Psychology’s capacity to generate a cultural script projecting a series of values and a distinct sensibility indicates that it worked not merely as a science but also as an ethos. By the 1960s it was evident that this ethos guided sections of society to develop a distinctive understanding of their selves. It also instructed people how to feel, respond to problems, conduct relationships and present oneself in public. Therapy culture did not encompass the totality of western culture and the public was confronted with a variety of competing cultural claims. But by the 1960s a psychologically informed version of personhood was in the ascendancy and all but enjoyed a hegemonic status over young people – soon to be known as the baby boomers. This was the first generation to be thoroughly socialised by validation and those of its members who went to colleges and universities were likely to have become exposed to the arguments that underpinned the therapeutic cultural script.
The ascendancy of the new regime of socialisation was illustrated by its influence over the use of language. Language ‘is the principal means by which an individual is socialized to become an inhabitant of a world shared with others and also provides the means by which, in conversation with these others, the common world continues to be plausible to him’, explained Berger.664 The proliferation of therapeutically informed words and terms and their growing usage – consciousness raising, raising awareness, self-actualisation, self-realisation, self-expression, uppers and downers, support groups, encounter groups – signalled the arrival of a new cultural sensibility. This language, which gradually drifted into the everyday vernacular, idealised a person who was ‘getting his head together’ and was emotionally expressive, unlike those who were ‘uptight’ or ‘hung up’ and who refused to deal with their ‘issues’.
Though it would take a couple of decades for the ideals expressed through 1960s pop psychology to become institutionalised, at the time most serious observers of society knew that they were going through an era of profound cultural change. At this point there was not yet talk of a mental health crisis among children, post-traumatic stress disorder was not used in everyday conversation and the explosion of psychiatric diagnostic categories had not yet occurred.
A lot more was at stake than the influence of a psychologically informed sensibility. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm described it as a ‘cultural revolution’.665 Decades later, the Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco recalled that ‘even though all visible traces of 1968 are gone, it profoundly changed the way all of us, at least in Europe, behave and relate to one another’. He added that ‘relations between bosses and workers, students and teachers, even children and parents, have opened up’ and therefore ‘they’ll never be the same again’.666 Eco’s focus on the transformative impact of cultural change on the conduct of human relationships captured the essence of the events of 1968.
The generational conflict of the 1960s served as a conduit for a thoroughgoing process of cultural realignment. Suddenly, the trends discussed in the previous chapters – loss of the sense of the past and of adult authority, the detachment of society from its tradition, the idealisation of non-conformism, the displacement of a moral narrative by a psychological one, the medicalisation of society, the institutionalisation of socialisation through validation – gathered pace. The cultural changes that had been set in motion decades previously unexpectedly acquired sufficient power and assertiveness to self-consciously declare itself as a counter-culture. The discovery and institutionalisation of adolescence in the 19th century was consummated in the 1960s.
Outwardly the rise of the 1960s counter-culture appeared to represent the antithesis of the ambitions that usually accompany social engineering. Radical students lashed out against what they saw as the machine-like attitudes of leaders of the corporate world and displayed unreserved suspicion towards projects of social engineering. Their hostility towards science often went so far as to call into question scientific reasoning itself. Theodor Roszak’s influential text The Making of a Counter Culture articulated these sentiments in an unambiguous anti-modernist fashion. Roszak described industrial society as ‘fatally and contagiously diseased’. He condemned ‘technocracy’s essential criminality’, which, he claimed, ‘insists, in the name of progress, in the name of reason, that the unthinkable become thinkable and the intolerable become tolerable’. He added that the youthful counter-cultural activists refuse ‘to practice such a cold-blooded rape of our human sensibilities’ which is why generational conflict ‘reaches so peculiarly and painfully deep’.667 The approach outlined by Roszak explicitly called into question the ideals of Enlightenment modernity. He dismissed technocratic assumptions about science and intellect and argued that ‘nothing less is required than the subversion of the scientific world view, with its entrenched commitment to an egocentric and cerebral mode of consciousness’. In its place, he demanded that ‘there must be a culture in which the non-intellective capacity of the personality – those capacities that take fire from visionary splendour and the experience of human communion – become arbiters of the good, the true, and the beautiful’.668
Roszak’s anti-modernist sentiments, which were widely shared by the so-called ‘60s generation’, were in fact entirely consistent with some of the earlier modernist cultural criticism of a ‘sick society’ that emanated from the tradition of moral engineering. Though it was anti-science it was in the thrall of the psychological sensibility of scientism! Roszak and the counter-culture embraced the politicisation of personality to the point that personal feelings were now accorded unprecedented political significance. Roszak’s call for a culture that celebrated ‘the non-intellective capacity of the personality’ implicitly drew attention to the need for validating emotionalism and a therapeutic version of personhood. Roszak went on to demonstrate the coexistence of an anti-scientific imagination with a crude psychologistic approach in his The Gendered Atom: Reflections on the Sexual Psychology of Science (1999). The target of his text was the male personality and the unhappy influence of its psychology on science. By this time, male personality traits were well on the way to being represented as inferior to female ones, mainly on the ground that men were not as emotionally expressive as women.
