Identity as opression / Truth as liberation


Since entering the MSW program at the University of Michigan, it has become abundantly apparent that “identity” has taken stage and is the official University of Michigan School of Social Work buzzword. Students are awash with discussions and assertions regarding the need for sensitivity and awareness of intersectionality of identities, identity based oppression, identity based philanthropy, identity based safe spaces, and privileged identities, just to get started. Outside of the school as well, in the greater cultural discourse, we are seeing a surge in identity politics with the example of the Black Lives Matter movement and the alt-right’s white nationalism taking center stage; there are identity based immigration policies, the rise of populism and the political prominence of religious identity, sexual identity, and the political hackery of party based identity clinging that seems to just take bundles of these identities and create a super meta-identity out of them.

All of these phenomena certainly deserve their time in the spotlight, and need to be respected and reflected upon by all of us, not only for the social utility that an awareness and competence in these phenomena represent, but for the personally liberating insights which lay hidden within the intricacies of their reflective scope. This being the case, I cannot help but feel as if there is something lacking in this charged and emotionally raw discourse. I see all of this discussion about identity relative oppression as critical, but also as based on some pretty profound assumptions, and subsiding on some rather robust blinders, of course, this is always easiest to see when looking across the debate stage at an opponent, and difficult to see when looking inward. Blinder based dialogue, is it worth asking, is this happening?

Above is an instrumental image of Urie Bronfenbrenner's bio-eco-systemss model, when I was first introduced to it, I was taken in by the wisdom that it seemed to promote. It was the first model of self that I had come into contact with within academia that was really satisfying to insights and meditations that I had long held as personally liberating and profound. With this model we could plot out the trajectory of a life, identify key elements within different dimensions of a human experience and understand, to a greater or lessor degree, the direction, strengths, weaknesses, threats, and promises of a life’s trajectory. It presented a way to understand, and a framework from which we could intervene with the life of an individual in order to promote adept functioning in whatever world they found themselves within, by strengthening the individual, or altering the environment. Properly mapped out, we could use this model to gain a more robust understanding of an individual’s inner self, and be better equipped at helping them understand where the nuances and facets of their inner self came from. A very utilitarian approach, how useful, how insightful to the project of intervention, to social work itself. Unlike Mullaly’s two dimensional thinking (2009), I see eco-systems model as very useful, even within the scope of anti-oppressive social work, and not necessarily as a default tool of colonialism or conformity. To me, it depends on who’s hands the tool is in.

While thus taken in by Bronfenbrenner’s model, there was something missing form the professional literature, and something missing from the academic dialogue that I was hungry for, some assumptions that never got acknowledged, and a question that never got properly asked, while its answer, as far as I could see, was staring at us all right in the face the whole time. It is the same question missing from the dialogue both on a national level and at the University right now, but it could be asked in a more subtle, and therefore more palatable way, in the context of the bio-eco-systems model. Everybody, I noticed, that was in love with Urie’s model loved it for its utility, for its insight towards intervention and the understanding of the content of a self, but nobody asked what this model implied about the fundamental nature of a self, of an identity, or of personal meaning, and of personal preferences that we often hold fast to as our very selves. Everybody seemed so focused on content that nobody stepped back long enough to ask what this model meant.

I saw a model that clearly demonstrated the specific conditionality of any identity, the contingencies required to construct personal meaning, preference, and identity itselfIndra's Net. I saw a model that revealed identity as nothing more than a reflection in the mind of our experiences in life, things which were transient and certainly not of the self as we tend to experience it: a solid, undeniable, final, and substantial thing. I saw a world of culture that was nothing more than a grand reflection of the individual identities that made it up, I saw an Indra’s net: an intercourse of reflections without any base to land upon for certainty, stability, or support; a thousand reflective minds bouncing content around, confusing the content with the notion of the container. Within that model which, to me, revealed the foundationlessness, the contingent, and the conditional nature of the self with such a supple hand, I saw individual freedom, liberation, and enlightenment.

