Diversity and the Revolt of the Individual

Pelin Ekmen wrote “Diversity and the Revolt of the Individual” as part of the 2015 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship. The research essay was first published in Shifting Paradigms (Humanity in Action Press 2016). The complete book is available for purchase on Amazon.


Introduction

How does one live if life is meaningless, (1) if we can’t determine our fate, if we are all going to die separated from each other, (2) and with only nothingness awaiting us?

Not only do these questions sound like they have been quoted from the Dead Poet’s Society, but at first glance even the answer their author, Albert Camus, offers does as well: man must rebel.

Of course, beyond this first impression, Camus’s 1962 essay The Rebel wasn’t a Frenchman’s guide through adolescence, but the publication that most prominently introduced the conclusions of his political theory.

“Confronted with an unjust and incomprehensible condition,” the act of rebellion is man’s way to demand “that the outrage be brought to an end.” Camus regarded his definition of rebellion as a means to resolve injustice. (3)

This article will explore how identity politics today can be revisited with Camus’s political theory in mind. It will attempt to extrapolate from his philosophy what he would think of minority rights today.

Assimilation can be regarded as a means through which minority members of society tackle the injustices they are confronted with. Based on that premise, this article seeks to imagine Camus’ response to assimilative behavior. The question at stake: Can, and should, minority members of society overcome the division between themselves and the rest of society by assimilation?

I. Camus’s Analysis of the Human Condition

The atrocities of World War II, colonial oppression, France’s Algerian War, and their root cause, “the wars inside ourselves,” as Camus would describe it, fueled the disillusionment that led to his description of the absurd. (4) As much as we might want to attribute meaning to life, the aforementioned historic incidents, all factors that are beyond an individual’s control and limited access to information, make it humanly impossible to find sense and certainty in life. Isn’t it absurd, Camus would therefore ask, how man seeks meaning when it is not within his human capacity to find it?

In spite of the specific historical background to Camus’s political philosophy, at the heart of his criticism he does not address a political elite or ruling class. Rather, these incidents acted as a catalyst for an analysis of the human condition per se. In order to overcome the absurdity of life, Camus addresses each human being as the person responsible.

One of the sources of dissatisfaction with life for Camus stemmed from his conviction that the entire human race suffers from the division between itself and the rest of the world. (5) What was new about this notion was the personal level Camus connected to this suffering. It did not focus on the limits of natural freedom as already proposed within social contract theory. Camus rather referred to an individual’s personal feeling of being “overwhelmed by the strangeness” of living in this divided world. (6)

This article postulates that assimilation occurs when the tension resulting from this division becomes unbearable. It can be considered an escapist reflex from the absurd.

The Fast Lane to a Human Experience

Camus did not address assimilation or questions of identity politics in his political theory. Thus, the hypothesis of regarding assimilation as an escapist reflex from the absurd should be explained further.

Camus arrived at his conclusions by describing a general human condition as he saw it. To connect his thoughts with the problematic question of the role of the minority member within a majority society, it is necessary to focus on the nuances of the human condition of marginalized groups. Which experiences might typically trigger assimilative behavior?

Within the framework of civilized coexistence, the minority individual, as part of an ethnically diverse society, is faced with the challenge of situating himself inside a hierarchically structured system. If disillusionment occurs, refusal of the basic human experience and absence of inclusive justice inform the civic life of the minority member of society. The individual may then, in extreme cases, react either violently or by withdrawal of his minority group membership as a means of assimilation.

For the purpose of this article, assimilation refers to the adoption of the respective dominant culture by discarding one’s historical and cultural (ethnic) roots. (7) The cultural practices of the dominant group of the society in question would be adopted in a manner that negates all distinctions between the minority and the majority social group.

For instance, assimilation in the form of negating preexisting cultural or ethnic affiliation by expressive public denial is often accepted within various ethnic minority groups in a country, if such is thought to lead to the attainment of a higher quality of life.

An intellectual prerequisite for this more reactionary manner of self-conduct seems to lie in the assumption that some minority groups face harder challenges than others when exposing their cultural or ethnic affiliations. Larger minority groups may have an inner support system to face these challenges.

Even if this article will take issue with that justification for assimilation, if we look at the human condition of the minority member in particular, it becomes clear that he faces a higher degree of injustice compared to the “general” human condition as described by Camus.

From Camus’s perspective, all men strive equally for the ultimate human experience: a life that is not apart, but rather connected to what makes us human; a life that simply makes sense, though Camus believes we can’t always influence that.