Commentators struggled to comprehend the origins and meaning of the cultural upheaval that they were witnessing. It was evident that many features of the taken-for-granted consensus that touched on the conduct of everyday life had become a focus for conflict. Matters that had been hitherto relatively untouched by political disputes – values, lifestyles, personal life – were suddenly engulfed by them. One of the first to note this shift was the scholar Gabriel Kolko, who in 1968 remarked that ‘cultural realignment’ rather than class led to conflicts which were ‘pre-political’. He asserted that what ‘ultimately explains the realignment in America’s public culture are allegiances to different formulations and sources of moral authority’.669
Taken aback by the ferocity of the criticism hurled at the customs and values prevailing in western society, its defenders struggled to grasp and name the threat they were facing. In the end, the term ‘adversary culture’ came into use. Daniel Bell wrote of the ‘power of this hostile “adversary culture”’, which literally ‘shattered’ bourgeois culture to the point that almost no one is prepared to defend it.670 He noted that, without any significant cultural support, capitalism lacked a ‘moral justification of authority’.
The term ‘adversary culture’ was coined in 1965 by Lionel Trilling, who detected its influence in modernist literature. Trilling claimed that the work of its authors was oriented towards estranging their readers from their traditional culture and inculcating them with values that contradicted it. He stated that:
Any historian of the modern age will take virtually for granted the adversary intention, the actual subversive intention, that characterizes modern writing – he will perceive its clear purpose of detaching the reader from the habits of thought and feeling that the larger culture imposes, of giving him a ground and a vantage point from which to judge and condemn, and perhaps revise, the culture that has produced him.671
Trilling’s focus on modernist writers and on the cultural aesthetic critique of capitalism is understandable given his orientation towards literary criticism. His insightful appreciation of the attraction of a new cultural sensibility in literature provided others with an awareness of its role in other currents of public life.
Trilling’s remarks about how modern writing had a ‘clear purpose of detaching the reader from the habits of thought and feeling’ of the ‘larger culture’ accurately identified the anti-traditionalist ethos of moral engineering, and particularly its practice in the sphere of education. The psychic distancing of readers from their culture served as the literary expression of a similar pattern at work in other sectors of society. In a similar vein the idealisation of an anti-conformist personality by psychology encouraged the value of distancing from the larger culture.
Trilling made an important distinction between the adversary spirit of modernism with what he perceived as an academically sanctioned adversary culture of the 1960s. He was dismayed by the adversary culture that permeated the higher education of his time and particularly by its willingness to engage in the ‘socialization of the anti-social, or the acculturation of the anti-cultural’.672 In his account of adversary culture, Trilling tried to make sense of a conflict that would soon erupt into a veritable culture war. His formulation ‘socialization of the anti-social’ allowed Trilling to come close to situating the phenomenon of adversary culture within its origin in the re-engineering of socialisation. Others who embraced the concept of adversary culture overlooked the significance of the ‘socialisation of the anti-social’ and tended to portray it as a legacy of the romantic, anti-rationalistic and anti-bourgeois outlook of the 18th and 19th centuries.673 Typically, they appeared oblivious to the adversarial cultural sensibility circulated through the powerful currents of social engineering that influenced political life from the late 19th century onwards.
The conceptualisation of an adversarial mentality was far too abstract to provide more than a limited insight into its cultural and political temper. Some attempted to attribute this development to what they described as a New Class. Trilling wrote that ‘there has grown up a populous group whose members take for granted the idea of the adversary culture’. But he did not attempt to expound on the nature of this group or what its membership entailed.674
At the time opponents of adversary culture tended to perceive it as a reflection of the political ideology pursued by radical counter-cultural political activists. Yet, sensibilities that were designated as adversarial existed independently of any specific affiliations. Paul Hollander explained, ‘specific ideology matters less and less, as groups of people have become socialized over a longer period of time into the adversarial position which has become increasingly reflexive, intuitive, nonintellectual – as all profoundly held cultural, or subcultural, beliefs are’.675 Hollander was right to note that adversarial beliefs and attitudes were not external to the dominant culture; they were the products of its regime of socialisation. Conservative thinkers failed to appreciate this point and throughout the 1970s they were under the spell of a narrative that was conspiratorial in tone and insisted that what they faced was a wilful subversion by a group of highly committed nihilistic intellectuals. Consequently, they failed to understand the depth of the cultural threat that confronted them and to this day they have proved singularly unsuccessful in dealing with it. It was easier to imagine that what was at work was the outcome of conscious sabotage by resentful campus radicals than to acknowledge the internal crisis of culture confronting them.
By the 1960s, trends that had gradually gained momentum over the century coalesced and acquired a commanding influence. Their outcome was later characterised as the Cultural Turn by academics and social scientists.676 A consciousness of cultural conflict and change permeated society, which had a profound effect on the conduct of public life. At the time a polarised conception of cultural values tended to be attributed to the so-called ‘generation gap’ and the conflict it provoked. The term ‘generation gap’ gained usage in the 1960s. It was not simply another term for generational conflict, for it also signalled something more profound – an unbridgeable cultural chasm between the generations. Bob Dylan’s powerful generational hymn echoed this sentiment:
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’
The emergence of a generation gap highlighted young people’s alienation and animosity not just to their elders, but also to their values. As the therapist William Glasser put it; ‘rather than the well-advertised generation gap, this is a cultural gap’! He wrote that in ‘many families there are two cultures’ and that ‘we find most families with older children to be divided culturally’. Pointing to this development’s unique character, Glasser stated that this ‘cultural gap’ was unprecedented in history.677
Like many social commentators at the time, Eisenstadt believed that this ‘unprecedented’ inter-generational discontinuity was underpinned by the rise of alienation from consumer society and a reaction to modernity.678 What he, along with numerous commentators, failed to appreciate was that the youth rebellion was fuelled by many of the impulses that led to the idealisation of adolescence in the first place. Previously, the young were celebrated for their ability and willingness to adapt to change and to the consequences of a loss of cultural continuity. Yet, the disruption of cultural continuity was not without its problems, for it left the young without a map to guide them on their journey to adulthood.
