Recording identity

Not too long ago I was asked to specify my identity three times all linked to the same national body. The explanation given is ‘government require us to ask’ and ‘this will help the (service) prioritise local provision through identifying trends etc’ or words to that effect.

The last being online, there was no reaction but the first two mentioned occasions elicited interesting reactions to my responses ‘human’ and ‘not saying’. One was ‘but you have to say … your options are …’, the latter ‘I wish more would answer like that but I can’t tell them’.

A fourth occasion was completing the national census document – where I did specify an ethnicity under ‘other’.

Alongside this I have been reading about a religious denomination’s struggle against Apartheid where they decided to boycott recording ethnicity in birth registers as the information was being used to separate people according to colour and to deprive groups of equal status and the vote. This, at the time was an admirable stance defying legal obligations.

This presents the dilemma. As a political social being, my ethnicity (or any other classification label) doesn’t matter – I’m a human and all humans deserve to be treated equally. However, the historian/scientist in me craves classification as it helps me understand and interpret actions of specific groups and how we came to be who we are. How are researchers of the future going to get an understanding of our time given my recent answers?

This gives some insight into my varied answers to the same question. While I dont trust the anonymity of any of the systems used to record the data despite all the assurances given, the use of the census data has been of great assistance to my own research. However, my experiences of recording identity details for other purposes has been more sinister – that is not to say the current data gathering will be used for ulterior purposes but rather, it’s evidence of my being a product of my past. 

In SA people carry identity documents. These have varied in format over the century plus that they have been operational. Some were required to carry their ID document with them to verify their being in the place they were, acceptability for employment etc. It was divisive and led on occasion to protests, some turning violent as police opened fire on unarmed citizens. In the later years, ID numbers held a wealth of information – date of birth, gender and ethnicity – so if you knew the construction you could make decisions etc without asking those awkward questions – it was for this reason that some religious leaders refused to record ethnicity. My ID number hasn’t changed in the post-Apartheid years but by all accounts (so we’re told) the system has been changed so that apart from my date of birth the other numbers are just that – numbers.

For years in various countries one has had to complete a form attached to job applications containing personal information which has been removed before the recruitment team got the application forms to select their preferred candidates for interview etc. This data form we’re told is/was for monitoring purposes and to ensure a proportional representation of people in the organisation – if this was truely the case, why after all these years do we still have people complaining about glass ceilings, pay inequalities, changing their names to be less conspicuous etc? It seems more a product of habit and panacea than the social engineering tool it was meant to be.

More sinister though was the use of medical data and identity in the struggle for ethnic survival as seen by Wouter Basson’s (Dr Death) work to create products that would target specific genes while ignoring others. This would enable poisons to be used in teargas and even water (as rumour has it of towns/settlements being targeted with typhoid).

This was not widely known at the time and neither were many other actions of the day. But with the fall of Apartheid it became apparent that government, those trusted to look after the best interests of the people, had lied to the people.

It’s known too in Britain that Churchill bent the truth … portraying ships still being in service after they’d been sunk, the little ships which helped save the British army at Dunkirk having to be paid as opposed to doing their patriotic duty. He wasn’t the only one. The study of propaganda shows how much misleading of the public has been undertaken over centuries by all governments and it’s this potential misuse of identifying data that creates the dilemma.

In an ideal equal world (and I can’t think of a time when all were equal) would we even need to record our differences and similarities? So for now, how do we balance treating all equally without distinction whilst capturing data that will potentially be of use to future researchers in understanding the generations that preceded them? And can we really use the data collected to engineer a more equal society?  (James Lovelock & gaia theory)

Confirming the past

Richard Meinertzhagen‘s reputation has suffered since the publication of Brian Garfield’s book, and for historians trying to work out what is fact and what enhanced, is quite a challenge, particuarly with the existing conditions for accessing his papers which are archived at the Bodleian in Oxford. It’s a case of working through other primary source material to verify dates and actions – a slow and tedious process, but really what any historian worth their salt should be doing. The value of double checking sources and returning to primary material has been brought home to me most recently with my current research project – despite numerous biographies written on Kitchener, accessing primary source material is revealing how interpretations have led to various aspects of the man being ignored, downplayed or misinterpreted. And I’m conscious that others might say the same about my discoveries as new insights and materials come to light in future years.

But returning to Meinertzhagen, looking for something else, I was interested to discover how the Natural History Museum is managing to find a way to unravel the confusion of the birds in its collection gifted to them by Meinertzhagen: using lice. This is a great step forward as a few years before on a visit to the Museum to see the Cherry Kearton (Legion of Frontiersmen) WW1 photo collection, the person I spoke to wasn’t sure when, if ever, they would be able to sort out the Meinertzhagen collection conundrum.

Another overlap between the two men, Kitchener and Meinertzhagen concerns Israel/Palestine. It doesn’t appear the two men met, but Meinertzhagen had close encounters with another Kitchener did: Churchill, and the latter’s correspondence too provides some interesting insights into Meinertzhagen.

A man whose past I find helpful in understanding Meinertzhagen is Lourens van der Post: obituary vs JDF Jones biography. I’m not sure either man really set out to be deceptive. Can anyone live a multiple life like theirs for as long without anyone realising? It’s more likely they were sufferers of Mutiple/Dissociative Personality Disorder. That’s for psychologists to determine, for the historian, they provide a reminder of the value of returning to primary source material and a prompt to look outside the world of traditional history to other disciplines and obscure links.