However, this common struggle is aggravated for the minority member of society. He will not only be confronted with the “general” burden of making sense of life, but possibly with the burden of not being perceived as an equal human being to begin with as well.

What easier way to escape this plight than by unconditionally subscribing to the values, everyday behavior, and cultural practices of the group that, by default, is regarded as human. Can he even be blamed?

II. The Individual

If one could say that assimilation, in its more extreme form, is a reaction to marginalization, this reveals that it is the collective, the group, that takes a strong part in ascribing identity to us. Especially in post-modern times, we tend to lean toward the belief that one’s identity is solely a personal decision. But the reaction of certain ethnic minorities to discard their identity, for example with the goal of furthering their economic progress, tells a different story.

If the internal and external sense of one’s identity really were a question of personal choice, why would these minority members of society decide to exclude elements such as their ethnic roots from their communications about themselves to the outside, the Other? Through the action of changing one’s first name or everyday mannerisms, with the intention of making a majority member of society more comfortable with their differences, that same minority member submits to the power the collective has over defining identity.

In Favor of Ethnic Fundamentalism?

But why advocate the necessity of an ethnic minority to take the long way and not just fast track to a human experience by becoming the Other?

Certainly, if we start the debate on the necessity of assimilation without looking at what causes the impulse to assimilate, any critique of that impulse will easily sound rudimentary.

The so-called essentialist view of ethnic identity proclaims that ethnicity by birth informs an instinctive, natural sense of one’s identity. However, the critique of pragmatism towards the outward presentation of one’s identity is not a pledge to return to indigenous values. This debate is neither about a battle of values nor about a spiritual glorification of the ancient versus the modern. It is more about acknowledging that there is a preexisting historical context to the seemingly private choice of a minority individual giving preference to the dominant culture.

The different ethnicities within a diverse society with one clear dominant culture do not meet on an equal playing field where each participant picks and mixes their favored cultural habits. It is clearly a one-way street. The number of Americans who have no ethnic connection to Vietnam, but still decide to name their first-born, say, Min-Kai, namely out of sheer interest in the Vietnamese culture, is likely to be fairly limited. This reflects an existing division between dominant and less dominant cultures. We ascribe a certain value to a culture by giving our children a name that belongs to a different cultural realm than the one we were biologically born into. Conversely, we might devalue a culture by not taking notice of it.

Consequently, this is not a debate about specific ethnic groups, but more an abstract matter of equality as a prerequisite for human experience.

The Detail is in the Motive

The motive that informs the decision of minority members within society to divest themselves of substantive parts of their culture gives an indication of a possible subordinate structure between the cultures and therefore between the groups in question. The partial adoption of a new culture, in principle, does not preclude an equipollent encounter of two or more cultural spheres. By contrast, assimilation based on the affirmation that the norms and institutions of the dominant culture are superior and need to be abided by in order to be accepted as human confirms preexisting inequality.

It is no surprise that assimilation has been accused of being a “guiding principle of liberalism.” (8) It seems both favorable to the market economy as such and also for the individual in question to assume forthcoming financial rewards from assimilation and, thus, to define personal success in a monetary manner. But whether the economic and political systems are tools used to appease those who could otherwise feel marginalized would be a separate question. It seems more urgent to take up Camus’s approach of appealing to the individual’s responsibility. Departing from that notion, the pressing issue seems to be whether whoever is using assimilation to overcome a feeling of injustice is really taking part in his own oppression.

A second issue, stemming from a deliberate divestment of one’s own original cultural position, is seen in the underlying consequences for the entire ethnic group in question. The assimilating member of the group will, by default, impose his vision of the group’s identity onto its members. (9) It weakens the cultural sub-group as a whole if the actions of some of its members imply that their cultural background will hinder personal progress. If there were no autonomy in the absurd, an individual seeking to escape it would need to base their actions on autonomous motives. By contrast, a motive such as “becoming acceptable” seems unlikely to retrieve a human experience.

III. The Revolt

We can only assume that Camus would certainly recognize this condition of the minority member of a society as quite a predicament, if not to say an exacerbation of the general condition humaine. What would he possibly expect of an individual in that situation?

Before Camus elaborates on his vision of a less absurd society, he happily admits the limits of his worldview. As much as he does not consider himself a nihilist, he appeals to us without serving hope. The individual shall repeatedly revolt “against the absurdity of his predicament, without […] hope beyond it […]. Only the person who sees clearly what […] is his ultimately tragic and trusting situation […] and remains actively unreconciled can be said to ‘live out the absurd.’”

One might defiantly rephrase this quote: suffer, and take pride in it.

At the heart of his theory, Camus offers insight into how a person can arrive at what he considers seeing clearly.

