White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

“Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment” by Francis Fukuyama

Published Tuesday, December 11, 2018 By Norman Van Eeden Petersman

Humans have an innate desire to be respected and treated in a dignified manner.  When we perceive that we have been slighted or ignored, our response is to become incensed or defiant. We search for ways to regain our dignity and rally together with our fellow sufferers when the forces we face are too considerable for us to overcome by ourselves.

In his newest book, political philosopher Francis Fukuyama offers an explanation for the heat and fury that has come to characterize this time in US and world politics. He argues that we need to view our motives and reactions from a deeper vantage point than the behavioural economists would have us view ourselves.  We are motivated by forces deeper than economic self-interest—we are motivated by an inner quest for dignity.  Socrates said that our battles emerge from “the part of the soul that craves recognition of dignity” (xiii), and Fukuyama draws out the implications of this craving on the canvas of our contemporary debates over identity politics and the persistent howls of outrage that characterize our civic debates.

We live in a society which operates under the belief that “feelings of alienation and anxiety … can only be relieved when one accepts that inner self and receives public recognition for it” (26). With help from the philosopher Charles Taylor, Fukuyama argues that this construction was sparked by Martin Luther’s unleashing of a new focus on the “private relationship of man to God and not on any form of public approval” (26) when it comes to faith and justification. The responsibility which Luther and his Protestant heirs placed on the inner self to be aligned with God has morphed into the responsibility expressed by Polonius in Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true.”[1] Our anxiety becomes a potent force when our identity is unrecognized or treated dismissively by those who are in power. Fukuyama is especially insightful is in his comment that “many people are not satisfied with simple equal recognition as generic human beings. The rights one enjoys as a citizen of a democracy are highly valued when one lives under a dictatorship, but come to be taken for granted over time once democracy has been established…This allows them to focus on other things: the hidden potentialities that are not being permitted to flourish and the way that they are being held back by the social norms and institutions around them” (164).  Thus Fukuyama explains that the quest for the recognition of our shared humanity through the pursuit of human rights is always in tension with our efforts to recognize the dignity of particular people groups who can relate through similar ‘lived experiences’.  The project of meaningfully welcoming the participation of oppressed people groups clashes with the quest by other advantaged groups to retain their status and place of dignity in society.

In the final chapter, “What is to be done?” Fukuyama confronts the prospect of state breakdown and failure which faces modern liberal democracies grappling with the politics of resentment and backlash. He calls for two responses in particular.  First, “we can start by trying to counter the specific abuses that have driven assertions of identity, such as unwarranted police violence against minorities or sexual assault and sexual harassment in workplaces, schools, and other institutions. No critique of identity politics should imply that these are not real and urgent problems that need concrete solutions.”  Second, we need to integrate smaller groups into larger wholes through a focus on “creedal national identities built upon the foundational ideas of modern liberal democracy, and use public policies to deliberately assimilate newcomers to those identities” (166).

Reading this book, I was sorry not to see more specific recommendations to counter the politics of resentment in the final chapter.  While short on prescriptions for improvement, he gives us an insightful diagnosis. Judging by the number of prominent reviews of this book in Canadian and American media, Fukuyama’s work has resonated with a wide audience.  You’d be well served if you take a few hours to read this account of the human striving that undergirds the loud and sustained cries for dignity and recognition in the world today.  Of course, a Socratic anthropology is not identical to the understanding of human motivation that we find in James 4:1-4—similarly, the warning which follows for the advantaged classes in James 5:1-4 is one that penetrates the heart in a far more profound way than the rebuke of a Twitter chorus or protest rally: “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”  It is God’s truth that informs our witness even as the harvesters’ voices of resentment and the strangers’ demands for dignity reshape our world.

The light which the Christian church must unveil with greater clarity and compassion in our tumultuous age is expressed well by R.C. Sproul: “I don’t have anything in me that would demand that God treat me with eternal significance. I have eternal significance and eternal worth because God gives it to me. And not only does He give it to me but He gives it to every human being.”[2]

Norman Van Eeden Petersman (M.Div.) is the pastor of Vancouver ARP.  He lives in Richmond, BC with his wife and son.

[1]     Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78–82

[2]     R.C. Sproul, “What is the Basis for Human Dignity” https://www.ligonier.org/blog/what-biblical-basis-human-dignity/ (accessed November 19, 2019)

  • Norman Van Eeden Petersman