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In last Thursday’s edition of the Financial Times, I came across an intriguing Letter to the Editor.
Penned by a Mr. Stephen Overell in support of an earlier FT op-ed arguing that President Joe Biden’s self-embraced Irish identity should be treated with more seriousness than scorn, the letter notes with all due epistolary tact that, regardless of how Americans and Europeans might differ in how legitimate they perceive claiming affinity with an ethnic group as a member of the diaspora to be, what matters in the end is that Biden sees being Irish as a material, intrinsic part of who he is. Biden’s Irishness is then “real because it has real effects.”
It goes without saying that questions of identity have become a bitter contemporary nexus of social and political contention. Here in the United States, diametrically opposed beliefs about the formal status of different gender identities have met each other in battle in courtrooms and locker rooms, in legislative chambers and Twitter forums. Meanwhile, it has almost become routine to read about the latest police brutality-motivated protest, each one driving even deeper the fault lines of racial identity that have tragically long criss-crossed our nation.
The global situation is no better. As political science professor Barbara Walter argued last year in The New Republic, the 21st century has been defined by wars that are internal in nature, civil conflicts sparked by tensions derived from latent differences in ethnicity, religion, or other aspects of personal or group identity.
Perhaps it is time then to take a page out of whatever book Overell is reading and recognize that differences in how someone else views the nature or fluidity of a particular identity, though potentially unfamiliar to you, are nevertheless authentic and do not represent a license for mockery, derision, or mischaracterization. For as long as we have flourished as social animals, human identity — whether ethnic, religious, personal, or of any other variety — has always been more than a static sum of affinities and perceptions.
In my first column, I touched on the Harvard Art Museums’ collection of classical coinage, which includes an impressive abundance of currency minted by Cleopatra VII, the Ptolemaic Egyptian queen of literary and pop culture fame. A fractious debate has lately raged over the ruler’s ethnic and racial identity, one that, as Armani Syed recently discussed in Time Magazine, is ultimately reductive of the queen’s material accomplishments and futile attempts to preserve her waning domain from Roman domination.
Or consider an absurdly comical media story of late: a Florida principal forced to resign due to parental complaints about a lesson that incorporated Michaelangelo’s revered statue of David in the nude. Confronted with Renaissance notions about individual beauty and identity that evidently differed too far from their own, the reaction of far too many parents was one of revulsion and rejection. For readers who believe themselves to be a bit more tolerant, the third floor of the Art Museums is replete with sculptures and depictions extolling the ever-changing perceptions of beauty and physique that human societies have possessed over time.
To once again paraphrase Overell, viewing other individual or cultural identities purely through the lens of one’s own is a recipe for epistemic disaster. And to once more draw from the current neuroscience literature, there exists no intrinsic factor that makes the reality that one personally experiences different from those of others, for all human perceptions are inherently limited in a neurobiological sense in their ability to reflect and resolve objective ground truths. To discount the validity of another’s identity as anything less than fully “real” or legitimate from their perspective is to, quite literally, discount their fundamental humanity.
Over the past several weeks, I have attempted to regularly reflect on how our collective cultural heritage can provide incredibly useful insight about current affairs and, more generally, the human condition. As a formal student of the natural sciences rather than the fine arts or history, I claim no special ability to observe the interdisciplinary connections that I have put forward in this column. Nevertheless, at a time of tremendous uncertainty about what lies in our collective future, I have found it particularly illuminating, even reassuring, to muse just a bit “artifactually,” and I hope that now, you do too.
Alexander Junxiang Chen ’24 is a Neuroscience and Chemistry concentrator in Quincy House. His column “Artifactual” typically appears on alternate Thursdays.
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