The transition to adulthood requires a map where moral boundaries are clearly delineated. Through helping children to understand the meaning of these boundaries, they become prepared to make the transition from one stage of their life to another. Ideally, in this way children are able to form an identity of their selves that harmonises their needs with those of society. As Martin and Barresi note in their study of the history of personal identity:
Ego identity requires knowing who you are and how you fit into society. It requires forming for yourself an identity of self that satisfies both your own internal needs and those of society. The task is easier if the society already has a clear role that you are expected to fill and respects you for filling it, and you have good role models. … Under such conditions, there is little reason for an adolescent to experience a ‘crisis’ in making the transition from childhood to adulthood.679
In the absence of clear signposts, the boundary between childhood and adulthood becomes blurred, and everyone – adolescents and adults alike – becomes confused about their roles.
The disruption of cultural continuity raised important questions about what social roles the young should aspire to and what values should be transmitted to them in the process of socialisation. The adult world often failed to provide answers to these questions. Instead of offering solutions, the new regime of socialisation made a virtue of discontinuity and change, and encouraged the young to learn to adjust to it. They were expected to cultivate their selves and acquire the psychological skills required to adapt to a changing world. This sentiment was actively disseminated in education, particularly in colleges and universities. This new orientation suggested that, unlike in the past, socialisation should not transmit pre-existing values; nor should it dictate what social roles should be adopted by the young. Social theorists in particular legitimised this stance by calling into question forms of socialisation that sought to convey a sense of cultural continuity. Influenced by the therapeutic ethos, they preferred that young people learned to express themselves and realise their authentic selves.
At the time, and in the decades to follow, many academic commentators embraced discontinuity as both a natural and desirable state of affairs and portrayed a stable form of socialisation as perverse. One sociologist asserted that socialisation need not be predictable because ‘increasingly fluid symbolic surplus of cultural meanings, models, codes, and interpretations’ mean that ‘cultural models’ can ‘no longer serve as a reliable basis for predictability and consistency in behavior, even if internalized during childhood socialization’.680 Such sentiments were framed in an even more exaggerated and dramatic form by post-modernists, who claimed that in a constantly changing, fluid environment the very notion of transmitting ‘fixed’ and ‘stable’ values was dysfunctional. Whereas the loss of stable identity was previously perceived as a source of serious concern, in more recent times the difficulty of adopting a stable identity has frequently been portrayed as a potentially creative development.
It was in the context of an omnipresent sensibility of cultural discontinuity that identity emerged as a name for the problems that were set in motion by the re-engineering of socialisation. Bauman explained this development well, when he stated that ‘at no time did identity “become a problem”; it was a “problem” from its birth was born as a problem’.681 In other words, identity became a graspable phenomenon and problem when, because of the discontinuity of culture, it had to be found and cultivated. Bauman’s insight echoed an earlier influential sociological study, The Homeless Mind (1974), which concluded that the ‘open ended’ quality of ‘modern identity engenders psychological strains and makes the individual peculiarly vulnerable to the shifting definitions of others’. Consequently, ‘modern man is afflicted with a permanent identity crisis, a condition conducive to considerable nervousness’.682
Although the formulation of the crisis of identity preceded the cultural turn, it was very much a symptom of the awareness of discontinuity that made it permanent. The explosion of interest in the crisis of identity in the 1960s stemmed from this consciousness of discontinuity. Berger and his collaborators explained the relationship between the inherently unstable character of identity and its relationship to socialisation in the following terms:
The norms and values on which the individual has been brought up are no longer reaffirmed in the presently relevant social relationships. They are no longer backed by the authority of the old primary groups. Thus they become less and less ‘real’ to the individual – as does his past identity itself. This causes an interesting reversal of the original socialization process. The norms that were originally internalized are now externalized once more, that is, they are located outside the self as belonging to the past or to others from whom one has become alienated. There appears a cleavage between past and present identity, with the former now being reinterpreted in terms of the latter.683
Their reference to the cleavage between past and present identity signified that the latter had become unmoored from the past. Its direction of travel was uncertain. The emergence of the polarisation between past and present identity was the point of departure for the gradual hardening of the cleavage between them. By the turn of the 21st century almost all the wedge issues that divided the public – guns, same-sex marriage, abortion, school prayer, euthanasia, Brexit – were symbols of this cleavage of identities.
Initially, the cleavage appeared to correspond to generational differences. But soon these identities attached themselves to different constituencies and cultural and political orientations. The cultural conflicts that erupted in the decades to follow are the politicised expressions of the rift between these two identities.
From its very inception as a newly constructed medium for understanding the self, identity was an inherently contradictory concept. For many, identity expressed an aspiration for a stable self, for a sense of permanence and certainty about where one belonged. At the same time, others who were concerned with their identity were conscious of its impermanence. Identity was framed as something to be found, constructed and, from the 1970s onwards, was even said to be invented. Some interpreted it as a statement about themselves while others regarded it as an attribute to the group to which they belonged.
Until the 1980s the literature on the subject of identity tended to express concern about its unstable features. Since this time, many have celebrated its fluid and unstable character.684 Commentaries often warn against being fixated with the possession of stable identity and convey the sentiment that the identities they idealise are ones that are detached from the past; fluid and open ended.685
Proponents of deconstruction tended to show a preference for viewing identity as unstable and as not a ‘pregiven entity bound by the fixed attributes of a group but as constituted in some type of processes’.686 In so doing they sought to disassociate the self from possessing any inherent qualities and fixed characteristics. Often this approach was justified in the name of an ‘anti-essentialist critique’ of cultural identity. By detaching the self from any inherent qualities based on individual and collective experience, the anti-essentialist critique led to an arbitrary conception of identity. While the notion of identity-as-process appealed to groups of deconstructionist commentators, in real life people have tended to look for a more stable, coherent narrative for situating themselves and their place in the world.
