Questions, questions. Unnamed teacher. Image by Geralt.
What is Identity, anyway?
Identity is a huge and complex issue. It refers to the way we consider ourselves to be and that can take many forms and implicate many factors. It can be applied both to our surface presentation of ourselves and to our most deeply felt sense of ourselves and to many things in between. It gets co-opted in the highly contested idea of identity politics. We are called upon to prove our identity by state authorities and to certificate it with passports and I.D. cards. If our sense of identity becomes precarious, we can question our emotional wellbeing and even our mental stability.
Some people would say that, given how wide-ranging the concept is, it might be better to ditch it and talk about alternative ideas – maybe sense of self, or being, or psyche, or self-presentation, subjectivity, personality, self-image, soul, ego and so on. But all of these are equally fraught and come with their own baggage.
This is an introductory blog and not a book so it will inevitably skim the surface. My aim is to write further blogs that take up more in-depth issues like:
- what does it mean to be feminine?
- what do racism and white privilege do to identity?
- why do people attack ‘identity politics’? and
- what is the relationship between identity and identification?
First, let’s try and figure out what identity is.
What is identity anyway?
Is identity who you are? Is it who you think you are – which could be significantly different to who you ‘really’ are? Is it who other people think you are? Is identity what you feel? Is your identity a core part of you that doesn’t change or does it include all your accumulated experiences? Does your identity fluctuate depending on how you feel, who you are with and where you are?
And what about those markers of identity - feminist, Black person, gay, humanist, lesbian, Independence supporter, Jew, climate change activist, Asian, transgender person, Gemini, introvert, ENTP and so on. Some of these are deeply personal identities that people are born into and some of them are choices that people make dependent on their experiences and on what goes on around them. Others are categories within sets such as 12 star-signs that might be assigned by time and place of birth or 16 Myers-Briggs types determined by how you answer questions in a personality test. But they all operate as ways in which people define themselves and locate themselves in relation to others.
Identity is a complex concept that relates to a range of social, cultural, psychological and political phenomena.
In the beginning.
When children are born, they already have some aspects of their identity waiting for them. Almost all children are born to parents who are part of communities which are part of societies, nations, cultures, castes, races and, up to now, the global community of earthlings. Waiting to snag these new-borns are expectant parents who have usually had at least seven to eight months of fantasising about the wee person who is going to join them.
Depending on their situation, an expectant Mum may feel heart-warmed about this gift, worry about being burdened by yet another dependent, see the child as contributing to the forward march of a family or dynasty, be terrified that her child will be damaged, lost or a monstrosity, welcome it as something to give new meaning to her life, feel deeply ambivalent about a child that has been forced on her, be excited about this new live doll that she will enjoy dressing up and showing off, be nervous about whether she can rise to the challenge of being a Mum, see the potential child as something that will cement her relationship to the baby’s father, allow her to identify with her own mother and treat the child as a version of herself, feel her body as having been invaded by an alien . . . and many other variations.
The prospective Dad may be excited to be joining the fathers’ club, might resent that a baby is coming along that he did not plan and did not bargain for, might look forward to having a mini-me to train up, may wonder if this interloper will take his partner from him, might be scared about how he will live up to the demands of being a parent, might fantasise about himself as a new patriarch and his child as evidence of his dynastic belonging, might wonder if this newbie will support him when they grow, might await a child to please his partner but be kind of indifferent to the thing itself, might see his future as nailed down and his freedom gone and be uncertain as to whether that is a life he wants, he might feel amazement that his genitals and his sperm are in some way responsible for a new life and be puffed up by the enormity of that and he might consider how it will be for him to identify, positively or negatively, with his own father . . . and many other variations.
Beyond them, there may be interested siblings, anticipatory grandparents, intending aunts, uncles and cousins, family friends and neighbours, some with definite ideas about this child’s identity, others less implicated but nevertheless having effects.
