It’s hard to know how to respond to the culture wars, which are raging all around us. Of course, we all know how we should respond: by practicing mutual respect, listening to the other side, treating everyone as individuals, forgoing assumptions, conversing in good faith and so on—but these principles are often thrown out of the window the moment we feel personally attacked. Still worse, we tend to fall back on old habits and retreat back into our bubble when things get too frantic. As partisanship continues to tear us apart, many long for a more universal ethic.
Enter bestselling author and Muslim reformer Irshad Manji with her recent book Don’t Label Me. In an extended conversation with her deceased dog Lily, Manji aims her attention at the yawning political gulf in our culture and the role of diversity in closing it. Among the followers of the Intellectual Dark Web, the term diversity has become associated with identity politics and Social Justice activism and rendered devoid of meaning, but Manji attempts to resurrect the underlying ethos behind it: diversity of thought. After all, she argues, that is the founding principle of the US as a nation—e pluribus unum (out of many, one)—which she interprets as unity in diversity. The book extols this principle as an antidote to the us vs. them mindset that has come to fragment our world. Often hilarious, decidedly eccentric, and deeply moving, Don’t Label Me offers a practical approach to cutting through the bullshit of modern times.
A 2015 series of polls of Republicans and Democrats, published in the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, showed that more Americans are in favor of an openly gay president than of an evangelical one. Moreover, over half of Republicans said that homosexuality should be openly accepted: they are en route to accepting same-sex marriage at similar rates as Democrats. A Gallup poll found that support for legal immigration has reached its highest levels ever. These numbers refute the idea that we have taken a step backwards during Trump’s presidency, stumbled back into the black-and-white world of 1962. Manji’s explanation for the rise of extremism on the right is what she calls “negative polarization,” in which voters support a candidate out of disdain for the other side rather than because they endorse her policies. Political scientist Lilliana Mason describes this phenomenon: “Our opinions can be very fluid; so fluid that if we wanted to compromise, we could. But we can’t come to a compromise because our identities are making us want to take positions that are as far away from the other side as possible.”
The vicious cycle of negative polarization necessitates the exorbitant use of labels. For this reason, we tend to vote less on policies and more on identities—thus reinforcing our differences and nullifying our similarities. This process is self-perpetuating, like a cultural meme that repeats itself ad infinitum regardless of its initial usage. We can readily associate people with whom we disagree with the most execrable political caricatures of the opposite end of the spectrum.
To make matters worse, the most widely available tool we have access to in the culture war is shame: we can humiliate our political opponents for being on the wrong side of history. This moral posturing is something many of us, Manji included, find detestable about political correctness. Shame can be both a civilizing emotion and a mechanism of repression, but it’s the pernicious effects of shame as repression that we are seeing in our culture. This projected shame tends to leave the opposite impression on our political foes than that intended, leading them to feel alienated from us rather than united with us—and the compounding of shames can spawn entire movements rooted in grievance politics. “Humiliation can radicalize,” Manji argues. And it certainly has, all around the country.
Of course, we can easily descend into an endless game of who started it?, but, at this stage it’s immaterial. Nothing occurs in a vacuum, and political movements tend to be reactionary. Whatever gave rise to our present situation is less crucial than its solutions—and this is where Manji’s approach is most effective. To her, identities are like water—ever-shifting and endlessly adaptable—and we can develop a practice of “harmonious individuality,” allowing us to move in accordance with our surroundings, as opposed to barreling through all obstructions.
Bruce Lee once said, “Be like water, my friend.” Water respects the obstacles in its midst by treating them as a natural part of the surroundings. Consider the rocks that speckle the ocean. Water could choose to view them as the Other, since they get in the way of its flow. But to focus energy on pushing rocks aside, or to demand that they disappear, would be to wage war against the life-breathing universe that gave rise to both the water and the rocks. Water would lose that war. Besides, in its petulance, water would never learn to be agile. It thereby defeats itself.
Manji later clarifies the distinction between what she calls “factory style diversity” (I would call it cookie-cutter diversity) and what she calls “honest diversity.” Cookie-cutter diversity is diversity of pigments, colors and hues; the diversity of ethnic backgrounds, racial biographies and bodily features; the diversity of immutable identities we never chose; the diversity of numbers, population percentages and tacit quotas. Conversely, honest diversity is the diversity of opinions, ideas and personalities spread across the range of human experience. It is the willingness to put subject before object, the courage to consider all voices with the same openness, and the desire to know all that lies between us and them. In short, honest diversity means not making other people into our bitch.