The cultural turn coincided with the exhaustion of the main political ideologies of the 20th century – liberalism, conservatism, socialism, communism. The dominant narratives that were used to interpret political and socio-economic developments lost much of their legitimacy. Problems that were previously interpreted as principally social were increasingly presented as cultural and psychological. Academics in the social sciences and the humanities both invented and also fell under the spell of cultural narratives. The one ideology that escaped demotion in this cultural turn was the one without a name. The cultural turn was also a psychological turn and problems that were hitherto perceived as social were increasingly posited as psychological. One of the most important outcomes of this process was that identity became the vehicle through which a variety of problems and causes – individual and group – came to be grasped and eventually politicised. This occurred first in the Anglo-American sphere and later spread throughout the western world. Explanations oriented towards the emotions were increasingly applied to interpret social issues. ‘Problems that were once considered political, economic, or educational are today found to be psychological’, noted Moskowitz in her study of therapeutic culture in the US.687
In 1960, when Bell published his famous essay The End of Ideology, he used the word ‘exhaustion’ to refer to the demise of the ideologies that haunted the interwar world. Bell’s argument about the exhaustion of ideology did not simply pertain to the decline of communism and fascism but to the loss of relevance of many of the political concepts that inspired proponents of liberal democracy. He wrote that older ‘counter-beliefs’ have ‘lost their intellectual force as well’. The counter-beliefs that he alluded to were those of liberalism and conservatism.688
At the time, many commentators found it difficult to accept the end-of-ideology thesis. They argued that the rise of student radicalism and the upheavals of the late 1960s showed that ideology was very much alive. Yet, the radical rhetoric of the 1960s did not quite add up to an ideology. Moreover, in the decades to follow political parties with conventional ideological pretensions gradually unravelled and became marginalised.
In the discussion on the end-of-ideology thesis one important phenomenon was overlooked, which was the role of psychology in discrediting the status of ideology. As we noted earlier, political psychology was frequently used in the 1930s to depict fascism as a symptom of emotional deficits. Lasswell attributed the success of Hitler to his ability to ‘alleviate the personal insecurity of many Germans’.689 In the 1950s his version of political psychology became widely acclaimed and was used to explain the political behaviour of the public. Psychology was regularly applied as the instrument for diagnosing political behaviour. Indeed, it was often claimed that politics served as the medium through which individual psychological problems were expressed. Political ideologies, such as communism, were now depicted as ‘subterfuges for something else’.690 Ideology was explained away as a response to the emotional needs of people. This reduction of political ideologies to psychological issues contributed to discrediting them as both irrational and as providing a false solution to people’s emotional needs. At the same time, the ideological assumptions that the adversary culture had assimilated from psychology became, if anything, more influential than in previous times.
The influence of psychology over the 1960s movements ensured that its radical rhetoric and utopian pretensions swiftly gave way to a focus on lifestyle, emotions and identity. At the time, one of the most prescient accounts of this development was offered by the sociologist Ralph Turner. Writing in 1969, he stated that ‘the power of both the liberal humanitarian and the socialist conceptions of injustice has been largely exhausted’ and displaced by a novel perception of injustice, which was framed through a therapeutic language.691
A decade before the term ‘identity politics’ was coined, Turner succeeded in drawing attention to the significance of the turn of politics to the person and to the politicisation of identity. He observed that ‘for the first time in history’ it was now common for movements to express indignation ‘over the fact that people lack personal worth’ and that ‘they lack an inner peace of mind which forms a sense of personal dignity or a clear sense of identity’.692 Turner argued that this shift was paralleled by a new meaning given to the Marxist problem of alienation. Unlike the Marxist account, which emphasised people’s alienation from the products of their work, its new meaning referred to a psychological state of alienation from the self. ‘Man’s alienation is now divorcement of the individual from himself or the failure of the individual to find his real self, which he must employ as a base for organizing his life’, he noted.693
In effect, the dramatic development that occurred for the ‘first time in history’ was the assertion by the new social movements of the right to the validation of personal self-worth by society. Turner added that ‘alienation in its more psychological meaning and the quest for identity become the main complaints’. He pointed out that the framing of the problem of lack of self-worth as a public injustice rather than a private misfortune was a ‘novel idea – not yet generally accepted’.694 But then, this was 1969, still at a very early stage in the development of identity politics. In the decades to follow, claim makers would insist that self-respect and self-worth are a human right and that government policy should direct its energy towards raising the self-esteem of individuals and communities.695
At the time Turner appeared to give the impression that the 1960s quest for identity and its demand for the validation of its self-worth could be a temporary phenomenon. As subsequent events would show, the early symptoms of identity politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s marked the modest beginning of what would turn out to be a powerful force in public life in the western world. The ground for the development of the politicisation of identity with its demand for the right to self-worth and to esteem was prepared by the decades-long practice of socialisation through validation. Socialisation through validation helped pave the way for the normalisation of the belief that there is a right for the self to be affirmed. These sentiments, which were initially widely practised in primary education, migrated upstream to adulthood. By the 1960s many grown-ups had concluded that they, too, deserved to be affirmed.
Calls for the validation of self-worth and self-esteem were a short step to the politicisation of personality. If personality could be diagnosed in terms of political traits, then politics can become very personal. The late 1960s saw the politicisation of personal and everyday life. The flip-side of the end of ideology was an unprecedented emphasis on the search for personal solutions to the problems of existence. Changing yourself or realising yourself, expressing yourself or emancipating yourself became rallying calls for young people drawn towards the self-absorbed spirit of the time. For many, the project of changing yourself served as an end in itself. This was a time when former leaders of the 1960s cultural movement – Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman – declared that it was ‘more important to get your head together than to move the multitudes’.696 The vociferous inward turn by the counter-culture served as the precursor to the politicisation of identity.
