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Monday, 14 December 2015

Self-Identification: Name, Address, Race, Religion,Sex ...

To my knowledge, no single or unified account of the limits and limitations of self-identification exists. Different practices prevail in different domains and reflect both fairly constant and sometimes rapidly changing perceptions of what is legitimate, what is safe, what is fair, and so on. The practices vary from one society to another, of course.

Banks no longer accept that you are who you say you are or that you live where you say you live. You have to provide proof in both cases – and the banks spell out to you what kind of proof they will accept (your passport, a recent utility bill, and so on).  This is justified as an anti-fraud / anti-money laundering / anti-tax evasion measure. We are not supposed to get indignant when asked to prove that we are who we say we are, though I imagine that there was a time when people (especially those in higher social classes) would indeed have become indignant: “How dare you!”

In contrast, there are situations in which you are asked to declare your religion. It happens when you go into hospital and it affects how your body will be handled if you die there and who will seek to visit you if you are dying. And so on. So you declare and no one queries it.

Thus it is that in the United Kingdom there are very many more self-declared Christians than have ever set foot in a Christian church. The self-ascription “Christian” on a hospital form is for all practical purposes a negative characterisation: Well, I’m certainly not a Jew or a Muslim and I don’t want to answer “None” just in case … (I did indeed have an Aunt who one day, reflecting on their advancing years, did suggest to her husband (and in my youthful presence) that perhaps they should start attending Church. It was quite clear that she was talking about an Insurance policy). Anyway …

But in other contexts, this casual attitude to religious self-ascription would not be tolerated. In the United Kingdom, school admissions provide a good example. In the United Kingdom since the 1990s, successive governments have encouraged a greater degree of social segregation through the mechanism of “Faith Schools” which are allowed to select their pupils by the religious affiliation of their parents. However, realising that parents are only too willing to perjure themselves to get their kids into Nice Middle Class schools, our more popular faith schools now look for proof that you are indeed of the religious persuasion that you claim. They impose religious tests. Indignation?  Not at all. Our modern parents (sociologists tell us) are more than happy to present themselves in the pews of the local Church of England or Roman Catholic church where for as long as it takes  they sit smugly, ghastly parodies of religious belief.

On most if not all of those forms which ask you to tick your Gender in the boxes which used to ask you to tick your Sex there is no follow-up requirement for proof, unless the form simultaneously asks for your birth certificate. This is a bit odd because historically ticking the wrong box was a means not only of avoiding social conventions but of avoiding the law: ticking the M box got quite a few women into universities and medical schools; ticking the F box allowed some men to avoid military service.

It’s true that everyone leaves a paper trail – and now a computer trail – from birth and at birth the M or F box was almost certainly ticked by a medical professional – though it was a parent who passed on the information when attending to Register a birth, an occasion on which no Proof of the truth of the declaration was ever asked for. If the Registrar was going to dispute anything, it would be the names you proposed to give your child: in modern Britain, “Adolf Hitler” would be queried not to mention “West Ham United” (It happens) .

But to return to the Sex / Gender boxes. I imagine that people would indeed become indignant if asked to prove that they had checked the right box, and regardless of social class. What do you want me to do? Drop my trousers? Most would be upset that it was not obvious to some official to which box they belonged.

The topic currently in the News is that of trans- sexual or trans-gender self-identification. On your birth certificate it says you are M and so it does on your Driving Licence and on every other bit of paper which can be found. But finding yourself sentenced to prison, you dispute that you should be sent to an M prison and insist that you should be despatched to an F prison because you are a trans-person

I have to say I have some sympathy. The thought of being sent to an all M prison appals me and if the facility existed to self-identify when being sent to jail, then I would take the option of ticking the F box. In the News right now though I can read about several tragic cases of M to F trans people being sent to M prisons against their wishes, I have not read any stories of F to M people reluctantly sent to F jails. If I was an F to M person facing jail, I think I might well decide to hang on to any residual F identity that I possessed.

You may find that development of the argument tendentious. But the point is this: if there are good reasons for avoiding M jails rather like the reasons for avoiding M military service, then someone with an M paper trail who asks to be sent to an F prison can quite reasonably be asked to make a case for  the request to be granted. And the case will probably take the form of a narrative provided by doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists and so on. [ There is in fact a legal procedure dating back to a 2004 Act of Parliament which created a Gender Recognition Panel which can grant legal status to a person's self-identified gender. I don’t have a problem with that]. 

In the UK, there are few contexts in which self-identification by race or ethnicity is asked for other than for statistical purposes – the Census, notably. We don’t have Quotas and we don’t have Exclusions. In some contexts, notably medical, the accuracy of self-identification is important: there are some genetic disorders and diseases (like prostate cancer) which discriminate by race and it can be important for a doctor to know whether or not you are in a high risk group.

But in other societies, self-identification by race or ethnicity or their official ascription have long and complex histories and important consequences. Everyone is probably familiar with the idea of “Passing for White” which in the United States was – and maybe still is – a rational strategy for improving your life chances. If your skin is pale enough, then that opens up the possibility of passing for White and, if you decide to do that even in the knowledge that your ancestry is at least partly non-White, then you acquire immediate social advantages - but at the same time usually have to live with inner conflict. It is an important theme in American literature.

But when back in 1955 Rosa Parks declined to yield her seat to a White person on that Montgomery, Alabama bus, she was not trying to self-identify as a White person. She was challenging racial discrimination.  

On the other side from "Passing for White", if forms of Positive Discrimination are introduced designed to favour disadvantaged groups then there are also possibilities of abuse and once again Tests have to be introduced to verify that you are who you say you are or what you say you are. The long term strategy should be to create a society where Positive Discrimination is unnecessary.

Despite everything I have said here, in daily life people don't encounter many occasions when their self-identifications are challenged. Being asked for your age ID when trying to enter a club or pub is as bad as it gets and that problem, unfortunately, goes away naturally.

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