The French don't send Christmas cards. They send New Year's greetings. Last winter, a friend from Toulouse sent me a homemade card — actually a cunningly made miniature fan — with the words "Je suis Charlie" on the outer boards and a moving lament on the connecting paper. This was just after the massacre at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, of course.
I'm pretty sure my friend, a distinguished scientist, was not then — nor is now — a regular reader of Charlie Hebdo. But the sense of immediate, visceral identification with the victims of the slaughter made him take Charlie into his own skin then. Today, we take in the whole of Paris, following the terrorist attacks there by ISIS.
I live in Baltimore. As many people have come to understand, Baltimore is two distinct cities. I live in the leafy, lovely part near my university where life expectancy is in the 80s for people like me. In Freddie Gray's part of town, life expectancy is 20 years lower. This is partly because so many young men die violently, partly because people in his part of town are exposed to an array of environmental insults that harm their health, and partly because they receive medical care late or not at all.
For me to say "I am Freddie Gray" is laughable. And yet I say it. I am Freddie Gray. Je suis Charlie. Black lives matter. French lives matter. Muslim lives matter. Lives matter.
We have been living in an age of identity politics — I am Christian, I am black, I am white, I am gay, I am a woman and so on. This kind of politics has proved itself very powerful and has helped to produce many good things. The Civil Rights movement produced real change — not enough, plainly, but real. The women's movement produced real change — again, not enough, but real. Who would have imagined 20 years ago that gay marriage would be legal?
Identity politics have also helped to produce really dreadful things. They are part of what allows someone to imagine that killing black people in a church is a positive act. They are also part of what allows people to imagine that indiscriminate slaughter in a café or a music hall is a positive act.
Less heinous, perhaps, identity politics have helped to produce the stalemate in Washington and the increasingly vicious discourse of the election season. And that, of course, leads to a general sense of despair and apathy.
What I see coming out of these dreadful circumstances is the possibility of identification politics — a politics that involves identifying with the people who are hurt or oppressed even though you don't know any of them and they have nothing to do with your life. This is a politics that emerged after 9/11 when the whole world briefly became New York. It has emerged now when everyone's Facebook avatar shows the blue, white and red of the French flag.
We need to develop new ways of conjugating to enact the politics of identification. Je suis Charlie. Nous sommes Charlie. Nous sommes Paris. I am Freddie Gray. We are Freddie Gray. We are Baltimore.
This is both identity and identification. Together, they can produce a different kind of politics. The trick is to hold on to the sense of passionate identification once the event has passed. What would that entail? How do we build up a new sense of community? How do we capture the ephemeral sense of outrage and urgency and put it to good use? It takes time that no one has and a willingness to accept rejection, which is also not so easy. It's OK to start small — hook up your church group with their reading group, your class with their homeless shelter. It's slow, but these issues, after all, didn't arise overnight. I expect many people are already doing things like this. But while doing this slow and necessarily local work, we need to keep our sights on broader horizons to be sure we keep going.
We are those people and they are us. We wish them well.
Erica Schoenberger is a professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.