Men who don’t already know it may find that in prison they must belong to a strictly if crudely defined group in order to survive, a prison gang. Where I live, teenage boys tell of the difficulty of saying “No” to gang membership urged upon them day after day in the high school and the neighborhood. In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, “pure blood” wizards speak contemptuously, not only of “mud-bloods” (wizards or witches with non-magical parents), but also of “blood traitors,” meaning pure bloods or half-bloods who associate with mud-bloods. I have known the feeling of being regarded as a blood traitor (race traitor, actually) and have seen the hate stares. But let me share, rather, a less intense incident from my youth.
One day when I was in college in western Pennsylvania in the 1960’s, I was walking through town with an arm around each of two girls who were friends of mine (neither was my girlfriend), when an elderly man stopped on the sidewalk, stared at me in disbelief, and said aloud, “But you’re a white boy.” He seemed dazed. One of the girls was black. My response was adolescent and less than kind, which I later regretted, but clearly for the man my being white was far more significant to my identity than any sense of solidarity I might share with my college friends. It seemed he could scarcely imagine such a thing — that a white boy should be walking with one arm around a black girl.
There are always in our society people who would force upon all of us a prison or gang mentality in which our identities are determined by some characteristic that to them is all-important. Very often, that characteristic is “race,” but these days it seems increasingly frequent for it to be religion. Since the terrorist attacks upon the United States on September 11, 2001, those two over-simplifications of identity have been magnified by fear and by an aggressive, macho reaction to those attacks — not, I think, so much to the tragedy of them as to the affront to our national pride.
Amartya Sen writes of the “civilizational incarceration” desired by the champions of the notion of “the clash of civilizations” in which we are supposedly engaged (or, in their view, not engaged fervently enough), especially since the publication of Samuel Huntington’s book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. Sen points out that the civilizational clash theory depends upon (1) “a particularly ambitious version of the illusion of singularity” and (2) “the crudeness with which the world civilizations are characterized, taking them to be more homogeneous and far more insular than tends to emerge from empirical analyses of the past and present.” (Identity and Violence) What Sen calls “the illusion of singularity” works from an insistence that a person not be seen as an individual who belongs to many different groups but as a unit of one all-important group — like the prison gang.
I speak English, and English was my undergraduate major. It matters to me that I speak English. That I do not speak Spanish does not matter to my identity but serves only to prod me toward learning more Spanish so I can communicate with my neighbors and friends and so I can shed the embarrassment of being monolingual. I know my use in the previous sentence of the word “embarrassment” would infuriate some of my English-only fellow citizens, but I have learned enough of other languages to have experienced the richness they add to my understandings of life, and (frankly) my speaking English is matter of fact not a crucial point of pride in some imaginary civilizational identity.
My hope is that we will resist being incarcerated in a singular identity meant to make us angry and hostile toward people who supposedly threaten our civilization. I have no desire to join such a prison gang.