Identity Politics and the Art of Belonging

By Gwyneth Sutherlin

Mon neg and Khuya are terms of community which mean my brother or my friend.  They signal inclusion although they can be extended to members outside the community who exhibit qualities of brotherhood or friendship.  The markers of identity, whether cohesive or divisive are complex and certainly the source of intense feelings. In a recent post, Visualizing Violence, I contemplated why I have seen more and more crossover between the fields of art and conflict studies.  What is it in our current geo-political environment that is driving this trend of creative, emotionally centered approaches to understanding and even bettering conflict? I believe our concept of identity feels under-threat, and we look to art and literature to satiate where political redress has left us wanting.

My recent interest in art and identity was sparked by an exchange on an academic listserv this month on the topic of  ‘Who is an African writer?’, a discussion that provoked comments which one member suggested were “transgressing boundaries of politeness.” I couldn’t remember another thread which had stirred up such intensity or conviction for differing opinions. Who has the right to define an individual’s identity? Is it our passport, citizenship, family, religion, culture, or in the case of writers does it change with the themes and contents of their work?

One post quoted the poet Seamus Heaney’s objection to being included in the British Anthology of Poetry:

Be advised, my passport’s green

No glass of ours was ever raised to toast the Queen.

This reminded of a piece I had read a month ago in the Guardian that traced the dichotomy of Scottish and British literature.  Can these boundaries exist in a global society?  Have they become meaningless, or fluid, or political playing cards we show as we choose, then hide, and change when it suits us?

Asserting identity through art, literature, and/or language is crucial for undefined or coalescing regions. Yasir Suleiman’s history of the political use of the Arabic language has a lot of insights into this process. He argues the process of producing narratives and literature serves both the goal of fostering domestic cohesion as well as extending an organized international message.

Throughout the recent political upheaval in North Africa and the Middle East, the digitally engaged world has witnessed this process of self-defining.  I listened to many interviews during 2011 in which reporters tried to give the audience insight into the feelings of the people participating in the uprisings. The words shared by a Libyan man during a BBC interview capture the sentiment I heard over and over:

We’ve been fighting for our identity for so many years, as well as to know who we are, to tell people who we are.

But art and literature are not just leveraged by emerging identities to assure their presence is measurable, visible, defined, named, gathering momentum and political weight sustained by culture.  These are the reservoirs of our collective memory, the history we’ve felt beyond statistics and dates. Francois Hollande took the opportunity to talk about Islam’s role in French society when he unveiled the new wing of the Louvre.  He used art to define what it means to be French, a political maneuver to address the missteps of predecessors who advocated a narrow definition incompatible with contemporary reality.  Apparently, French identity has historically been congruent with being Muslim. (photo from Al Arabiya)

Identity can be used to divide, and to name enemies.  In a series of recent interviews for his new book, Salman Rushdie uses the phrase ‘organized outrage’ to describe the state sponsored mobs in Pakistan fueled by an insult to part of their identity, their religion.  Political elites have figured out that targeting identity is a very effective way to amplify fear and hate. My research looks at how people participate with ICTs in describing and collecting information about conflict, hopefully to resolve it. Earlier this year, after restrictions on the Internet were slightly relaxed in Burma, some analysts were surprised by a flood of online hate speech that targeted minority groups. After not being able to participate in the online discourse, the first thing many citizens wanted to voice was an affirmation of their own identity through a condemnation of a minority group. As with the events in Pakistan, or the disputed island between China and Japan (that led to banners with the slogan “All Japanese Must Be Killed“), the conflagrations did not erupt out of thin air, but were the result of long hostilities and complex events.  However, the intensity of nationalist or anti-(pick a country) feeling seems anachronistic in our global time of international business, travel, and particularly language barrier-crossing arts.  In the case of China vs. Japan, a famous film star is calling for civility (yes, an adult video star, but still the two nations have found common ground somewhere).

In my past work as an intercultural mediator, one of the first things I would ask hostile groups to do is list the most important characteristics of their identity. Then I would find a way to put each of those characteristics under pressure. The reflection on your own identity and where you are most sensitive to personal attack can help build empathy and understanding for how others feel when one piece of their whole is put in the spotlight. Reflection is often facilitated through art, music, and literature and while Identity can be the source of conflict, it can also be the starting point for reconciliation. This is why the expanding digital space for narrative and self-expression demands more than the mono-culturally designed avenue of participation we have at the moment.

In our post-nation-state era, members of the intelligence community are searching for enemies called ‘non-state actors’, a term that couldn’t be more vague or hopelessly uncertain in its aim.   The enemy is the idea. Combatants are identified as adherents to that idea. And this takes be back to the discussion of ‘Who is an African writer?’  Who is a non-state actor or an adherent? This seems an equally existential question, one that can only be answered by the individual.  But clearly, identifying combatants in this respect is an incredibly serious matter, although the complexities are perhaps part of what make contemporary security such a challenge.

And this comes back to who defines the identity.  Does it come from within the community or from the individual, or is it projected, labeled, stereotyped?  In a piece called, The fallacy of the phrase, ‘the Muslim world’, Sarah Kendzior wrote about the persistent problem in the media of describing Muslims as a monolithic group. I am guilty of the sin of generalization when I refer to ‘the west’ for expediency. The west is an odd region made-up of two continents and straddling an ocean. Am I allowed to do this if I consider myself a member of the group? During the ‘Who is an African writer’ thread, the most vehement comments were about imposed identity. Do problems start when one group tries to control the definition for another? (While this may seem obvious, I assure you it was not among the group of very intelligent contributors from all over the globe). Perhaps we don’t feel in control of our own identities. They are in flux; they are fluid. They are being challenged and manipulated for political gain by many more actors than in the past. This is why narrative, brushstroke, song, and design which can make us feel connected to our humanity appears as more powerful and, perhaps, more appropriate antidotes to the violence in the world today. And why the digital portals we use for this purpose should aim higher to capture our intentions, rather than define us by scripted formats fixed to one culture’s narrative logic.

Gwyneth Sutherlin is a doctoral candidate in conflict resolution at the University of Bradford. Her research examines the impact of cultural bias in ICT design on identity, participation, and information access.  She writes and speaks frequently about the political implications surrounding the invisible dimension of cultural translation.  Her research draws from experiences working as an intercultural mediator as well as directing projects which use ICT to promote peace and democracy in Burma, Kenya, DRCongo, Haiti, and Morocco.  Ms. Sutherlin has a degree in political science from Indiana University and speaks seven languages.  Read more on her blog,