The child’s family will have stories about their heritage – who they think they are, where they are from and what kind of people they consider themselves to be. Mixed in with these will be secrets and lies that are semi-hidden and narcissistic narratives that puff up their version of their history – a bit like the idea that history is written by victors, family mythologies are concocted by survivors. Or sometimes just by those who are most outspoken.
There will be ‘characters’ – the aunt who worked as an actress and hung out with celebrities, the granny who fed the neighbourhood and kept everyone in hysterics, the great-grandfather who built up a business from scratch, the ne-er-do-well who ended up in jail, the great-uncle who committed suicide, the cousin who lost the family farm, the great aunt who emigrated, the uncle who was murdered in a street brawl. Every family has some dirty linen, sometimes its worn, sometimes washed clean, sometimes hidden in the attic, sometimes given away and sometimes embellished with embroidery, bells and whistles so that it is barely recognisable anymore.
Before conception has even taken place a nexus of stories exists into which a child is born.
Before the foetus has even reached the end of the first trimester, family members have begun to imagine the child and its early life.
By the time the child is born it might already have a given name and it will usually have a surname. These symbolic labels will mark the new-born and give them their first location device. Their place in the world will, in the first instance, be their name and the matrix into which that name slots.
Once the baby is born, of course, how it is related to, how it is handled, how communicated with and what stories are told of it and to it will massively impact its sense of identity. That is not a one-way process – the child too will bring its nascent subjectivity to the party and will make its own decisions about what to accept and what to reject, within certain boundaries. There are already industrial quantities of literature published on this formative period of childhood and much exploration continues to be undertaken on an area of life that is hard to research and be sure of. Its an area I will return to in other writing.Beyond the family
The community, society and location you are born into will determine a great deal. There will be limits placed on your identity due to your skin colour, your gender, your ethnic group, whether you are born in urban or rural settings, a desert community, fertile plains or a cold mountainous zone, the histories and politics of your country and how, whether and where wealth is distributed. Religions and cultural arrangements might pin you down or allow you to fly. Attitudes to disability and sexual orientation will have effects.
You may not notice or know about these factors determining your identity but they will have as much of an effect as the family stories. In fact, they will have been instrumental in constructing the family stories.
Akala put this well,
. . . globe-shifting forces, ideas and events well beyond our individual control shape the lives and times of individuals like you and me and consequently determine a certain degree of our experiences, however much we might like to believe we are in control of our lives.1Akala (2018) Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire Paperback edition p. 284 London: Two Roads Books
He is absolutely right to emphasise the degree to which our lives are determined by forces beyond our control. He is also correct to acknowledge that, contradictorily, we like to believe we are in control of our lives.
Our lives would feel unbearable if we didn’t think we had some control over them.2There have been religious ascetics who give themselves up to complete control by a higher deity and who profess a kind of liberation by doing so but their way is not widely accepted. That’s why people flee situations in which they have no freedom or control and its why punishments often take the form of restricting freedom.
Getting to know about the forces that affect our lives is an important step. But we do also have some control both within and beyond the constraints of social existence.
Do you ‘choose’ your identity?
In the beginning you have an identity. Do you grow into it, disown it, embrace it with pride, question it, fail to live up to it, outgrow it, accept it, try to escape it, keep some and throw away the rest, struggle with it or tolerate it?
For many people, the reactions of others will be determining factors. If you are born Black or mixed-race how you are perceived within white privilege societies will impact on your identity. If you are homosexual, your otherness will be constituted for you by hetero-normative culture. If you are born female, you will be told, regularly, what your place (and lack of place) is in sexist society. These are cultural mechanisms by which your identity choices will be circumscribed by the cultural and political history you are born into.
Much of your identity is chosen for you before you arrive. Even if you rebel against your identity the fact that it is your given identity will determine the possible forms of rebellion you can engage in. Where and what you are from will always have its effects – but you also have some agency.
What are the choices?
To accept the cultural landscape you are born into, or to question it.