The politicisation of the emotional needs of the self was one of the most distinct contributions of the 1960s. This embrace of emotional and personal issues allowed activists to address a variety of ‘prepolitical, “existential” concerns: issues pertaining to psychology, sexuality, family life, urbanism, and basic human intimacy’, claims Wolin.697 Carol Hanisch’s 1969 essay ‘The personal is political’ highlighted this sensibility.698 The rhetoric of the ‘personal is political’ and the attachment of the term ‘political’ to the emotional needs of the self were not simply confined to an individual quest for esteem and recognition. This sentiment was quickly assimilated into group identity. Identities based on wider affiliations, such as that of race, gender, ethnicity and community, came to be represented through the language of feelings. Once personal motivations and problems came to be regarded as the stuff of political activism, people’s feelings and emotions could be seen as resources on which activists could draw. In its 1970 manifesto, the feminist San Francisco Redstockings Collective argued ‘Our politics begin with our feelings’.699 Supporters of a personalised and feelings-oriented movement frequently denounced what they perceived as the rigid separation of the emotional and the rational. The prevailing influence of lifestyle and therapeutic sensibilities played an important role in the crystallisation of the slogan the ‘personal is political’.
Identity politics, with its emphasis on the affirmation of self, is generally perceived as the politics of the individual. However, once it is politicised identity acquires the property of a thing in itself. Previously we discussed the fossilisation of personality traits and the way personality is grasped as something that can be typologised as a fixed entity. Contrary to the views of anti-essentialist deconstructionists, identity, too, has a tendency to become reified. The anti-essentialist rhetoric of difference, which influences academic discourse on identity, is contradicted by a reality where identity is increasingly endowed with a fixed pre-given content. Nevertheless, because many academic theorists are both analyst and protagonist of identity politics, they tend to overlook its tendency towards reification.700
While identity can be rendered fluid and open ended, the very act of politicising it forecloses such possibilities. The literary theorist Walter Benn Michaels hit the nail on the head when he asserted that there are ‘no anti-essentialist accounts of identity’ because ‘the essentialism inheres not in the description of the identity but in the attempt to derive the practices from the identity – we do this because we are this’.701 When it comes to public life, identity is its own script, and its narrative and practice are pre-given and non-negotiable. Back in 1992, when Benn made this point, the predetermined relationship between identity and its practice had only recently become visible. In the contemporary era, many identities proclaim their unmistakable fixed quality. In some instances identity is portrayed as an inheritance, something acquired at birth. That is why the journalist Joseph Harker could suggest that ‘DNA technology’ allows ‘black people to trace their origins’ which ‘could be the route’ to a new identity.702 The growing interest in DNA testing indicates that many people are looking to find out ‘who they really are’.703
In recent times, sexual identity – which was often depicted by 1960s radicals as a matter of choice – is often endowed with naturalistic qualities. The claim that being gay is not a choice naturalises this form of sexuality. The recently invented identity of whiteness conveys the implication of racism as the original sin of light-skinned folk. It is an identity that automatically implies privilege. Identity politics reduces the views of an individual to the common traits of a group. In some instances, this essentialist imagination credits identities with pre-given attitudes, emotions and even epistemologies. We have feminist epistemology, black epistemology, black feminist epistemology and queer epistemology, among others.704
The trend towards the fossilisation of identity has accelerated during the past decade as the policing of identity boundaries has acquired increased prominence. Instead of promoting difference, advocates of identity politics are busy protecting their group from the crime of cultural appropriation. The idea of appropriation has its foundation in the conviction that culture is the sacred property of its moral guardians. Through enforcing the cultural boundaries separating identities, the earlier claims about fluidity and choice are revealed as empty phrases.
Today, when identity has become so intertwined with cultural conflict, it is useful to remind ourselves that this development is of relatively recent historical vintage. It is important to situate this turn in its specific historical context because of a widespread tendency to perceive it as simply the latest version of age-old conflicts. As we noted earlier, it is common to project identity and the crisis surrounding it to previous historical epochs where it was not perceived as a problem. In a similar manner, identity and the need for its validation are often eternalised as a perpetual condition of life, as is the claim that ‘human societies cannot get away from identity or identity politics’.705
Situating the politicisation of identity within the historical context of an awareness of cultural discontinuity is the precondition for understanding the depth of the transformation that has occurred. The cumulative impact of the decades-long conflict over socialisation and the customs and values guiding everyday life acquired an unprecedented intensity in the 1960s. Professional supporters of moral engineering became more confident and articulated their view in a more confrontational tone. To take one important example: that of parenting and family life. Until the 1960s professional intervention in socialisation was often justified on the ground that it aimed to strengthen the family to deal with the strains imposed on it by a changing world. In Britain positive family intervention sought to reinforce an institution that appeared fragile and in danger of extinction. By the late 1960s and 1970s attitudes towards the family had fundamentally altered. The family was now viewed with hostility as ‘a dangerous source of individual repression and mental pathology’.706
The backlash against the family was not confined to small groups of marginal activists. Establishment institutions were receptive to a negative representation of family life. The BBC’s 1967 prestigious Reith Lecture indicated that the line dividing British elite and adversary culture had become blurred. In one broadcast, the Reith Lecturer, the Cambridge anthropologist Edmund Leach, rounded on ‘soppy propaganda about the virtue of a united family life’. He insisted that the family needed to be changed since it could not cope with the emotional stress that it faced. ‘Far from being the basis of the good society, the family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all our discontents’, warned Leach.707 In 1967 a Reith Lecturer could not only denounce the British family but also propose that children ‘need to grow up in larger, more relaxed domestic groups centred on the community rather than on mother’s kitchen – something like an Israeli kibbutz perhaps or a Chinese commune’. The culture war against conventional family life and traditional forms of socialisation acquired institutional respectability.