Within Urie Bronfenbrenner’s model I saw a casual redefinition of what identity means at all, and a nice way to work with the experiential attachments that we usually use to build a sense of self. I saw, regardless of the content of our reflective minds, an image of self-hood and identity as an image of flux, of fluidity, one of ultimate and final openness. This openness based definition of self is in direct opposition to the notion of substantialism, which Mullaly rejects and directly identifies as an oppressive force. I agree with Mullaly on this critical point, and understand it, in the most direct terms, as this: an identity, weather ascribed or adopted, a culture, or a discourse, all become instantly harmful and oppressive at the exact moment when and if they either assert their own substantial nature, perhaps better understood as when their defining boundaries become asserted as or incorrectly understood as absolute, or at that moment when they deny their own causal, conventional existence. In other words, when any of the objects of the triad of identity, culture, and language assert either absolutism or ignore their own existence as such: when contingency, or interdependence is denied. For an in depth view of a Buddhist epistomological critique of essentialism, aka substantialism, that adds quite a bit of depth to this particular view, please see this post.

We all understand our mind via the content that it reflects, and experience that content in the form of identity while always seeking to transcend the confines of that content. These identities must be understood as fundamentally workable, and reflective of a world which is also workable. A self cannot exist without a world within which to exist, and we all experience the world in a particular and unique way, or, as Dr. Manu Meyer puts it, we all see a different ocean. The problem, in this sense, is when one person asserts that their ocean is the right ocean, or sometimes, the really real ocean. All of our oceans are conditioned by our minds, and our minds are tinted lenses, tinted in the shade of the content which the reflective surface of our minds has been touched by, and continues to reflect.

From this specific vantage point, we might assert that it is maybe possible to see beyond that tint and catch a glimpse of the naked ocean, but that might be a bit on the mystical side, and perhaps all we can ask for is to recognize that there is, in fact, a tint. We have already danced on that subtle mysticism when asserting that culture is reflective of reflective selves, this exchange is Ubuntu, the African notion that, “I am, because we are,” pragmatic, informative, and sublime.

However, from this specific vantage point we might, also, reflect on the notion of suppression and oppression, of domination and of overcoming domination. Mullaly asserts that we have two choices when confronting oppression, either submit or resist. I see this as a false dichotomy, and suggest a re-frame based on the notion of the open and fluid self as opposed to a substantial identity, the reflective container rather than the content that is reflected. Oppression, both cultural and personal, is contingent upon the subscription of identity, and the more robustly an identity is subscribed to, the more deeply oppression can be expressed. The oppressive culture, via a cultural dialogue carried out by culturly infused individuals, which must all assert either their own substantialism or ignore their own existence as interdependent objects in order to oppress, must carry out the critical mission of ascribing identity to an entity in order to oppress that identity. The only way to do that is via identity as content, and it can never happen when identity is understood in the way described above, as an emergence of experience as content upon the reflective mind. Using this as the base of re-framing the dialogue, we can take the cultural dialogue, literally, anywhere, as we are no longer suffocated under the constraints of some absolutist content: we can rewrite the cultural script at will, and as long as we remember that this is the case we are free.

When we assert absolute identities of our own, without acknowledging the very contingent, conditional, and ultimately open nature of those identities, we are playing into the hands of oppression by providing the very fertile ground that oppression requires in order to take root. This is why resistance to the dominant culture is always going to be met by a greater force of counter resistance. Want an example? Donald Trump and the reemergence of white supremacy is the dominant culture’s counter-force to the resistant force of Obama. Black lives matter got drowned out so quickly by all lives matter. And so on.

In order to take power away from dominant culture’s grip, all we have to do is stop actively subscribing to it. Subscribing to monolithic culture is a decisive act, one that, in our current culture, requires a literal buy in. So stop doing that. Stop using dominant culture’s platforms of centralized power and communication. Decentralizing culture and the means of cultural dialogue is all that is needed to strike a decisive blow against the illusion of absolute cultural dominance. Facebook, as an example, manipulates our preferences, perceptions, and attentions, daily, and in ways that most can’t even begin to understand. Most people that I have spoken to about this issue reject it, or its significance. Have a look at this TED talk by ex Google employee Tristan Harris, where he delivers this instructive quote,

“A handful of people, working at a handful of technology companies, through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today,”


This issue is explored in greater depth by Paul Lewis in a Gaurdian piece titled, "Our minds can be hijacked': the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia"

Donald Trump won the election because of these monlithic platforms that manipulate our attention and perceptions LIKE A SCIENCE, and the Twitter mindsets and Facebook trolls that they enable, some of whom were active Russian agents. Let that one sink in, they sell your attention and the keys to manipulate you, keys that you hand over willingly becasue of Candy Crush and "likes", to hte highest bidder, and in the latest election cycle that bidder was a slew of Russian agents that sold the election to Doanld Trump.