You may be born into a small-town environment or close-knit community in which things change very slowly and the prevailing social and economic structures have not changed much for a millennium. People know their place and they do not seek to change it. However, you might feel that it is oppressively proscriptive and prescriptive, and you want adventures beyond these narrow local limits. Do you choose to break the mould, or do you fall in with expectations? Some people will have the courage to go against the grain while others will opt for local safety. Some socio-cultural environments make it almost impossible to escape, while others encourage experimentation, so some settings require more courage than others. Some must move away to reinvent themselves while others will fly in the face of convention at home. Some of those will be oblivious to the consternation they cause while others will carry their neighbourhood with them like a latter-day Spartacus or a mellow Mandela and still others will struggle forth with trepidation and the ever-present anxiety that they will be found to be impostors.
To relate to your life with happiness or with misery.
It is a truism of psychological life that happiness and misery are not much related to one’s putative station in life.
Poverty, stress and anxiety make life difficult, but they do not, in and of themselves, make it unhappy. Riches, peace of mind and having few real worries do not, in and of themselves, shield people from misery. This should in no way be taken as some sort of endorsement of inequality. Inequality is bad for everyone – the downtrodden who must suffer from it and the elites who mangle their psyches to uphold it.
People can have depressions that are beyond their capacity to cure – they should seek professional help. There are also some people who have a biological disposition to misery – they too should seek professional help. But for everyone else, the keys to happiness are within us. They are, as the Stoics pointed out, about how we orient ourselves in relation to the world. A sense of humour also helps.
Learn to enjoy the absurdity of the world and people, laugh at yourself - a lot, give of yourself to others and accept what they give you (within reason)3Obviously, this hardly applies when people are under immediate threat..
These strictures won’t prevent you from getting angry, sad, excited or deflated by the exigencies of human existence but they can supply you with a contentment with which to enjoy life and what it flings in your way.
To speak up for yourself or to let others speak for you.
Do you choose to be one of the silent majority but at the same time feel irritated that things are done badly or not in your interests? Have you chosen to go through life suffering like a martyr but not seeking to change things?
Your voice counts just as much as, but no more than, everyone else’s. If you don’t like how things are, find the courage to say so and fight to change them. Even small steps can mean you make a difference, for yourself and for others.
To repeat patterns of behaviour over and over or to seek to change them.
If your relationships come to the same sorry end every time, recognise that it is a pattern that you carry round with you. With that recognition you can either give up relationships, do them differently or accept that they will repeat like this ad infinitum.
If you get annoyed that you are always getting into the same financial mess again and again, see the pattern and do something about it.
Maybe you get some sort of weird satisfaction from repeatedly skating on thin ice? Or maybe you’ve told yourself it is beyond your control – it isn’t.
You need to find out why you have the patterns that you do and then you will know how, or if, you can change them.
To act throughout your whole life as if you have and should have only one identity or to try out multiple identities.
There are many things about your identity that you will not be able to alter. But there are others that you can. And there are some that will alter, by design or by default.
One of the things I find completely fascinating about human beings is their amazing capacity for variability. It is possible for people with much the same biological make up to be
- narrow-minded Taliban sexists who would stone a woman to death for some sort of disobedience to a code that she didn’t agree with and wasn’t in her interests
- the kind of elderly West Indian woman who, despite the racism she has seen, is still capable of the most resolute kindness and community spirit
- a Joseph Goebbels or a Heinrich Himmler who could and did envisage and implement the worst horrors of the holocaust along with all their minions who found themselves able to murder and torture at the same time as imagining they were part of a super-race
- the many people of various ethnicities who, at great risk to themselves, protected Jews and others from the Gestapo and the SS
- rich westerners who have been able to procure the most highly sought educations and yet apply their knowledge to finding innovative ways to steal resources from poor countries and in between times hunt endangered species for fun
- the decent ordinary people who act as Good Samaritans in everyday settings with no prospect of reward or acclaim
The capacity of people to be wildly different should, despite the destructive examples above, fill us with hope. People can be paedophiles or they can be philanthropists, they can be horrors or they can be heroes, they can be Fred and Rosemary West or Mother Teresa and everything else in between. The one upshot of this is that when it comes to identity – there are options.