To make someone your bitch, Manji muses, is to categorize her according to preconceived notions. We are not the playthings of other people’s imaginations. If we treat people as such, we effectively transform them “from a subject to an object,” in the words of Czech writer Milan Kundera, causing them to lose their “status as individuals.” Other people merely become pawns in our own internalized storyline, which tends to judge us more favorably than it does them. Although this is a very human tendency, it’s one that must be reined in if we want to recognize the full bandwidth of the individuals before us. When we look at people purely through the lens of their cultural, political, or ethnic identities, we ultimately disregard their essential humanness: we make them our bitch.
It feels good to be part of a group. In fact, it feels so good that our brain circuits are activated when other people agree with us. The same neurological response our ancestors experienced during the thrill of the hunt, we get from the thrill of social coagulation. That is why we cling onto identities that can be confirmed by other people. But the psychological inverse of this is the exhilaration we feel when we pigeonhole all those who disagree with us. When we label someone we disagree with, we no longer have to contend with her real self—just a projected image of our own invention. Our tribal origins get the better of us more often than we’d like to admit, and the compulsion to label is the natural outgrowth of that heritage. However, there are gaps between our tribal impulses where fleeting glimpses of free will can be found—and it is in these spaces between that Manji dwells.
According to Manji, the path to honest diversity is threefold: you must reject the false certainty of labels; sober up from the addictive high of tribal loyalties; and mature out of the need to be validated at every turn. Ultimately, this must incorporate the practice of what Manji calls “internal pluralism,” which involves acknowledging the pluralism of identities we all possess. None of us are just one thing: we are all plurals. To recognize this frees us from the toxicity of labels. In a strange way, Manji carries intersectionality to its natural conclusion, since she recognizes the intersecting web of human identities that constitute a full human being and views the individual as the ultimate minority. This is what intersectionality should be about. Manji is reimagining how we do diversity, pluralism, and the like, reviving the actual meaning of these terms that have become so twisted by modern culture.
A critic familiar only with its title might assume that Don’t Label Me is full of lofty principles, relentlessly preached and seldom practiced—that it is tantamount to suggesting that joining hands and singing Kumbaya might end the political divide. But it is difficult to imagine this criticism being leveled by anyone who has actually read the book. Manji transforms the quixotic into the practical by peppering her ideas with relatable personal anecdotes. In one particularly humbling story, she talks about what it means to have an identity seizure—literally. She had a seizure before an appearance on NBC to launch a new book:
I’d closed my mind to the possibility of stepping on the brakes and breathing. What I failed to see is that in the process of fighting, I’d spurned my own conscience and become a prisoner of freedom. My ego brain rationalized away the truth that I’d become a hostage to identity and a stranger to integrity.
Her experience was a microcosm of our entire society’s—we are all in the midst of our own collective identity seizure.
We are faced with a choice: identity or integrity? We can cling to identity, attach ourselves to labels and embrace our in-group—or we can choose to cultivate integrity. The latter option implies focusing on the cleavages within ourselves before emphasizing the divisions out there in the world:
To develop integrity, Lil, we’ll need to be aware of the egobrain’s stampede to safety. In effect, the egobrain assumes that any discomfort indicates a lethal threat. We’ll hear the ensuing traffic in our heads. But for the sake of integrity, we’ll listen out for the softer voice of conscience—which is another function of the brain, yet one that doesn’t traffic in fear.
Integrity, then, means listening to the deeper voice beneath identity, a voice that is universal to the human experience. It means recognizing the sovereignty of the individual, by first recognizing individual sovereignty within yourself.
What I like most about Manji’s book is that it cuts to the core of human identity. Like water, identities are always in flux, ever-shifting, never still. To proceed from the assumption that identity is real ultimately leads to incessant conflict. Every identity contains the seed of its opposite. It’s not that identity doesn’t matter—in fact it matters a great deal—but it is not an unchanging feature with tangible qualities. We all have a plurality of identities—father, writer, friend—that we constantly manage as we navigate our daily lives. Counteracting the human need to hold onto a unified identity implies cultivating honest diversity of thought. Upon reading the book, I’ve found myself willing to incorporate more voices from all sides of the political spectrum into the development of my own worldview. It will ultimately make us stronger if we assume that everyone has something to teach us.
Manji provides a wonderful combination of self-deprecation, wit and ferocious honesty and provides insights into some of the greatest social problems we face today. I hope I get to meet her some day.