In the US, too, criticism of the family was widespread among its cultural establishment. The sociologist Brigitte Berger noted that by the ‘middle of the 1970s the stage had thus been set for the paradoxical situation in which the cultural elite was eager to deinstitutionalize the family in its conventional form and celebrate the rich variety of lifestyle options available, while ordinary people remained to be guided by more conventional ideals’.708 Berger characterised this development as one of the outcomes of the ‘war against the family’. The conflict that engulfed the family was paralleled by a series of similar disputes over cultural and identity-related issues.
In 1969, Turner underlined the novelty of the demand for self-worth to be politicised. He recognised that this ‘novel idea’ was not yet generally accepted and was less than certain about its future trajectory. Six years later he still was not sure about the depth of influence of this phenomenon. In 1975, Turner posed the question ‘Is there a quest for identity?’ He raised important questions about how extensive was the consciousness of this quest? He noted that though ‘respected observers’ were in no doubt about its pervasive influence, there was little empirical evidence to back up their observations. He asked, ‘do the literati correctly perceive the inner struggle of ordinary people or do they project their own preoccupations and conventional plots onto their characters?’ Similarly, he questioned whether the patients of psychiatrists ‘express what is the hearts of silent majorities’, and in any case do they ‘express their naïve insights’ or are the ‘subtle encouragements’ of the ‘therapist responsible for the vocabulary they use’?709
Turner’s own empirical research tentatively indicated that the ‘overwhelming majority of university students acknowledge a personal quest for identity’ in contrast to an ‘equally overwhelming majority of the general adult population who deny such a quest’.710 Though his conclusions were tentative, they indicated that, at least in higher education, the politicisation of validation had gained significant support. Its uneven influence among the population spoke to the cleavage between past and present identities. Trilling had already considered this trend in his discussion of the ‘changed character of the university’, which he claimed came about through the ‘efforts of the adversary culture itself’. He suggested that a veritable class had formed around adversary culture, one that ‘seeks to aggrandize and perpetuate itself’.711 Like Turner, Trilling was not clear about whether or not it would acquire hegemony, since at the time of his commentary it had not yet succeeded in dominating the middle class.
By the late 1970s the influential status of adversary culture, particularly in the university, was indisputable. This development was ably analysed in Gouldner’s study, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class (1979). Gouldner argued that a new class of intellectual and knowledge workers was successfully pursuing the culture war in society and especially inside the university. Gouldner explicitly connected this development to the re-engineering of socialisation which had damaged society’s capacity to transmit its cultural legacy to the younger generations.
The most significant dimension of Gouldner’s analysis was his insights regarding the relation between disrupted socialisation and the intensification of cultural conflict. He claimed that schools and chiefly universities assumed a central role in the socialisation of young people. They claimed the right to educate young people in line with their enlightened opinions, and even in schools teachers felt that they had no ‘obligation, to reproduce parental values in their children’. The expansion of higher education further reinforced the insulation of parental cultural influence from their children. Gouldner wrote that
The new structurally differentiated educational system is increasingly insulated from the family system, becoming an important source of values among students divergent from those of their families. The socialization of the young by their families is now mediated by a semi-autonomous group of teachers.712
As a result of this development, ‘public educational systems’ become a ‘major cosmopolitanizing influence on their students, with a corresponding distancing from localistic interests and values’. Gouldner asserted that ‘parental, particularly paternal, authority is increasingly vulnerable and is thus less able to insist that children respect societal or political authority outside the home’.713 Parents now found it difficult to impose and reproduce their ‘social values and political ideologies in their children’.714
Observers of the institutionalisation of adversary culture in higher education often underestimated the significance of Gouldner’s argument. Campus radicalism was diagnosed as the work of noisy extremist students and faculty members. The powerful drivers leading to the institutionalisation of adversary culture tended to be overlooked, and time and again premature obituaries declared the death of campus radicalism and of identity politics.
Commentaries frequently portrayed identity politics in the past tense and prophesised its imminent demise. The authors of the first book to refer to identity politics (in 1973) claimed that ‘identity politics swallowed itself’.715
Writing in 1995, Ross Posnock, a Professor of Literature, wrote that ‘after twenty-five years of identity politics’ a ‘renascent cosmopolitanism is currently gaining ground on the left; indeed, belief that the prestige of identity politics is fading in the academy is fast becoming the received wisdom’.716 ‘After identity, politics: the return of universalism’ is the title of an essay in New Literary History, in 2000.717 Eight years later, Nicholson, in her history of identity, observed that ‘identity politics seems now to be largely dead, or at minimum, no longer able to command the kind of public attention that it did from the late 1960s through the late 1980s’.718 In the wake of the Brexit Referendum and the election of Donald Trump, the British journalist Janet Daley declared that ‘Identity politics is dead’.719
The failure to grasp the ever-growing influence of identity politics was in part due to the inability of traditional political categories to make sense of this phenomenon. It was, and continues to be identified as a species of radical left-wing politics. Yet, at the time of its inception, observers understood that the success of identity politics was at the expense of the left and helped to accelerate its decline. The growing influence of the politicisation of identity always had its greatest impact on the sphere of culture rather than on political institutions. One reason why the conflict over values did not appear to excite the imagination of the political analyst was because the cultural revolt struck deepest in the pre-political sphere. At a time of East–West conflict, wars in South-East Asia, labour disputes in Europe and intense rivalries between soon to be extinct left- and right-wing parties, the disputes over values in the pre-political sphere were regarded as secondary to the big issues of the time. Although many commentators were concerned about the gradual spread of counter-cultural values in the pre-political sphere – particularly in relation to family life, parenting, sexuality, gender – they appeared to be unaware of its significance. Possessors of the values linked to the ‘old identity’ proved singularly ineffective in responding to the challenge to their outlook.
