100 Years of Identity Crisis: Culture War over Socialisation
by Frank Furedi, De Gruyter, 2021, 259 pp

Frank Furedi, a British emeritus professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, prolific author and established social commentator has mapped the history of what we now call identity politics in his latest book. In it, he traces the century-long evolution of theory and behaviour that in some ways is also a recycling of perennial issues in newer jargon.

His book is a very densely referenced work on the shaping of today’s identity politics, citing authorities from many disciplines over the last century whose views and theories have distinct echoes in what we hear from today’s experts.

Get ’em young

The notion that the raising and socialisation of children is key to the shaping of the social order and that it cannot be left to parents with “their poisonous certainties” and prejudices has been around for a very long time and indeed probably longer than the one hundred year frame of Furedi’s book.

In the words of anthropologist, Weston LaBarre, “the single, most important thing in human behaviour is literally and specifically, the way we bring up our children”. They “play a critical role in the realisation of social change”, as educationalist John Dewey observed. For political and social ideologues, their malleable minds can absorb novel ideas, provided they can control their education and formation.

Drawing from the writings of people from diverse specialities, like anthropologist Margaret Mead, educationalist John Dewey, philosopher Bertrand Russell, psychologists Erik Erikson, Erich Fromm and many others, Furedi charts a well-trodden path of social theory that essentially reiterates the case for the need to socialise the young under the direction of experts so they develop healthy personalities and values adjusted to life in a world that will be very different to that of their parents. The notion that this process should start as early as kindergarten is by no means a recent one. Furedi quotes the old Jesuit adage, “give me the child until the age of seven and I will give you the man” to illustrate how an understanding of the importance of the socialisation of the young predates terms like “social engineering’.

Moral principles

Even though the declared aims of social engineering are to develop young minds according to evidence-based, sound educational and psychological principles, to “follow the science” and steer clear of ideology, it is not so easily separated from “moral engineering”. “Newly invented values”, Furedi says, can “masquerade as scientific fact”.

One purpose of entrusting the education of malleable young minds to experts is to “render moral” those newly invented values that most parents will be incapable of transmitting. They don’t question the assumption that the new is always superior to the old, that progress is one-directional.

Furedi observes that the advocates of the allegedly value-free scientific method in education are very light on detail. Removing an authoritative moral framework “that provides guidelines and meaning” severs the bond with past generations without replacing it with an equally coherent and authoritative system of values. “What is left is a sense of self in search of a home.”

Furedi quotes philosopher Hannah Arendt who wrote that “normative standards of morality are needed to achieve psychic unity that makes agency possible”. For Furedi, this appears to explain the increasingly desperate obsession with identity, whether racial, ethnic or personal. 

He notes the strange dichotomy between openness to the idea of almost unlimited fluidity in the personal search for identity and the rigid guarding of group and ethnic identity from encroachment or “appropriation” by others deemed to be outsiders. There is an understanding of the value of “continuity” in group identity, whereas individual identity is about “differentiation” and choice.

Free from traditions grounded in belief and value systems, there are only the therapeutic sciences to address the age’s emotional and psychological problems. Universities are the new churches, churning out therapeutic professionals armed with new doctrines and formulae for healing societies’ social and personal malaises.

“Confusion about moral norms” is seen as a pathology to be resolved by rational thinking.  The claim is “sick people are made by sick cultures”, but given that traditional culture has long been undermined if not supplanted in western society, the accelerating rise in psychological problems, alienation and addictions of many kinds should suggest a critical appraisal of the culture that has been steadily dismantling the notion of moral normativity.

“Too much freedom and choice is the source of mental illness” writes Furedi, quoting a very surprising authority.  The statement belongs to Dr Hugh Crichton, the founder of the Tavistock Clinic which was established in 1920 to help soldiers recover from neural damage sustained by shell shock. Ironically today the Tavistock Clinic is all about extending and radicalising choice so that even young children can change their gender identity along a widening spectrum of options.

Deeper meaning

Furedi concludes that science has no answer to the foundational questions of existence which he expresses in Leo Tolstoy’s words, “What shall we do, and how shall we live?” Instead, our society searches for meaning and self-worth in the pursuit of identity, something that used be an adolescent project to one extent or another, even before we coined the words “adolescent” or “teenager”, as Furedi points out.

Now, however, identity and its validation has become the obsession of our society for adults as well as the young. Refusal to affirm someone’s declared identity is considered not just an injustice, but a form of medical harm. Not only individuals, but groups of various kinds and even countries can be said to have identity issues. Not infrequently at times of political upheaval, we hear phrases like, “America is experiencing an identity crisis.

Rules for virtue and politically correct language around identity have replaced “clarity about moral norms and conduct”. In political and corporate discourse, gender roles, language, identity and sexuality trump concerns about social inequality and exploitation, according to Furedi.

One wonders how the horror of the Russian attack on Ukraine will reset the sensibilities of the western young and draw them from the “internalised, individuated” and ultimately narcissistic search for identity and validation that consumes so many of them to an awareness of life’s bigger problems and questions?

Furedi’s stance is that the abolition of traditional norms which in recent times has led to campaigns for decolonisation of school and college curricula, even, for some zealots, extending to subjects most people consider ideologically neutral like calculus. is a measure of the impact of the collapse of normativity and the loss of “a sense of common historical consciousness”.

Furedi’s book suggests that the young today are completing the project of socialisation of their educators by ritually discarding the past as they set about building new identities. Supporting and defending those identities has become the business of politics and the state as it becomes more and more “entwined in private affairs”. Furedi quotes former British prime minister, David Cameron, who declared the role of politics was not just about “putting money in peoples” pockets but putting joy in their hearts”.

Furedi sees the value of cultural belief systems in ordering and orientating social and personal life, but it is unclear if he attaches any intrinsic worth to them beyond that or if he regards them all as equally useful props for a stable society. For those who see the importance of the complete family unit and of sound parental guidance and nurturing, it is somewhat surprising that Furedi never considers how the undermining of the family unit by liberal governments has served to both create the need for and justify ever more encroachment by experts in the raising of children, experts who see the opportunity to reshape the society of the future through their influence on young malleable minds.

Margaret Hickey writes on faith and social issues and has been published in The Irish Examiner, Human Life Review(US), Position Papers, The Furrow, The Iona Blog and The Irish Times.