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Identity Politics Dangerous

By Ignas Kleden

Humanitarianism and humanism have been controversial ever since  post-modernist theorists tried to debunk the universality of their values.

This is demonstrated in that critique that the conception of humanitarianism  and humanism entails a wide range of class, gender, educational and  psycho-physical bias, which had been forgotten because the conceptions have  been taken as something given without considering the historical context in  which they were produced.

Humanism of the Renaissance, for example, proposed to take man as the measure  of all things. The human was seen as opposed to, or at least additional to  the divine as the principle of moral, artistic and political expression and  as a repository of virtues. The idea was further developed by 18th century  encyclopedia-philosophers in France who propounded forcefully that men were  the sole and sufficient source of all values. To that extent the idea was not so much an opposition to the religious values as a strong opposition to the  belief that the human condition was merely a fallen situation and therefore  human development and salvation could only be provided by a total reliance  upon religious devotion and dedication.

The modern idea of humanitarianism originates in some philosophical thoughts  both among the rationalists as well as among the romanticists. Julien Benda,  a philosopher of intellectual betrayal, once reminded us to distinguish  carefully between the abstract notion of humanitarianism and the concrete  one. The first emphasizes the sensitiveness toward the whole form of human  condition, abstract virtue of duty toward one’s neighbors, and compassionate  zeal toward humanity as a whole. In contrast to that the concrete notion advocates love for a concrete individual here and now, an idea which corresponds to what we usually understand as charity.

The question is of course: who are men after all? The basic tenet of renaissance-humanism says men are the measure of all things. In this conception it is taken for granted that the notion “men” automatically includes other notions such as women, children, the senile, the handicapped,  the marginalized, the illiterate, the poor and the landless.

This, however, is not always the case. In reality, humanism can easily discriminate against those who are not men in the above sense. Men are male,  well educated, landed or propertied adults, who usually become part of  political power, belong to a certain social standing, and make up a social  class based on economic and cultural appropriation.

One of the temptations which usually make people neglect a humane attitude  toward other people is the orientation toward identity. The acquaintance with  the other can be conducted only on the basis of one’s name, the place one  comes from, the profession or job one is doing, or ethnic group one is  supposed to belong to and the role one assumes.

In Indonesia, another important item of one’s identity is one’s religious or  denominational affiliation.

Can we in hindsight speak of history of identity? During colonial times the  Dutch colonial government divided the population of the Dutch East Indies  into three main categories with different privileges, namely the European and  Euro-Asian, the foreign oriental (Chinese, Indians, Arabs) and the pribumi or  indigenous people. This division of population implied a social division of  labor within trade, and a division of privileges pertaining to civil rights  and obligations. The remnant of this ethnically stratified division of labor  can be seen in the present habit to look at Indonesian people as the pri (pribumi) and the non-pri (non indigenous, mainly those of Chinese origin).

In the first postindependence years, Indonesian people used to look at one  another as those belonging to the co and non-co. Whereas the co were seen as  those who chose to maintain the old status quo, while collaborating with the  colonial government, the non-co considered themselves revolutionary  republicans who were determined to say no to any kind of negotiation with the  colonial government and believed that an independent state was the final goal  of their struggle.

After the end of the Sukarno administration, the New Order government divided  people into two main categories, namely those who were supposedly involved in  the attempted coup of Sept. 30, 1965, and those who were allegedly  “clean”.

This division had terrible consequences, because the label terlibat (involved) implied “civil death” of the persons concerned who were practically put outside political and legal protection.

After political reform in 1998, the political division of the population became more complicated. There is a division between the followers of the New  Order and the reformists in Jakarta, there is also a division between locals  and immigrants in conflict-ridden areas, and there is a division and even  separation between Muslim Ambonese and Christian Ambonese in Ambon.

Identity turns out to be not always a signifier of the rights one is entitled  to but also a signal for condemnation and disapprobation one has unduly to  bear. This becomes all the more true if identity is treated as final,  essentialism in nature, and can be packaged in permanent stereotypes. Indeed,  identity is that which makes somebody what she or he is and not another  thing. It differentiates, and makes one different from another. However, this  becomes a danger when identity metamorphoses into a sort of pigeonholing complex, whereby you put someone into a certain pigeonhole without providing  him with the possibility and freedom to get out of it.

In that connection, the identity politics in Indonesia should be counterbalanced by a new humanism and humanitarianism, which can turn around  the significance of identity and identification. It is not identity which  makes a man and a woman human, but the other way around, it is humanity which  makes an identity a man or a woman. Abstract as this may seem, it is very  concrete in the practical experience of everyday life.

If religious instruction in religious communities taught the students to respect and to love other people not as human beings in the first place but  as members of their own community, this would strengthen the sense of  identity at the cost of the compassionate zeal for humanity.

Since religion still assumes an important and strategic role in Indonesian  society, religious instruction determines to a great extent whether respect  for human beings becomes an abstract matter or a concrete action, which  contributes to the establishment of everlasting peace or the waging of  protracted conflict.

Categories: Ignas Kleden
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