by Richard B. Corradi
within Marriage, Politics, Sexuality
July 14th, 2016
637 91 748
If we ever hope to rid our country’s political discourse of the poison of identity politics, we must
begin by rebuilding the psychological foundations of healthy identity formation in our children.
Over the past several decades, a series of social and political causes—perhaps most prominently,
abortion and same-sex marriage—have polarized the American people. For many adherents of
these causes, passionate political involvement now fills the place more traditionally occupied by
religious belief. Virtually every cause, led by its militant true believers and enlisted activists, has
exploited the tactics of identity politics, vilifying the opposition while proclaiming its aggrieved
righteousness. Identity politics draws people in by appealing to fairness, inducing guilt,
promoting fear, demonizing opponents, and attaching the cause to a political affiliation.
Not all people are equally vulnerable to these tactics. As a psychiatrist, I firmly believe that
people’s susceptibility to identity politics, moral relativism, and situational ethics is determined,
at least in part, by certain key developmental life experiences—both conscious and unconscious.
The field of psychiatry possesses a rich knowledge of human emotional and mental development.
Unfortunately, this knowledge is largely ignored in the climate of biological reductionism that
currently dominates the discipline. Still, the knowledge is there for those who care to make an
honest inquiry, even if the realities of psychological development do not support their preferred
political position. In particular, psychiatry clearly demonstrates the formative influence of the
role models with whom children identify and underscores the importance of the traditional
nuclear family. And understanding the crucial role of identification in personality development
can shed light on why our country has fallen for the polarizing politics of special interest groups.
Fatherlessness and Identity
Certain universal truths govern human nature. Just as surely as an infant reared by Englishspeaking
parents learns to speak English, so too does he or she assimilate parental attitudes and
behaviors. A child’s mental development consists of an amalgam of parental characteristics, with
both mother and father playing crucial roles. Identification—internalization and assimilation of
parental attitudes and characteristics—is the building block of personality. And the most
important constituent of personality is one’s sense of self or personal identity. This is formed not
simply by emulating parental characteristics but by internalizing them.
Consider the role that identification plays in the multi-generational impact that single-parent
households and absent fathers have had in this country. The pathology that results from broken
homes provides a convincing argument for the importance of the married mother-and-father
family structure in shaping children’s personal identities.
The most devastating consequences are borne by young boys without fathers. Without fathers to
model mature and responsible manhood, boys seek other models of identification and other
“families” to feel part of. Fatherless and directionless young men find each other, and the culture
of the streets shapes their sense of self. Strong gang identifications contribute to the tragically
high homicide rate among disaffected youths. Disputes between rival gangs, often in retaliation
over real or imagined offenses against gang “brothers,” violently act out the rage that can
consume young men whose fathers have abandoned them. Their displaced anger is often
internalized as well, manifesting itself in self-damaging behaviors, such as substance abuse, that
reflect their hopelessness and deficient self-esteem.
Nor do the girls reared in fatherless homes escape unscathed. Their experience with rootless men
who abandon children and their mothers profoundly diminishes their full potential as women,
often limiting them to childrearing as single parents in a culture of poverty that perpetuates itself
from generation to generation.
Trust, Relationships, and Conscience
The unfortunate consequences for children raised in broken families can be predicted from what
we know about human development. A consistent, loving, and physically affectionate maternal
relationship during infancy is the emotional bedrock upon which a child’s sense of self is built.
Self-esteem, the nucleus of personal identity, reflects the child’s identification with the loving
attitude of mother. A cherished child will internalize a sense of self-worth. A trustworthy mother
who lovingly satisfies her infant’s physical and emotional needs engenders a sense of trust in her
child. The child learns not only to trust mother but to trust others as well. Mother’s dependability
in meeting her infant’s needs engenders the optimistic expectation that other people, until proven
otherwise, also will generally be upright and forthcoming. Absent a loving mother who is in tune
with her infant’s biological and psychological needs, a child may approach subsequent
relationships with pessimism and distrust.
In the first several years of life, the elements of personal identity—self-worth, trust of oneself
and of others, optimism, and a sense of autonomy—are established via the infant’s relationship
with the mother. When children achieve gender identity—generally, girls know they are girls and
boys know they are boys around age three—the father becomes increasingly influential in his
children’s personality development.
While mothers continue to model for daughters what it means to be a woman, boys learn from
their fathers how to be men. To help their sons master their strong and potentially unruly sexual
drives and tendencies toward physical aggression, fathers need to model self-control and mature
coping skills. In particular, sons identify with how their fathers handle emotions and control
impulses—how they express anger, how they control their temper, and how they express and
control their sexuality. Sons need to learn from their fathers that enduring and loving
relationships depend on a reciprocal and empathic regard for another person and not simply on
sexuality. Just as girls identify with their mother’s role in marriage, boys identify with their
father’s marital role. While sex is biologically determined, how men and women treat each other
is modeled, for better or worse, by their parents, usually leaving an indelible mark.
Finally, children develop a conscience by identification with both parents. Normally, parents
impose constraints on their children’s behavior as soon as they become toddlers. Children
develop a conscience as concepts of right and wrong are progressively internalized, become part
of the self, and automatically govern their behavior. This process of developing a self-governing
system of standards of belief and conduct, another element of one’s personal identity, is crucially
determined by parental models. That is, to a significant extent, children form their conscience by
incorporating the consciences of their parents, particularly the same-sex parent.
