioning.  Whether or not this process is actually embarked upon at that time is another matter.   There is a danger in this stage of accepting everything that has been presented to the developing mind without the appropriate critical thinking that is so crucial to self-esteem, self-respect and true identity formation.  "Identity foreclosure" is how Hoover describes the process of closing further development at this point in one's life.  One example of this could be the fundamentalist - of any stripe - who simply accepts what has been presented to them externally their entire life.   
                However, identity foreclosure is not necessarily a bad thing once proper identity development has occurred.  If one has given themselves the opportunity and courage to question the world around them during the moratorium period, and has come to certain conclusions on their own then identity foreclosure could be seen as a natural progression.  Hoover could be interpreted as saying that having solid beliefs, with the caveat of flexibility and openness to learning new experiences, is a healthy form of "foreclosure".  This flexibility prevents the creeping in of dogmatic lines of action and thought. 

Identity, Tolerance and Culture
                Once the individual has established and is aware of their own identity progression, they are then able to confidently and openly tolerate differences of opinion in others.  With the solid grounding of their own identity, they perceive no threats from the outside.  This review argues that this is one of the most critical elements at any stage of identity in our world today, whether it be at the individual level, or at the societal and community levels.   Additionally, it is argued that intolerance results from a lack of appropriate questioning in one's life, and this results in insecurity, which could be - and perhaps often is - subconscious.  There is an element of fear that one's beliefs and worldview (a large part of identity) might not be the final "truth", and the perception of threat from those with different identities comes into play.  That is, the individual feels the instability of their own identity in the face of "the other", and it is not inaccurate to say that they almost believe that this "other" wants to change them in some way, or that they might be changed themselves with continued exposure. 
                A very close concept to identity foreclosure before a proper moratorium would be labeled by Hoover as "diffusion".  This is the other direction in which the individual could head in the moratorium period.  Diffusion is where no identity at all is claimed, whether external or internal.  Where it can be interpreted by the reader as similar to early identity foreclosure is in the sense that both elements (identity foreclosure without proper moratorium and diffusion) lack internal stability.  The process of questioning allows the individual to "feel out" the world around them and establish identity in relation to the world or culture.  This, we can argue, is what Hoover means when he talks about culture being inseparable from identity.  
                This statement about the individual process can also be applied to communities of any size and the larger societies around them.  To expand even further on the concept of culture being inseparable from identity formation is that culture provides a starting point.  There is a grounded reference found in culture than can be accepted or rejected by the party (individual, group, society) given all the elements at their disposal.  Even if this culture is rejected by the identity-seeking party, there is still an identity in relation to that particular culture.  The environment around the individual cannot be ignored, because a non-reaction to culture is still a reaction.  The inter-connectedness of all that is comes through very strong in this important idea. 
Identity, Government and Diversity
                A further tension in Hoover's work is seen in the concepts of politics and power in the commonly perceived sense, which is the government or larger community/society.  For a society to exist, and for it to have an internal cohesion, there is a requirement for balance in identity.  This statement seems to match well with Hoover when he illustrates the drawbacks of the two commonly perceived "sides" of politics.  The right can become intolerant in its sometimes closed conservative ideals that refuses to bend to allow others into the circle.  Further, a different sort of conservatism - involving the market mentality - is individualistic to a fault in that the idea of competition has clearly established (and isolated) winners and losers. 
                On the left side of the political spectrum, we can see the demand for tolerance of any and all types of diversity, ideas, personalities, etc.  In theory this is a very laudable and desired concept.  Yet much like the right's insular community this can be taken to an extreme, as Hoover illustrates, by the very stringent demand for diversity being itself an inflexible idea.  There is little room in both mindsets - the closed community of the right and the stringent demand for diversity on the left - for compromise in coming together.  Both end up being self-defeating and intolerant in the end by refusing to allow true diversity which is grounded on a stable identity that is not just unthreatened but enriched through the flexibility to consider outside ideas, however they might arrive. 
                Hoover's idea of the proper concept of power in government or polities/politics at any level is something with which this review can agree.  He believes that power in its most ideal form is something which creates a space for the freedom to engage in proper identity development.  To do this, there must be freedom of expression and ideas.  It is argued here that nothing should be off the table - which would mean a minimum of any type of censorship by power structures - and further that an environment conducive to tolerance is necessary.  This would mean not just laws that technically allow freedom of expression, worship, information, etc..  but an environment that is conducive to equanimity in application of these laws and structures. 
                Further, diversity should be embraced and accepted as a desirable part of community.  Proper identity formation allows this, and the institutions of power and politics can help create a culture and atmosphere conducive to this, but Hoover makes explicitly clear that mutuality is not something that can be mandated at a macro level.  He illustrates this point quite effectively by referring to China at the end of the book and how - particularly under Mao - the Chinese identity was so homogenized that the identity of the individual was lost in the collective.  This is counter-productive to the concept of community.  A healthy community (and Hoover would likely agree) is one where identity is properly established at all levels, from the individual to the community and ultimately the larger society.  The very nature of healthy identity formation will produce its own diversity. 
                As Hoover mentions, this is not something that can be mandated by the state.  Proper identity formation involves relations between individuals and the world around them, and decisions resulting from those relations.  This is an interpretation of a context where Hoover's concept of  "mutuality" can occur.  Mutuality is dependent on individual relationships grounded upon healthy "interiors" or identities, and cannot be state prescribed.  Cults of personality and the resulting identifications as tied to those personalities in authoritarian regimes are external not internal forms of identity.  The same can be said for blanket acceptance without question of any ideology, including religion.  Accepting any identity without the proper internal work goes back to Hoover's description of identity foreclosure. 

Concluding Statement
                It is the interpretation of this review that Hoover's book is yet another example of the attempt to balance the conflict of opposites inherent to the human condition; in this case "opposites" as referring to the opposing tensions in identity development and the necessity to balance those opposites for proper development.  Hoover's illustrations in the structures of politics and the dynamics of power that coincide with them rest on a solid foundation of properly developed identity with the ability of the human consciousness (at any level, micro or macro) to rise above this foundation and immerse itself in diverse ideas, cultures, opinions, peoples, etc.  It is through this paradigm of identity that we as a species can work towards the reduction of fear and the acceptance of "the other" as an integral, yet uniquely diverse expression of our common humanity.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I was looking for information on this work and Google trusted you with the top results. Well deserved!