Challenge the Absurd

Camus considers the option of escaping the absurd. Similar to the findings made above regarding assimilation, he discards escapism as a response. For Camus, a life that denies the injustice of life altogether constitutes a form of denial and an illusory life. He associates the option of denying the human condition with accumulating wealth and a life based on desire and possession. (10)

However, simply engaging with the human condition, recognizing its inevitability and only developing a stance towards it does not seem to suffice either.

Thus, his answer does not lie in the notorious dichotomy between having and being. Instead, Camus suggests confronting the human condition and rebelling against it.

If we are confronted with an “unjust and incomprehensible condition,” the rebel “refuses to approve the condition in which he finds himself.” (11) The rebel insists on not being oppressed as opposed to accepting the oppression and avoiding suffering. Camus distinguishes between rebellion and revolution. He connects the latter to violence, which he strongly objects.

Essentially, what Camus’ revolt requires is honesty. The minority member of a society who assimilates to overcome the absurdity is not alive. His decision to assimilate presupposes that he was aware of the injustice. He did not rebel against it, but decided to manifest the existing structure even more, knowing that the separation between himself and the Other is only bridged by the denial of some of his core human qualities.

Non-Violent Confrontation and Creativity

There are two main aspects to Camus’ concept of the rebel that can further help one to imagine how he would have evaluated assimilation.

Assimilation can openly be described as the exact opposite of what constitutes rebellion. While Camus’ rebel rejects the world as he finds it, the assimilating minority member of society fully accepts the existing injustices in his disfavor. He chooses not to confront the absurdity of the impotence over his own fate. By doing so, he manifests inequality.

Camus proclaims, “Rebellion in itself is not an element of civilization. But it is preliminary to all civilization.” (12) Rebellion in the form of non-violent confrontation is thus the step that precedes the encounter of all humans as equal to one another. A life without rebellion is the life of the unfree. Indeed, one could say: it is the life of the assimilated.

Secondly, and connected to the aforementioned, rebellion is the act that transforms “societies from oppressive into creative systems.” (13) Camus developed the concept of the rebel as an artisan. (14) The rebel must follow a somewhat artistic impulse in an attempt to go beyond the status quo, to not only maintain existing cultural values, but to facilitate new ones.

It is the act of creation that Camus valued most highly. Camus regarded it as the process that admits life in oppression would “[…] bestow on everyone the dignity that rebellion affirms.” (15) Any minority member of a diverse society could be coerced into handling their individual identity creatively, without following a blueprint or affirming the absurd.

While Camus himself did not concertize this approach in the context of assimilation, his theory was directed at all of humanity as such, not only at a certain group. It is likely that the creativity of his understanding is not confined to the artistic disciplines alone. An artisan stance, a creative impulse, can reach beyond a tangible craft to describe an attitude towards the human sentiment of “not belonging;” the stance of peacefully making it on your own rather than self-destructively repeating and copying the existing. A look into performing arts with reference to identity politics assists, for the purpose of this article, to exemplify Camus’ stance on creativity.

Decades after post-colonial Britain was confronted with a more and more ethnically diverse and plural society, the popular music scene of the United Kingdom (UK) saw what music journalists later went on to label “the coming of age of black Britain.” (16) The dance music scene in the late 1980s was dominated by rave music, which was predominantly produced by and appealed to native English people and Europeans. Having trouble identifying with the kind of “Britishness” portrayed through that music genre, but still feeling attracted to dance music as such, young Britons with African and Caribbean roots developed a new style of dance music of their own: Jungle. By mixing fast dance beats with samples from either older Jamaican ragga and reggae records or African-American soul records, they established a new dance music sound that musically and culturally broke away from the rave scene. At the heart of their own unique interpretation of dance music, which, in sonic terms, was less high-pitched and much faster than techno and rave music, lay the reconnection with some of their own cultural roots.

However, the success of dance music at the time, much more than today, depended on which physical vinyl records were played by the relevant DJs in the club scene. Since the rave DJs were not instantly attracted to Jungle and did not play it in the clubs, Jungle music producers decided to influence the entire communication process: they simultaneously became DJs, record producers, record label owners, and event promoters. They created an interest around Jungle on their own terms, interpreting “Britishness” in a manner that included them.