Adolescence, Same-Sex Parenting, and Gender Identity
Identification largely finishes its work as the crucial element of the human developmental
process in adolescence. The “identity crisis” of adolescence is the task of integrating the
cumulative identifications of childhood into a stable sense of self. Rapid hormonal and physical
changes produce a tumultuous conflict between the security of childhood attachments and the
threatening but compelling urges of adult sexuality and autonomy. In the process of achieving a
stable personal identity, a young person often will “try on” a number of identities before
achieving a comfortable sense of self. Various identifications with teachers, coaches, public
figures, celebrities, and even social and political causes can be quite intense. However, they tend
to be transient, no longer necessary after aiding in the transition from parental dependence to
self-sufficiency and independence.
Ephemeral same-sex attractions and opposite-gender identifications are not unusual, as
adolescents move from parental dependence to autonomy and achieve a stable self-identity. It is
tragic when children with opposite-gender identifications, the vast majority of which are
transitory developmental phases, are subjected to life-altering hormonal treatments and surgery.
Despite reassurances by political activists, the effects on children reared by same-sex parents will
not be known for years, until these children achieve sexual and social maturation and begin
establishing their own relationships. However, everything we know about human development
suggests that there will be significant problems. Indeed, the studies using the most rigorous
methodologies reveal as much.
The issue of identity confusion for children reared by homosexual couples will likely be
significant. Same-sex parents provide their children very limited models for gender identity,
sexual orientation, and the nature of relationships between the sexes. The conflict between
identification with their parent’s sexual and social proclivities and the gender roles and sexuality
modeled by heterosexual peers and admired extra-familial adults can become intense under the
pressure of the strong sexuality of adolescence.
One would predict more than the usual amount of adolescent turmoil for such children, at the
time when personal identity—the achievement of a stable sense of self—is largely consolidated.
And adopted children, as many in these families are, have additional identity issues related to
questions and fantasies about their biological parents, why they were adopted, and how their life
would be if they had been reared by their birth parents. Clearly, children of same-sex couples
face many more developmental obstacles than those reared in traditional families.
The Psychology of Activists
The role of identification and personal identity is important not only in understanding family
formation but also in analyzing the process whereby activists who espouse special interests gain
popular adherents.
Activists who constitute the driving force behind a special interest have an intense identification
with the cause and its goals. In fact, identification with the cause must be an aspect of their
personal identity, core to their sense of self. It is an important, even defining, feature of their
personality. This might be the case with a gay man with developmental conflicts about his
homosexuality who not only advocates gay rights but is militant in his demands for social
approval. His militancy might well be energized by a desire to force society to grant him the
validation he has been unable to give himself. However, for the cause to gain social traction it
must attract a critical mass of supporters beyond its core stakeholders—in this case, heterosexual
people.
In contrast to activists whose identification with a cause is integral to their personal identity,
many people who rally to their support do not have such a visceral attachment. A variety of
motivations may determine their identification. They may be driven by emotions such as
sympathy, altruism, or guilt, or they might be driven by political correctness, party affiliation, or
perhaps even personal, financial, or political gain. Underlying these conscious motivations, many
people are seeking to replace the loss of transcendent meaning in their lives.
The fact that disagreements about sexuality and gender are particularly divisive and accompanied
by such angry intensity should come as no surprise. After all, the conflict conflates the energies
of basic instinctual drives: sex and aggression. Aggression is mobilized in defense of one’s
practices and beliefs about sex. The role that sexuality plays in one’s self-definition determines
attitudes regarding acceptable sexual practices. And sexuality is an important component of the
system of moral values that make up one’s conscience. Consequently, people with differing
sexual identifications often hold widely divergent views about sexual morality.
Many of the most ardent devotees of these contentious causes are those whose personal identity
does not include religion and who are seeking to derive a transcendent faith from elsewhere.
Devoutly religious people have incorporated their faith into their sense of self; it is an important
aspect of their self-identity. But when people lack a grounded faith with a trust in God that gives
meaning to their lives and to their children’s, they look for meaning elsewhere. Many are
attracted to causes that, in effect, are secular religions.
Religion, Psychology, and Politics
Religion has a much more important role in mental development than simply providing moral
imperatives. Through religion, the faith and trust of believers is imparted to their children. There
is an intergenerational reciprocity between trust in God and trust in people. Trust—a building
block of personality that depends on the quality of mothering in the first several years of life—is
the basis of faith. Religious belief plays such an important role in personality development
because it is not only a generation-to-generation transmitter of the morality of conscience, it also
contributes to the earliest stage of identity formation.
Those whose personal identity does not include any robust form of religious belief or
transcendent faith are easy prey for the tactics of those who equate orthodox sexual morality with
an attack on civil rights. With astute psychological insight, G.K. Chesterton commented, “The
Church is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”
A culture that rejects religion—the institution that embodies trust, faith, and hope and inculcates
it in its young people—produces rudderless individuals who search for causes to believe in.
Just as socioeconomically disadvantaged families without fathers can produce a
multigenerational underclass, so too do parents without a transcendent faith produce children
who lack trust not only in others but in themselves. If we ever hope to rid our country’s political
discourse of the poison of identity politics, we must begin by rebuilding the psychological
foundations of healthy identity formation in our children.
Richard B. Corradi, MD, is Professor of Psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University School
of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio.