[tldr: inconclusive and poorly-explained ramble on identity and roleplaying]
I’m belatedly discovering Audre Lorde, reading my way through her collection “I am your sister. It’s touching and inspiring, and I agree with most of it. But here’s one aspect I’m struggling with.
Emotional consistency is supremely important to Lorde. You should be the same person with your family, with your friends, at work, with your lover or before the police:
In order to make integrated life choices, we must open the sluice gates in our lives, create emotional consistency. This is not to say that we act the same way, or do not change and grow, but that there is an underlying integrity that asserts itself in all of our actions.
None of us is perfect, or born with that integrity, but we can work toward it as a goal.
In Lorde’s life, that integrity was what allowed her to be unapologetically herself. She was fighting against silence — the silence that comes from subduing your identity to fit into society, and the silence of fear and self-censorship that stops you trying to break through it:
The women who sustained me through that period were Black and white, old and young, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual, and we all shared a war against the tyrannies of silence…
What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say?
What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself—a Black woman warrior poet doing my work—come to ask you, are you doing yours?
And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger.
Everything we are should permeate everything we do. Lorde condemns — albeit with gentleness and sympathy — anything that puts part of our life into a box. This comes up, for instance, in her discussion of BDSM (something I hope to return to another time):
I feel that we work toward making integrated life decisions about the networks of our lives, and those decisions lead us to other decisions and commitments—certain ways of viewing the world, looking for change. If they don’t lead us toward growth and change, we have nothing to build upon, no future.
Through all this the question I’m struggling with is: must we have only one identity, at least as the ideal state of self-actualisation? I would like to declare “I am large, I contain multitudes“. I’d like to play different roles without needing to merge them into one identity.
And — politically speaking — I believe there is value to this. The “world of work” is now breaking it’s 9-to-5 bounds, asking us to blend our employers’ needs into every moment of life. Increasingly, our work is also “affective”; requiring not just our minds and muscles, but our hearts as well. On the internet, social networks threaten to achieve Lorde’s aims by force — giving us an integrated identity whether we want one or not.
So now, if we behave with “integrity”, it means letting the areas where we are not free dictate our behaviour even when we are free. If I must be non-threatening at work, I must be non-threatening everywhere; for in this world without boundaries, my behaviour anywhere will be linked back to my work. Every compromise or self-denial we make in one context becomes expanded.
The excape from this is to divide our identities. danah boyd has been tracking this for a decade, looking particularly at teenagers. She and her subjects regard “collapsing contexts” — visibly connecting different facets of an identity — as a threat to wellbeing, perhaps even an act of violence against chosen identities.
Because when, for example, Google links a youtube profile to a real name, it performs a kind of outing. Whatever identity has been growing in the shadows is exposed to the full force of external scorn.
So Lorde’s prescription of consistency seems at odds with the human need for gradual, fallible self-discovery. Proclaiming her identity was an act of courage then, as it would be now. But perhaps we also need more space for people to develop and discover their identities, without immediately needing to justify them to everybody they know.