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(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series.)

Identity is a thorny topic, especially as it relates to political behavior. One’s identity can have many parts: I am at once a son, a husband, a father, a writer, a blogger, a gamer, a political scientist, and a whole host of other things. Some of these identities take precedence at some times, only to be pushed into the background at other times.

Then there is ethnic or national identity, a common source of political conflict. But even then, one’s identity has many layers to it, each of which can be more relevant at some times than others. For example, one can call himself American, Latino-American, Guatemalan-American at different times; and sometimes the identity of “Guatemalan” will be more important than the larger category of “Latino”—usually when you are in conflict with other Latinos.

Political theorists are split on the topic of identity. The “primordialist” view is that some identities, like ethnic identity or national identity, are basically set in stone: they derive from “real” sources like genetic heritage and group history. An ethnic Berber, for example, will be sharply distinguished from neighboring black-skinned Africans, first of all by physical appearance, but then by fundamental attitudes deriving from Berber history and culture. No matter how much our Berber immerses himself in another people’s culture and adopts their customs, he will never stop being Berber.

The opposing view is “social-constructivism”; this view holds that all identities are socially constructed, built on the cumulative decisions and interpretations of individuals as such, and as interacting participants in a shared social setting. The social-constructivist view of identity focuses on the ways in which identities are malleable; the American category “white,” for example, used to exclude Mediterranean peoples such as Italians and Greeks, whereas today it encompasses them. The constructivist view of identity will emphasize both the changing content of a given identity, and the shifting boundaries between in-group and out-group. In particular, many cultural practices have the explicit purpose of dividing “us” from “them,” and these practices take on more importance in times of danger—when knowing who is a “fellow” becomes crucial.

Practically speaking, both views have merit. In a trivial sense, all identities are socially constructed, in that they depend on the beliefs of the individual and the other members of the family or society. As far as I know, no society or person attaches a lot of importance to whether a person’s earlobes hang free or are attached, for example; so not all differences between people become vested with importance. On the other hand, there are some identities whose basis is effectively primordial. For example, being black in America is likely to remain salient for a long time to come, even for new immigrants from African countries who are not used to thinking of themselves that way; the people around them impose that identity, even if they themselves resist it. In that sense, even though the identity of “blackness” is indeed socially constructed from the point of view of the surrounding society, for the African immigrant it becomes effectively primordial—since it cannot be opted out of.

Still, what the identity of “blackness” means will vary, depending on how people think of it, and also how they draw the boundaries between “black” and “not-black.” Additionally, the priority one places on blackness, compared to other identities such as “parent” or “American” or “Methodist,” will vary as well. These areas of variability are where politics enters into the equation.

We mentioned that people carry many different identities, and which one is most important will vary. But why, and when? Generally speaking, an identity will come to the fore when it is being threatened, or when there is a social or political benefit to emphasizing it. As an old Bedouin saying puts it, “I against my brother, I and my brother against a cousin, I and my cousin against the stranger.” At each stage, different facets of one’s kinship identity are emphasized, depending on degrees of closeness and trust.

However, identities can also be manipulated politically. A tragic example is what happened in post-invasion Iraq, circa 2004 or 2005. The small community of Iraqi expatriate leaders, who had agitated for the war from their perch in the United States, now returned triumphantly to Iraq in order to claim the political positions in the new democracy to which they felt entitled. But they found that in their years abroad, they had lost all their connections to local communities; they thus had no base of electoral support. The less scrupulous among them responded by whipping up sectarian tensions; “Vote for me, because I am a proud Shia and I will defend my fellow Shia against the Sunni threat, and help us Shia get our revenge against those Sunni in the process.”

This process—convincing people that a certain identity needs to take precedence over other concurrent identities—is called boundary activation (the boundary between “us” and “them”), and it is one of the most powerful and often most dangerous forces in politics. In the case of Iraq, the expatriate politicians were often able to gin up electoral support based on ethnic or sectarian chauvinism, but they also set the groundwork for years of bloody inter-communal violence that strengthened the Iraqi insurgency, contributed to ISIS’s rise, and has caused an endless spiral of death squads and massacres.

More benign examples are convincing Americans that their identity of “worker” takes precedence over “consumer” (in support of protective tariffs) or the reverse, or that one’s identity as “American” takes precedence over “white” or “black” or “Latino”, or the reverse.

But there are always political figures who calculate that they can gain power by emphasizing a different set of identities, usually ethnic identities; and for them, it may be better if violence results, since that makes it harder to go back to the way things were—once different ethic groups are at war, it becomes actually dangerous to deemphasize your ethnic identity. That, in a nutshell, is what happened in the former Yugoslavia: Serb politicians were the first to deliberately incite ethnic war for their own gain, but politicians on all sides soon followed. (This is why appeals to ethnic identity-politics are so incredibly dangerous, whether at a Klan rally or in a social-justice seminar.)

The same happens in reverse as well. Many new states will violently impose a common nationalist identity over the separate ethnic identities of their many internal communities. From their perspective it is necessary to ensure the unity of the new nation, but for the persecuted minorities, this typically means the violent suppression of their culture and heritage, the forced indoctrination of their young, and the loss of their language and history. Latin American states’ treatment of their indigenous peoples are a good example.

For authors, political conflicts over identity are a gold mine of story drama. They hit both the external aspect of plot jeopardy, and internal character conflict of how your characters think of themselves: who they are, who they might be, and who they stand with. Many of our most powerful stories are built around identity conflict, and if you can layer the political aspect on top of that, so much the better. The key concepts to keep in mind are boundary activation (especially by unscrupulous politicians seeking to gain or keep power), identities that are imposed by the surrounding society (as in the case of African immigrants), and how violence can actually make it harder to reverse identity politics.


(And don’t forget, I’m accepting submissions to a fantasy anthology, Ye Olde Magick Shoppe. Check out the announcement and start writing!)