Some people’s traumatic experiences in early life leave them severely damaged. Mostly, that can be fixed, though it might take a long period of patient care. For the rest of us, there are choices and we should have the scope to experiment and try out different incarnations at different times.
Some rites of passage are precisely about changing identity. Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are formal recognition that a child is becoming a young adult. Something similar happens in many societies. Marriage often signifies a change of identity. But beyond these marked and formalised occasions, there will be many instances in a life when identity gets a nudge. Parenthood, changing jobs, the deaths of relatives and friends, instances of good or bad fortune and changes in cultural or political landscapes can all serve to pull up old anchors and re-orient our worlds and who we think we are in them.
To seek to understand the factors that shape your identity, to accept those you cannot change and consider what you might do with those you can.
How did you come to be the person you are, have the thoughts you have, and feel the things you feel? These are questions that have answers.
It is incumbent on all of us to ask those questions and seek those answers if we want to understand and take some responsibility for our sense of identity.
As noted above, many things have come together to shape you, starting with the myths before your birth to the experiences you had as a child to the choices you have made while growing up and the choices you continue to make now.
Some aspects of your identity are difficult to change and you may have to decide to live with them. But you can choose how you relate to those aspects of yourself.
Other parts of your identity are more up to you.
The ‘serenity prayer’ is worth considering here:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.4Authorship disputed. See article ‘Serenity Prayer Stirs Up Doubt: Who Wrote It?’ by Laurie Goodstein. New York Times 11th July 2008.
Gaining the wisdom to tell the difference is part and parcel of the journey of self-exploration.
To accept that other people’s perception of you is just that – their perception – and act accordingly.
It is difficult for most people to hear criticism of themselves. And it probably should be. Your sense of self and your identity are often what holds you together as a functioning entity. If your sense of self or sense of identity comes under attack it can feel like your whole being is under threat.
This is different from the constructive criticism that we might profitably seek in relation to our work or creativity. We might not like some aspects of that criticism but it is not personal, its not about us (though it can sometimes feel like it – or like our baby is threatened).
I am talking about someone viewing you, for no apparent reason, in a way that you don’t see yourself. That can be positive, but it is usually when it is negative that we take note. How others see us can be profoundly unsettling. Especially if we feel that we are being judged unfairly.
Some people will claim that criticism rolls off them and has no effect. You should be wary of anyone who is completely unaffected by outside perceptions as they may be living in a deluded bubble.
However, how do you get the balance right?
Many of us have good antennae and know that criticism from others can be fuelled by envy, hurt, guilt, shame, disappointment and other problematic emotions. In those instances, trying to get to the bottom of things is a good course of action. Sometimes we are criticised and we know there is a grain of truth in the charges laid against us. In those instances, maybe we need to do a bit of soul searching.
But the bottom line is that personal criticism, criticism of who you are or feel yourself to be, from someone else, often says more about them than it does about you. Ultimately it is not something you need to worry about but it is something they need to own and process.
Many relationships breakdown when people who thought they knew each other discover some aspect of the other that they hadn’t previously noticed. If the relationship is based on a fantasy of who a person is and then incontrovertible evidence makes it clear that they are not the fantasy person you thought they were, that can be devastating.5Most relationships involve some degree of fantasy and love relationships often involve a lot. Sometimes it is impossible to claw the relationship back after that revelation although with forgiveness, love, communication and patience it can be managed.
To know that playing around with identity can be fun and liberating and that while, ethically, you should never do that to hurt other people, it can be a way to explore aspects of yourself.
Identity is something that we can play around with and doing so can be both fun and revealing. Adolescence is a time when childhood identities are forced to change and self-consciousness means that we think more about who we are, who we might become and what options are open to us. It is a time when we are encouraged to step away from our childish ways of being. It can often be a scary time as our childhood stabilisers are pulled away but we are not sure where we are going to land and how we will feel when we get to wherever. But it is also a time for imagination and exploration. And it is the time when young minds can start to see that they might have options beyond their family and community.
