Identitarianism and its paradoxes



When belonging to a collective is privileged, there is an individual, but there is no subject

The fight against all forms of inequality and prejudice is legitimate in itself and does not require justification. However, finding the best way to take it forward is not always an easy task. Especially when it occurs within the scope of discourse since this is, by nature, complex and subject to different interpretations.

I would like to bring here three examples that allow me to problematize certain chosen forms of combat.

The first of them is the most recent and closest to the reading public. I read in 247,[I] progressive news website, the following article title: “Lula studies appointing Jorge Messias to the STF and black lawyer to head AGU”. The title is in bold and large letters, which differentiates it from the subtitle: “President Lula has also considered responding to calls from allies to appoint Cláudia Trindade to replace Messias in command of the AGU”.

The enunciative project of the title is clear: to affirm the identity of the female gender and the black race referred to someone who could occupy a high position of power. In this project, the aim is to establish a relationship of equality between President Lula's two future nominees and thus, between whites and blacks and between men and women.

But is this title really discursively egalitarian? Of Claudia Leite, whose vast and prominent CV is described in the report, it only says that she is a black woman lawyer. Without a proper name, the term that designates her is positioned as replaceable: other black lawyers could be in that place. The man has a name, but she doesn't. She is only entitled to the name in the subtitle, in smaller font and without bold.

Strictly speaking, for there to be equivalence of terms and balance in their relationship, the title should be: “Lula studies appointing Jorge Messias to the STF and Claudia Leite to command the AGU.” Or: “Lula is considering appointing a white lawyer to the STF and a black lawyer to head the AGU.”

Naturally, the meaning effect of these alternative statements would not be the same as the original. In the first alternative, the title would lose its immediate appeal to the militant public. But it is worth asking: can’t basing a speech entirely on an appeal to militancy generate a paradoxically discriminatory effect on the wider readership?

The second alternative would produce a curious effect: it would indicate the opposite of the idea of ​​equality. If the STF is hierarchically superior to the AGU, discrimination would be confirmed – for the highest position, a white man; for a position below, a black woman. Although interesting for what it would reveal, by mentioning only the color of the candidates, the statement would be extreme reductionism.

Let's look at the second example. At the University of Paris, I received an invitation via email to join the professor selection board for a university in another region of France. As it is common practice in academic life, I responded with acceptance in principle and asked about the competition's area of ​​specialization. I was surprised by the answer because it was an area completely outside my field of research. I replied that I could not accept as I would not have any competence to judge the candidates.

Upon receiving a new message that reiterated the invitation, I decided to look for a department colleague with notable knowledge on the topic in question. I asked if he would accept to join the panel and he authorized me to give his address so that they could write to him formalizing the invitation. After sending my new message, I then received the response that surprised me even more than the invitation: my colleague could not be invited because it was necessary to complete the quota of women who, according to the new university rules, should be part of all panels and other specialist committees. .

In short, it didn't matter if the woman in question knew nothing about the subject. My career as a researcher and teacher was not a criterion for being chosen. All that mattered was being female. This way, my place of speech as a woman would be assured. But this place wouldn't be able to speak, since I wouldn't know anything about it.

I imagine the scene in which I would enter mute and leave the competition panel silent. Or where I would stutter some nonsense just to justify my presence. In either case, some colleagues could whisper among themselves: “but who is this woman? Where did she come from???” And surely someone would know how to answer: “she is here because she is a woman; she came to fill the quota”. Even so, I would exercise the power to judge and select candidates, with a high probability of committing injustices.

The last example is a fictional dialogue, taken from the film Tar by Todd Field (2022). The teacher who makes a “Master class” at the famous Juilliard School in New York, she is a renowned conductor in classical and concert music. Lídia Tàr, lesbian and feminist, argues with Max, a student who refuses the music of Johann Sebastian Bach because he sees this “father of twenty children” as nothing more than a white, cisgender and misogynistic male. Excerpt from the dialogue: “Max: – “White males, cisgender composers are not my thing.” Lídia: –Don’t be so hasty in your indignation. The narcissism of small differences leads to boring conformity. The problem (…) is that if Bach's talent is reduced for you to your sex, your native country, your religion, your sexuality, etc. yours will be too.”

I think that the three examples show the paradox of identity designation. When designating someone by their collective identity, a problem arises. Without designation by proper name, there is the erasure of the subject with his history, his experience and his achievements in short, everything that constitutes his uniqueness. When belonging to a collective is privileged, there is an individual, but there is no subject.

The collective is a necessary instance because it is what can stop struggles and power struggles. So, depending on the situation, this erasure of singularity is natural and desirable because each person is there for the reason and in the name of their belonging to the collective. Let's imagine, as an example, a march for a certain professional category. If an individual is given the floor, he does so as a representative and spokesperson.

However, the individual is elevated to the status of subject whenever he is not replaceable by anyone else who shares his collective identity. These are the situations in which he is chosen, nominated, elected, etc. depending on something that is specific to it. Something for which he responds and signs with his own name.

If the fact of being chosen strengthens the struggle of the group in question, this does not make his place a mere representation of the collective to which he belongs. Its unique value must be affirmed and recognized. Otherwise, if the effect of the collective struggle is an erasure of the subjects, what is the meaning of this struggle?

*Maria Amorim é retired professor at the Institute of Psychology at UFRJ and the University of Paris VIII. Author, among other books, of Petit traité de la bêtise contemporaine (Érès de Toulouse) (


[I] Edited August 29, 2023, 18:06 pm Updated August 29, 2023, 19:12 pm.

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