Critics of the cultural values transmitted through identity politics deceived themselves into believing that they had matters under control during the Reagan–Thatcher years. Yet, it was precisely during this era, when right-wing governments appeared to be in control, that adversary culture gained ascendancy. The right may have won the economic war but it suffered a serious setback on the terrain of culture. It was in the 1980s and early 1990s that proponents of adversary culture became the dominant force in higher education, schools, institutions of culture, the media and sections of the public sector.
The failure to comprehend that attitudes that were hitherto classified as adversarial had gained cultural ascendancy explains the prominence of the naive assumption that ‘it was only a passing fad or phase’. This naivety re-surfaced in the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center in September 2001. For a brief moment, it appeared that, in the face of terrorism, the traditional values of duty, patriotism and national unity would make a comeback in the United States. Hopeful commentators predicted that adversarial attitudes would evaporate in face of a dangerous common enemy. Yet, within a few months of this catastrophe, the usual divisions re-emerged. Counselling against the illusions that adversary culture was fatally undermined by 9/11, Hollander pointed to its spread ‘through the media’ and even through ‘American commercial culture’.720
Commentaries pointing to the decline of adversary culture were looking for it in the wrong place; the sphere of formal politics. Yet, the flourishing of adversarial attitudes was most evident in areas that were peripheral to it, touching on a ‘sense of identity, cultural norms, matters of taste’.721 By the turn of the 21st century the ideals of adversary culture had been thoroughly absorbed by western society’s cultural elites.
Another reason why a comprehension of identity politics eluded so many observers was because they often overlooked its connection to the growing authority of the therapeutic ethos. Initially, therapeutic culture was not perceived as political by either its protagonists or its opponents. The manner in which young people were socialised led them to perceive the problems they faced as psychological rather than as social and political.
The 60s generation assumed that the right to validation was an integral element of social justice. What followed was a ceaseless demand for the recognition of self-worth and identity. Once identity acquires the form of right rather than as a state to be achieved through self-cultivation, action or work, it acquires a passive form. As Lasch pointed out, the therapeutic turn towards the demand for recognition has little to do with justice but reflects a new relationship between self and society. ‘Today men seek the kind of approval that applauds not their actions but their attributes’, observes Lasch.722 Approval thus becomes an act of affirmation of self rather than an evaluation of individual achievement. Its corollary is that the refusal to affirm can constitute an act of psychological harm.
Ironically, the institutionalisation of the right to recognition leads to emptying it of any moral content. Human struggles for recognition are mediated through specific historical and cultural forms. Such activity contains the potential for making history, enhancing self-consciousness, making moral choices, entering into dialogues and accomplishing the construction of identities organic to one’s circumstances. Arendt stresses this point when she notes that, like freedom, identity must be attained through action. Through action and speech, ‘men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world’.723 Struggling for, is fundamentally different from gaining recognition on demand. The former involves an active engagement of construction while the latter implies being acted upon by those conferring recognition. Such a right can never satisfy the craving to be recognised – it merely incites the individual for more assurances of respect.
Official recognition overlooks individual differences and needs, and fails to distinguish between achievement and failure and wisdom and ignorance. A real recognition of the individual requires that choices are made between knowledge and opinion and contributions that are worth esteeming and those that are not. Both the granting and the demand for universal esteem serve to transform recognition to an empty ritual. Such formulaic reassurance cannot meet the existential quest for recognition. It can merely divert energy from constructive social engagement towards the quest for more institutional guarantees.
The very demand for the right to be esteemed posits a uniquely feeble version of the self. It places the individual in a permanent position of a supplicant, whose identity relies on a form of bureaucratic affirmation. The self is not so much affirmed or realised through the activities and relationships of the individual but through the legal form. In effect, autonomy, an essential component of human dignity, is exchanged for the quick fix of an institutionally affirmed identity.
In his discussion of identity formation, Erikson hinted at the ineffectiveness of socialisation through validation. He underlined the importance of activity and experience for gaining ‘realistic self-esteem’ and stated;
Children cannot be fooled by empty phrase and condescending encouragement. They may have to accept artificial bolstering of their self-esteem in lieu of something better, but their ego identity gains real strength only from wholehearted and consistent recognition of real accomplishment – ie. of achievement that has meaning in culture.724
Erikson’s warning about artificial bolstering went against the grain of the culture that gained ascendancy throughout the cultural and educational institutions of western society. At the time that Erikson raised concern about the dysfunctional consequence of the artificial bolstering of self-esteem, the regime of validation was still in its early stage of institutional development. In the decades to follow a veritable movement emerged around the cause of raising self-esteem and numerous governments developed policies designed to support this cause.725
Towards the end of her life, in one of her last lectures, the psychiatrist Anna Freud recognised that something was not quite right with the pedagogy of validation that she promoted from the 1920s onwards. She stated that ‘we have tried too hard to turn all work into play, neglecting the fact’ that work, unlike play, is ‘governed by the reality principle, which means that it also is pursued in the face of difficulties until an intended aim is reached’.726 Work and, as Arendt argued, action are the precondition for developing a meaningful identity. Unfortunately, this outlook went against the cultural zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s, and since that time every generation of young children have been subjected to an ever-expanding regime of validation.