Meanwhile, in the digital counter-culture there are many open, transparent, and decentralized means of communication like Facebook and Twitter already in existence, and they are set up in such a way as to prevent the kind of manipuation that put one of the most unqualified and destructive presidents in American history in the White House. I host a node in one of the more prominant decentralized networks, here, and if you're interested you can learn more about them in a recent write up on their nature and status here (it's a bit on the techie side, but worth an understanding for those interested in de-centralized media) ... but you don’t know about these networks at all because you, and everybody that you know, are addicted to the novelty and convenience of Facebook, and you don’t want to look at the fact that you have bought in, and provided yourself as a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. Ok, maybe not you, but you get the picture. It's frustrating, people connected to these decentralized and transparent networks can see that everybody has sold out their privacy and digitial freedom for convenience and novelty. Just stop doing that and regain control over the platform of communication, in this way we can re-frame the dialogue in any way we desire with no centralized control and no closed gardens. No centralized control means no dominant cultural force. No dominant cultural force means no oppressive dialogue, and then no internalized culture of oppression, and liberation. This liberation away from the cultural monliths that control the dialogue by controling the platform is just one way that we can take culture out of the hands of the dominant, opressive, and cynical capitalist structures that seek to profiteer off of our vulnerabilities, and care for our well being only when it impacts their ledger's bottom line.

All that I suggest here can be broken down to a few simple principles, reject consumerism and commercialism, consume mindfully, practice mindfulness, and acknowledge the essentially human first, and then then the qualities and characteristics that distinctualize us from one another. Those differing characteristics are important, and matter to our social experience and to our ability to enact social organization, and also to our inner dramas and the theater of personal meaning, but they are not absolute, and can never provide the kind of liberating refuge that we require from oppression and anguish on cultural and personal levels.

Being an ally in this sense is to admit to absolute interdependence and the tinting of all of our minds, to embrace that and to see our very selves as completely contingent upon every other self. It is to say to every individual that we meet that, “Your life matters,” and to mean it, and act on that in every instance. It is to understand that, while we are not finally defined by the content of our deepest minds’ reflective surface, that seeing the open nature of the self in all of its profundity and simplicity is a life task, and we should expect people to cling to the identities that they understand themselves as, and embrace all of the pain and anguish and joy that that brings, in all of its fleeting vulnerability and beauty. It means, finally, to act on and teach the principle that, with every breath, we breath in culture, process it with our own hearts and minds, transform it, and breath back out our own very essential truths into the intercourse of the limitless reflective minds called culture, and if we do this act mindfully, intentionally, we can cultivate an engaged world of liberating wisdom that moves beyond mere conflict and into social equity and individual equanimity.

The simple question missing then,to me, is just this, “From where does the phenomena of identity arise, and what is its ultimate nature?” As we wrestle with the dialogue of identity as social workers, and commit to working with the world as allies against anguish and oppression, we should keep this question at the forefront, and move in mindful attentiveness at all times, towards our own intimate and ineffable understanding of this fundamental and foundational issue.


really interesting point to

Carlie's picture

really interesting point to think about! It's great that you are always so open and have very in depth and personal posts

A touch verbose...

joshu's picture

Yeah, so this one ended up being a bit on the long side, but the notion that I wanted to get across ended up being a bit more on the verbose side of things. I'm a bit concerned that, being so long in the context of being a mere commentary, it won't get read or digested.

There is a lot here, and it

Mike Spencer's picture
There is a lot here, and it does run the risk of not being well digested.  With some editing though, I really think it could be a nice Op-Ed!

H'm, maybe I'll cut it up and

joshu's picture

H'm, maybe I'll cut it up and release a revision after projects are all said and done.

Bronfenbrenner's Bio-Eco Systems Model

LeTorrian Jackson's picture
I really enjoyed reading your blog post. I thought it was interesting to social work in anti-oppressive practice with Bronfenbrenner's Bio-Eco Systems Model. I agree with you that that we have to understand and look at this model to engage in helping others. We have to understand the people holistically and where the systems have failed them in order to liberate and fight for justice.

