I’m thinking currently about identity, more specifically what my identity is.
This is a word that carries much weight. It builds pride. It fuels hate. It’s formed communities. It’s caused wars.
It’s a very hard concept to define, seeing as an obvious description would almost certainly circle round an idea of what, or who you are. The problem lies in a wrenchingly difficult question –
Do we actually know what, or who we are?
In both more literal and more philosophical terms, I without a doubt don’t know who I am. I challenge anyone to honestly answer the above question.
Whatever answer one gives is innately affected by ones opinions or world view, which can dramatically turn a similar set of circumstances in physical terms into a completely different story. One could perhaps say that it is in fact these differences in opinion which make up our identities. Perhaps our identities are a sum of our experiences in life.
But then we have no fixed identity. The sum of our experiences changes by the second. If our identity is defined by our experiences, then my Identity has changed since I started writing this article, and your’s has changed since you started reading it.
Given this concept – that Identity is never fixed – why has it on numerous occasions had such destructive power? Why is it that ‘identities’ such as white, black, woman, man, red guard, nationalist; has caused such painful divides and violence in the past? Where did this ability to feel so secure and ‘right’ come from such a transient concept?
My belief here stems from the understanding that the above questions actually regard collective identity and not personal identity. I would also go as far as saying that such group identities are not truly identity. I accept this is a difficult claim to make considering my inability to define identity contently, but hear me out.
The only way a collective identity can form is for it to be exerted on others and then for it to become accepted by the individual. One can prescribe to this collective identity, but they can always leave. You might join a political group, or be a fan of a particular sports team, but is that who you are?
I’ll put this into perspective with myself. I’m born in the UK, to parents from New Zealand. Do I need to consider myself part of the collective groups of British and New Zealand nationality? No, states are essentially areas of land held together by invisible lines that only exist in the minds of world leaders. I’m a student of German and Chinese, so must I only speak those languages? No, I know a reasonable amount of a few others. I’m pretty left wing, so must I vote for the labour party? No, I can vote for whoever I want to.
But many will prescribe to supposed given collective identities. Born in the UK, must support England in the world cup. Family is athiest, must be athiest yourself. Friends listen only listen to metal, must listen to metal to fit in. Born a guy, can’t become an au pair. Born a girl, can’t become a professional footballer.
…really? Collective identities are more often than not external pressures to conform. They can trap you into thinking in a way that isn’t necessarily what you truly think. They can make you be what you aren’t.
And yet they offer security. to be part of something collective is to have a common aim, common joys, common pains. For many, it’s a beautiful thought and in a world where so much is illusion, a comforting illusion it must seem all the better.
And yet, it is truly a self-absorbed view to think that many don’t become parts of a collective identity because that is exactly how they identify rather than having that identity pushed onto them. The difficult thing to try and dissect is how much exactly is pushed onto a person, and how much identifies truly with the person.
But whatever the case, there is a huge divide between personal identity and collective identity, although most of us will take the sum of our collective identities as our personal identity.
Now, my personal problem with this, and where this article loses any momentum it had, is that I can’t agree that a personal identity, with it’s innately unfixed, ever-changing nature, can be a construction of ones numerous collective identities, with their fixed and exerted-on-others nature.
It leads me to only one possible (rather non-) conclusion, that we have no personal identity. At least, that is, until we find it independently of our collective identities, which seems near to impossible. The closest that seems possible, is a total acceptance that we are. This is something that I can only do in writing, and not yet in reality, and this is almost certainly the case with nearly everyone alive.
So now you have read this, I want you to go to the top of this page again and read the second line, with this question in mind. If personal identity is nearly impossible to know, and collective identity is exerted onto us, why does it carry that weight I mentioned at the start of this article?
Perhaps, given that knowledge, it is best to disown identity, and try to do independently what you think is closest to who you actually are. It might save the world a lot of pain.