Since the 1960s, the demand for the validation of self-worth has expanded and policies promoting the affirmation of identity have become institutionalised. In practice the demand for recognition constitutes an invitation to paternalistic intervention in people’s lives. This demand has been wholeheartedly embraced by moral engineers for whom the management of recognition and validation has provided important opportunities for cultivating their authority. The phenomenal growth of what Ronald Dworkin has called the caring industry is instructive in this respect. According to Dworkin, ‘although the general population of the United States has only doubled since the mid-20th century, this industry has already increased 100-fold’!727
The most striking manifestation of the institutionalisation of validation has been its continuous expansion into new domains of human experience. Policies designed to secure the right to self-esteem have been complemented by declarations that claim that sexual health is also a right, as are well-being and happiness. The cumulative effect of these initiatives is to create the impression that if people do not enjoy these rights, they are likely to feel unhappy, unwell, weak or vulnerable.
Through the imperative to medicalise human experience a feeble sense of moral agency has been engineered. Since the conceptualisation of a ‘sick society’ in the 1920s a growing number of human disorders – crime, terrorism, unrest – have been diagnosed as forms of illness. In this way health has been transformed into a normative concept that serves as the functional equivalent of morality.
Health has been redefined as not so much a physical condition as a political right. From its birth in 1948, the WHO has assumed that it possesses an extremely broad remit, not only to deal with medical and scientific matters but also with issues to do with people’s lifestyle and personal behaviour. From the perspective of this organisation, health is much more than the absence of disease. According to the definition adopted in 1948, health is a ‘state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’.728 Such a broad definition of health goes way beyond the problems that doctors and medical science can fix.
Given its interest in a complete state of well-being, it is not surprising that in 1974 the WHO expanded the meaning of health by inventing the term ‘sexual health’. The WHO called for ‘the integration of the somatic, emotional, intellectual, and social aspects of sexual being, in ways that are positively enriching’. In the decades to follow, its focus became the provision of a ‘pleasurable and safe sexual experience’.729 The WHO’s ever-broadening definition of health underpinned an obsession with the politics of lifestyle regulation and the management of people’s personal behaviour. The engineering of pleasurable sex – satirised by Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World – was adopted as one of the WHO’s missions. In 2002, the WHO adopted a broader definition of sexual health which added concepts of mental health and sexual rights to the mix.
Policy makers are also busy promoting policies designed to help people feel good about themselves. Such policies are frequently justified on the ground that unless people’s identity is affirmed they are likely to have mental health problems. As in previous times, the main target of these initiatives is the school. It was in this vein that in April 2007 England’s former School Minister Alan Johnson instructed teachers to routinely praise their pupils. According to guidelines, teachers ought to reward children five times as often as they punish them for disrupting lessons.730 The exhortation to institutionalise the praising of children is not an isolated attempt to flatter the egos of young people. Increasingly the therapeutic objective of making children feel good about themselves is seen as the primary objective of schooling.731
Happiness education has become integrated into the curriculum of many schools. Numerous feelings-related fads are deployed to make children happy. A report on the Second Annual European Happiness & Its Causes Conference in October 2008 included a session where the presenter talked about a ‘feelings meter’, peer massages and meditation in the classroom and other ‘innovations’ designed to improve student well-being. Others advocated ‘holistic spirituality’ while the ‘leading experts’ in the ‘psychology of happiness’ lectured on how to make schools more happy.732
Perversely, the more professional validators attempt to make children feel good about themselves, the more young people become distracted from engaging in experiences that have the potential for giving them the sense of achievement they require to cultivate their sense of self-worth. Since these programmes encourage a mood of emotionalism in the school it inevitably follows that young people become more and more self-absorbed.
Throughout the western world the complex emotional tensions that are integral to the process of growing up are now depicted as stressful events with which children and young people cannot be expected to cope. Yet, it is through dealing with such emotional upheavals that young people learn to manage risks and gain an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses and come to understand who they are. The pedagogy of validation short-circuits this policy and encourages many children to feel fragile and vulnerable. As I have noted elsewhere, since the turn of the 21st century childhood has been turned into a permanent state of mental illness.733 Judging by media reports, the mental health crisis afflicting young people seems to increase year on year. The phenomenon of the so-called ‘snowflake generation’ and the fragility demonstrated by university students has become a widely discussed issue.
That validation had the perverse consequence of diminishing the capacity of children to deal with the problem of existence is demonstrated by a never-ending quest for new education fads to manage the situation. Some schools have looked to mindfulness and meditation to tackle this problem. Others advocate teaching resilience or providing young people with character and grit in order to help children deal with adversity.734 Unfortunately, the use of psychological techniques – whether of validation or of promoting resilience – overlooks the fact that they have a tendency to disempower children and render them passive. A validated version of personhood reinforces the problem that it is designed to solve since identity needs to be achieved through individual effort. By medicalising the problems of existence, children are likely to regard themselves as potential patients rather than as agents who possess the capacity for exercising agency.
The medicalisation of personhood diminishes its moral agency. It displaces the normative foundation of personhood with virtues that derive from a therapeutic sensibility. Outrage at the refusal of society to recognise one’s self-worth is often couched in the language of victimisation, as is its demand for an entitlement to be validated and protected from hurt. From this standpoint the refusal to affirm the demands of an identity group is perceived as not only an outrage but also a likely cause of a medical harm. Since institutional affirmation is rarely able to satisfy the demand for recognition, the crisis of identity and its different political expressions have become a permanent feature of contemporary life.