I like your idea of "reject

Mike Spencer's picture
I like your idea of "reject consumerism and commercialism, consume mindfully, practice mindfulness, and acknowledge the essentially human first, and then then the qualities and characteristics that distinctualize us from one another."  It is something that I have been trying to do and struggle with on a daily basis.  I think it is a very good start toward recentering and resisting the dominant culture.  At what point though do we particiapte in the dominat culture and its dialogue for the purposes of educating those within it?  For example, higher education is waist deep in the dominat hegemony, but do we work outside this institution to develop our own "universities" to educate or do we also work within the system to oppose the narrative?  Can we or should we do both?  Wow, what a deep and thoughtful post.  Thanks Josh!

Good question

joshu's picture

That's an excellent question. I think that the first step is to realize that social institutions are, as anything, empty of intrinsic meaning. Being interdependently originated and maintained, they are subject to the same conditioning that they impose, and are therefore subject to radical change. I think that the question becomes, "What is the best way to enact lasting, meaningful change within these social institutions that are currently saturated with toxic cultural expressions?" I think that there is good sense to be had nurturing the volition and cultivating a shared cultural expression based on sound principles rooted in interdependence, expressions and collectives that act as a counter-ballance to the mainstream's tendency to consume, commercialize, and exploit the authenticity and nuance of less powerful cultures, and to do this in an intentionally counter-cultural way. But I have also long held close the notion that the only way to enact meaningful change is to do so from within, and that what really takes hold over all else is incrimental, gradual, and even granular change over time.  This may be particulary difficult when what we see is a visage of raicst, sexist, and ethno or religio-centric expression, but it stands as true that if we draw the dividing lines to rigidly between an altruistic "us" and an evil "them" who's society and way of life must be utterly dismantled, rather than an extention of ourselves that ultimately requires understanding and transformation, then we are ultimately playing into the root causes of social suffering, and sewing the seeds for the ultimate downfall of the entire goal of social equity and personal equanimity, for which we so earestly strive.

This is why I strongly believe that a genuine appreciation of the "basically human" must first be deliberately, intentionally cultivated. This must be on the level of an appreciation of the mere fact that, even those with whom we would gleefully disagree with on the most fundamental terms of the most intimate core values that we hold most dear and true.... cannot, as all of us cannot help but feel the basic discomfort of life. By feel here I mean that we all maintain, no matter how insecurely we might attempt to mask it with feined confidence or a fabricated security, a naked sense of felt reality that, at times, is raw with awe and terror, dumb-struck by the basic fabric of the inescapable uncertainty of mere being, and the perplexity of the moment of being itself, before we adorn it with our interpretations and conjecture, which often takes on the form of a liar's tale of comfort. We all have to contend with the perplexity of being at all, and the failures of some might be viewed through the lense of compassion, as challenging as that is when their expression of that failure regularly takes on the form of domination in order to fabricate a world of illusory certitude.

A fluid view of institutions that are tainted by this kind of stain, rather than a view which sees them as having absolute and immutable boundaries, which is achieved by recognizing the fundamental nature of all things as being conditioned and conditional, and subject to change, in all of the hope and discomfort that change brings, indiscriminently. I think this is how we decide to participate. Weather we like it or not, we already are participating within dominant cultre, and even by choosing to step outside of it, we, ourselves, are being conditioned by it. A counter-culture is only such when there is a dominant culture to counter-ballance against, and so both are a part of a greater interdependent reality, and locked together for meaning, in a complimentary way. By existing at all, a counter culture is at work within dominant culture, shaping the condions within which it must exist and define itself, and so changing the very innermost definition of it. Being strategic in how a counter-culture delivers its message is, therefore, critical if lasting and meaningful change is to be sought after. It cannot be reactionary, but must ballance that against the fact that it is a response to cultural toxins within a greater whole.

By embracing the emptiness of cultures and institutions we can embrace those who travel within them on the most fundamental level of their being, and so it is not a matter of when we decide to participate, it is merely a matter of how. In my view, armed with this knowledge of fundamental interdependence, that is an engagnement of wisdom and compassion, one that opens a doorway into any cultural dimesion to some degree, and one that grants passage through any domain. Once there, I have found that the seeds of transofrmation are inevitably planted. Watering them, making sure they take root and flourish, this project of peace, takes a fortitude that is difficult to instruct, and difficult to achieve. But not impossible. For me, as a result of the accident of the conditions of my birth, I am postioned to more easily travel in some domains, as you are likewise enabled. So ... on with the work of being an ally, but I continually cannot help but wonder how deeply I can be an ally to the fundamentally human within all of us?

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