On a liberating note, identity is something we can wear and display. It is no accident that young people find new tribes and gangs to identify with in adolescence and playing about with new uniforms, new looks, new ways of speaking and testing newfound freedoms is part of a process of self-construction.
For those who are not over-burdened by the exigencies of life, retaining the playful excitement of adolescence into adult life means scope for imagination to wander and freedom to enjoy being more than just one thing.
Dressing up (and down), stepping into unfamiliar territories, trying different things, walking in others’ shoes, increasing your social circle so that it includes people from a wide range of backgrounds are all ways of expanding your identity repertoire.
How boring would it be if we all just did and said the same stuff over and over again? So, we change, and our identities can change too – although rarely completely.
What’s the upshot of all this?
Identity is neither completely up to us nor completely fixed.
Identity has three main components.
First, some things about us, like our basic biology, are overwhelmingly immutable. It is hard to change our bone structure, our height and our genetic heritage and these will all play a part in our identity. However, our attitudes and those of others to our biology are not pre-determined and have everything to do with how we construe things in human cultures.
Secondly, some things about us are potentially variable but take effort to change. Most of us carry baggage and much of that baggage is unknown to us. Like the fantasies of our parents before we were born, there are stories about us that have had an impact on us. Some of these we will know, some we might suspect, some we would rather not know and much we will never know. But getting to know as much as we can, can liberate us to make informed choices about who we are, who we want to be, what is possible and what is holding us back.
And third, other things about us are open to us to decide upon. How we decide to present ourselves in the world is significantly up to us. However, the decisions we make about who we want to present ourselves as are usually over-determined by what we are building our self-presentation on top of. Our choices are heavily influenced by what has gone before in our lives. We do not start at, say, thirteen, with a blank slate upon which to redesign ourselves. We are an accumulation of steps and we build on what has gone before. Even if we consciously reject much of our past out of hand, it will still play a part in influencing our future.
The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, famously said that
Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.6Aristotle (2000 [Mid 4th Century BCE]) Politics. Revised Edition. Translated by T.A. Sinclair. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics
He probably was only talking about male people but let’s be generous and assume the sentiment can be applied to all human beings. As is often the case with Aristotle there is a lot in here. He is having a go at would-be hermits. But he is also making the point that there is something fundamental about the sociality of human existence and specifically that human beings outside of the social are unthinkable.
A similar point is made by the poet John Donne who stated:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.7Donne, J. (1623) Meditation XVII.
He also was probably only talking about male people but let’s, once again, be generous and assume the sentiment can be applied to all human beings.
We may like to think of ourselves as individuals, and to some extent we are, but we are formed and fashioned by the social milieus in which we live. While we might imagine that our identity is something we carve out for ourselves, we only do that within the constraints of what is thinkable in our social and cultural worlds. Even the most outlandish imaginative ruminations don’t exist in a vacuum.
Both Aristotle and Donne are making claims about what we owe to one another as social beings but that ethical stance, is not something I am particularly focussing on here. Here, I am merely making the claim that we are social and cultural beings from our entrails to our fingertips and we have no means of escaping that, even if we run away to the hills to live by ourselves. The social and cultural worlds are in us and through us and make us. Exploring our social construction, the limits imposed on us and the choices we can make within them and beyond them is how we can have some nuanced understanding of our identities and how we can assert some meaningful control within our lives. Understanding more about where our identities come from can liberate us to choose where we go with them.
1 Akala (2018) Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire Paperback edition p. 284 London: Two Roads Books
2 There have been religious ascetics who give themselves up to complete control by a higher deity and who profess a kind of liberation by doing so but their way is not widely accepted.
3 Obviously, this hardly applies when people are under immediate threat.
4 Authorship disputed. See article ‘Serenity Prayer Stirs Up Doubt: Who Wrote It?’ by Laurie Goodstein. New York Times 11th July 2008.
5 Most relationships involve some degree of fantasy and love relationships often involve a lot.
6 Aristotle (2000 [Mid 4th Century BCE]) Politics. Revised Edition. Translated by T.A. Sinclair. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics
7 Donne, J. (1623) Meditation XVII.