The reason why this process is representative of a so to speak anti-assimilative artistic approach of creating an original identity for oneself becomes clear through a comment by prominent jungle music artist UK Apache, who himself has Indian, Arab and African ethnic roots. In a BBC interview conducted at the time, he describes how, through having been part of the jungle music movement, he found a way of defining his “Britishness.” Since he felt that the majority society did not see him as British, he felt “embarrassed” about being British. But Jungle radically changed his relationship with that part of his identity: “Because Jungle is coming from England I can relate to it because I was born here and nobody can tell me that I am not from here. When I talk to my children I can only talk to them about Africa to a certain point, because my life has been in London, England. I can talk to them about Balham Tooting where I’m from. […] The Jungle is British I can really relate to it and it’s our music.” (17)

Instead of adapting the taste, social behavior, and the subgroup specific mannerisms of rave music that did not recognize him as a socially relevant part of larger Britain, he contributed towards a redefinition of a sense of “Britishness” on his and his peers own terms. (18) And this in full appreciation of both: the British and non-British parts of his upbringing. The effect of this non-violent form of rebellion? Through creating a new genre and genre-specific mannerisms for themselves, their social environment was bound to take notice of them.

In the end, Jungle appealed more and more to both the minority and majority parts of society, an effect quite opposite to the aforementioned one-way communication by assimilation.

Conclusion

When deconstructed through the humanist lens, it becomes ever more clear that assimilation is not a helpful means of overcoming minority-specific experiences of injustice. From Camus’ perspective, one might even say assimilation deprives the larger minority group as a whole of its humanist right to revolt. While it is held that assimilation manifests and intensifies preexisting ethnic hierarchies, Camus’ understanding of rebellion implies the potential for the development of an equally peaceful but, nevertheless, autonomous concept of self. At this, Camus appeals to the individual’s responsibility: “Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom is living.” (19) In the spirit of this quote, the minority member of society might not be in a position to expect the majority to explore the many dimensions that constitute him, but he can and should expect that from himself. 


•     •     • 

About the Author 

Pelin Ekmen is a PhD student in International Law at King’s College London. She previously studied German Law, English Law, and European and International Law in both England and Germany. During her studies, she completed a placement at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia Office of the Prosecutor. Afterwards, she worked as a legal intern in the Political Department of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs in London. Her PhD thesis explores the current natural resource conflict in Iraq from an international law angle. Ekmen is a German National Academic Foundation Fellow.

Citation

Ekmen, Pelin. “Diversity and the Revolt of the Individual" In Shifting Paradigms, edited by Johannes Lukas Gartner, 68-77. New York: Humanity in Action Press, 2016.

Acknowledgments

The author and editor thank Dr. Rajesh Sampath for his dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.

References

1. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (London: H. Hamilton, 1965).

2. Albert Camus, “The Tragedy of Separation,” in Camus at Combat: Writing 1994-1947, ed. Jacqueline Lévi-Valensi (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 149-50.

3. Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, trans. Alfred A. Knopf (New York, 1956).

4. Albert Camus, Notebooks 1935-1942, (Paragon House Publishers, 1991).

5. See: Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, trans. Alfred A. Knopf (New York, 1956), 6. “[…]the repudiation of suicide and the acceptance of the desperate encounter between human inquiry and the silence of the universe”.

6. Matthew Sharpe, Camus, Philosophe – To Return to our Beginnings (Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2015), 393.

7. There are of course various sociological understandings of the term assimilation. This article follows an in abstracto, philosophical approach to explore a theory that would apply to any minority member of a society so that without reference to sociological theorems the line of argument remains consistent. So, for instance, the distinction between so-called immigration assimilation (e.g. Asian Americans) and the assimilation of groups who are already historically part of the state in question or have been forcefully moved there (e.g. African Americans in the United States) would naturally be important in a more detailed analysis but are not necessary to understand the overall hypothesis for the purpose of this shorter article.

8. See: Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).

9. Anthony Appiah, “Identity, Authenticity, Survival: Multicultural Societies and Social Reproduction,” in Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, ed. Amy Gutmann (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 163.

10. Albert Camus, “Part 1,” in The Rebel; An Essay on Man in Revolt, trans. Alfred A. Knopf (New York, 1956).

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Fred Rosen, “Marxism, Mysticism, and Liberty: The Influence of Simone Well on Albert Camus” Political Theory 7, no. 3 (1979): 306. Camus refers to the creative system as opposed to systems that control the worker, so in the context of labor organization and management and not necessarily in an ontological manner as suggested in this article.

14. Ibid, 305.

15. Albert Camus, “Part 4,” in The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, trans. Alfred A. Knopf (New York, 1956).

16. All Black - Jungle Fever, directed and produced by BBC2 (1994, United Kingdom). This is a documentary about the rise of Jungle in the UK.

17. Ibid.

18. Koushik Banerjea in All Black - Jungle Fever.

19. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, 61.

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