Issues of human origins and ancestry have more often than not been coupled with, and clouded by, a battle of identity. The history of our species is littered with examples and madmen who have attempted to carve out a distinct identity for a people, and usually for nefarious reasons.
The notion of a separate, “chosen people” is one that has accompanied our species from ancient times and, unfortunately, continues to do so to this very day. This has been and continues to be part and parcel of our existence because of the very composition of our societies.
As I teach my first-year students, generally speaking, society refers to a group of individuals who reside within the same geographical area (Heywood 2007: 196). More specifically, Heywood (2007: 196) notes that a society is marked by regular patterns of social interaction which highlights the existence of a particular social structure: “A usually stable set of interrelationships amongst a number of elements.” Furthermore, societies are also marked by the existence of social divisions, as individuals and groups have different positions and roles. This reflects the “unequal distribution of status, wealth and / or power within the society” and is rooted in class, race, gender, age, cultural, ethnic and religious differences (Heywood 2007: 196).
As most battles go, the battle of identity is fundamentally about power, and in particular power relations. It is an attempt by a select few to fundamentally alter, reinforce or justify their superior positions and roles and in this manner condition the social structure and patterns of social interaction. This position is reinforced by the identification of “the other” and then coupled by the exclusion, marginalisation, oppression or obliteration of “the other”.
Social divisions are much better maintained when clearly defined by “us” and “them”, and especially when these divisions are grounded in superficial and observable human features such as race, class, gender, age, culture, ethnicity or religion. Most of us have undoubtedly heard about Nazi Germany, fundamentalist Islam and Christianity, the Rwandan genocide, Apartheid in South Africa (in which the Calvinist near-state religion played as much a roll as race), and the more recent barbaric persecution of gay and lesbian people on our continent (where it is often state-sanctioned) and even the US.
Familiar and common examples invoke race, ethnicity and religion in particular. It is not a secret that the Europeans justified their particular brand of capitalist expansion in the name of civilising the natives with Christianity, and that before they embarked to the “New World”, “Orient” and “Dark Continent” that they burned witches and heretics who dared question their dogma.
This “us” and “them” division is often bolstered by a collective memory of a time when “they” oppressed, marginalised, subjugated and excluded “us” (early Christianity testifies to this). The rants of Uncle Bob to the north about imperialists (and even that of JuJu, his biggest fan) tap into the collective imagination of a people to justify often reprehensible acts.
In brief, the battle of identity is often waged in support of ethnic chauvinism or other form of supremacist tendencies, and commonly associated and fuelled by a victim mentality, the manipulation of the fears of a people, and where possible, a wholesale or selective revision of the past.
We observe this even today as certain schismatic Afrikaners in our South African society attempt to carve out a new, equally nationalist and separatist identity fuelled by a sense of victimhood and the manipulation of fear (not so different from their apartheid era brothers and sisters, but this time without access to state resources or real power).
If politics is power, then the politics of identity is a particularly dangerous brand. As the Orwellian maxim holds: those who control the present control the past, and those who control the past control the future.
It is therefore not too surprising that in the pursuit of a distinct identity, the past becomes the battlefield. This is invariably where people turn to, like Sentletse attempted to do.
I am not alien to these attempts, myself being intimately involved in a “community” that has been oppressed, marginalised and persecuted purely because they dare to defy traditionalist (not to mention absurd) notions of heterosexuality, masculinity (or femininity) and accompanying behaviour and deemed appropriate attire. I may not wear a dress (like the Pope), or make-up (like male Hollywood actors) but I do have the audacity to love (and even to intend on marrying) a fellow, consenting adult male (and not a boy, like some Catholic priests).
Within this “subculture” and subsection of society there are equally divisive socially constructed positions and roles — transphobia being one example. Elsewhere one would find a persistent victim mentality, often accompanied by (very real) fear, and either a fervent desire to blend in with heteronormative society or break with it and carve out an isolated, distinct and separate identity. There is a longing for a time when, as in ancient Greece, intimate male relations were acceptable and an encouraged norm, or even attempts at revising or appropriating the past by claiming that the heterosexual (and not-so-heterosexual) wonders of our human history — like Alexander the Great or Oscar Wilde — were “one of us” and therefore we are not so bad after all.
It goes the other way too, where heterosexist, often religious fanatics, attempt to shift the blame by claiming the monsters in our past were gay, like Hitler, and therefore not one of “them”. Science, philosophy and other academic endeavours suffer from collateral damage as they are employed (and perverted) — like Social Darwinism and Nietzsche’s “übermensch” concept, or more recently, fossils of Homo sapiens found in China — in the battle of identity. The search for the “gay gene” attests to this (probably to remove it or to prove it is normal, depending on which side of the fence you’re on); as does psycho-babble bullshit about the origins of Homo sexual rooted in abusive relations with parents, male figures or otherwise absent fathers or mothers; the “gay disease” of HIV/Aids and even allusions to the pathology of homosexuality in a similar breath as paedophilia. Revealing jokes even abound about Homo sapiens and Homo sexual with the one being superior to the other and a “more evolved species” depending on which side of the fence you’re on.
Such attempts, such thinking, is equally as irrelevant, outdated and futile as revising or waging a battle of identity over who is African, and who is not. These attempts are an unnecessary drain on our collective creative and innovative, productive capacity as human beings: infantile attempts at searching for and drawing battle lines with who is who and who is what — inevitably to be used to similar historical nefarious ends — when we should, in all honesty, be focusing on who and what we all are: human, all too human (to borrow from Nietzsche).
Heywood, A. 2007. Politics (3rd Ed.) New York: Palgrave Macmillan