Whereas the narrative of American liberals once tried to convince us that one’s identity, particularly in regards to race, is not very important, that narrative has since been abandoned as minority populations increase in numbers and presence. Currently, the liberal narrative sees Caucasians as agents of the Devil, as if white liberals should be going out of their way to admit the faults of their ancestors in hopes that some admission of institutionalized wrong-doing will allow them to avoid being lynched themselves when Caucasians finally become a minority in the United States. Moreover, social media in America is currently abuzz with sexual politics calling for freedom for the female nipple and to repeal slut shaming. Social media among Millennials is humming with the need to acknowledge cultural appropriation and a demand that Columbus Day be repealed. And everyone, regardless of whether their candidates are actually for changing the status quo, Democrats and Republicans both blindly vote along party lines. In short, America is awash in identity politics. But a sense of identity cuts across all cultures and in part, an identity is in fact how anyone would know that they do belong to a culture.
Why is identity so important? Why does anyone struggle to “find themselves”? It has long been assumed that a personal identity is a close to an inherent right as one can get, but is it possible that the need for an identity isn’t as important as it is made out to be? Is group identity more important? Is it possible we have been sold on a social construct that doesn’t exist in reality, but instead serves as a wedge between individual people and groups?
Let’s try to answer the first two questions: The answer as to why identity is so important varies from source to source. As we grow from infancy, we begin to form an identity, setting ourselves apart from the world around us. The formulation of an identity is born out of the human tendency to compartmentalize information in hopes of understanding the world. It allows us to set ourselves apart from other objects in the world and allows us to compare ourselves against those objects. An identity also helps us to know our likes and dislikes and detects who is going to be like us, physically and culturally speaking, so that we may form groups in the interest of self-preservation and procreation – whereas the inclusion in a group potentially gives one access to safety in numbers and resources. To have such an identity enables self-esteem and feelings of superiority over another person or group; in this way we use identity for social comparisons and may be used as a yardstick for success (which is itself a social construct). Crucially, an identity will largely dictate how we behave towards others and the world around us.
Being aware that having an identity will strongly influence how we behave may make us aware to the shortcomings of possessing an identity (or at least diminish its importance to ourselves). For instance, Governments rely on identities to know who to keep accountable for crimes or who to oppress. Capitalism relies on people having a sense of identity so that companies know who to market their products and services to. Individuals often employ the No True Scotsman logical fallacy in order to cast group members an individual doesn’t like in an unfavorable light. (For example, a Republican Christian stating that a true Christian would never register as or vote for a Democrat.) As mentioned before and I will mention again because it’s important, identities serve as a wedge between people which leaders are all too willing to capitalize on when they want to declare war on another country or worse, attempt the genocide of another group of people.
With the current liberal narrative in the U.S. contemplating identities as a way of knowing when we are wronged – assuming you are non-white – other Western narratives are attempting to dispense with identity nearly altogether, presumably to make up for the long, long history of crimes by white people, even against themselves. One example is taking place in Sweden where a boy or girl is now being referred to as a ‘hen,’ a gender neutral term meant to help children grow up free from the impact of being identified with a particular gender. While there is an obvious downside for one gender in patriarchal cultures (which most Western nations practice), is there any downside to abandoning identities such as the Swedes are attempting? It is inviting to contemplate a Slippery Slope argument here as one wonders what will follow from the abandonment of gender identities as it is clear there are differences between males and females. Will one’s family identity fall next? Will their national identity and their European identity follow suit until all they’re left with is to identify themselves as human beings? Might even that succumb to the notion that human beings are not a distinct entity from the animal kingdom or the universe itself? At what point will the Swedes decide it is okay to have an identity or will they decide identities are largely a bad thing? This seems to be the direction many progressively Left countries are headed.*
[* There is currently an effort to rebrand progressive liberals as ‘regressive leftists’ by moderate liberals who recognize that going to extremes usually ends in the oppression of someone. Again, identities help us identify threats or dangerous ideas.]
Here we may ask our third question; are identities actually as important as they’ve been made out to be? While we have an idea as to why we form identities, perhaps the Swedes have recognized that there seems to be a lot of harm that comes from having them. Should we abandon our identities within a family, a nation, or even as human beings? We might hypothesize that if human beings stopped regarding themselves as entities distinct from the world around themselves, the world wouldn’t be quite the ecological disaster it is. If we recognized that our interactions with other people had far reaching implications for better or worse, it is possible we might behave in a manner that would have ‘better’ implications. Unfortunately, most identities do not include such vision among their qualities or practices. Case in point, the #blacklivesmatter movement which seeks to end ‘white privilege’ may allow for the eventual equal treatment of blacks, but there is no indication that once equality is achieved black people are going to abandon their collective identity. So, there will always be a division, a division that will always allow for potential negative effects (usually negative effects).
It appears we may have been sold a bill of false goods as far as identities are concerned. The desire or need for identities make little sense from an evolutionary standpoint. This is to say that while identities may help forge bonds which allow for safety in numbers and access to resources such as food and shelter, identities actually work against human beings when it comes to the most important resource of all, mates. We’ve known for some time that restricting a gene pool to lesser and lesser variety results in mutation (this is presumably why it is not safe to mate with a close family relative, even a first cousin). In this way, having an identity works against the human race by limiting the people we might otherwise mate with; gene variety is the key to surviving a disease that might otherwise wipe out the entire species. It is another presumption that this may be why some of us are tantalized by foreigners as these ‘outsiders’ would provide offspring with a ‘superior’ set of genes. (As Richard Dawkins said, our genes use us, not the other way around.) It appears as though having an identity may have individual short term advantages, but for the human race as a whole, identities seem to be detrimental. Imagine the disconnect when one’s identity is threatened or attacked and this causes people extreme stress or depression, for what if they learn they are not who they thought they were? Is even this remote possibility worth the price of investing in an identity?
Before writing this blog entry, I counted all the things that were characteristic of my identity. Without even trying, I racked up more than 40 characteristics. What does this mean? I may be a teacher on one hand but I am a musician on the other. Or, I am all these things at once? Again, identities allow for the compartmentalization of information so that it is understandable, or in this case, identifiable. But we all know – if we allow for a few moments of reflection – that the truth is far more complicated than a person either being black or white, so why do so many people reduce identities to such common denominators? Because it is easy and most human minds do not like investing the energy to think about it. (This is not a slight but simply the way the human brain works; use as little energy as possible to understand what is going on. Unfortunately, the result is little understanding of an entire situation.)
I would argue that the need to ‘find oneself’ or wrap oneself up entirely within an unshakable identity is the hallmark of a weak mind and follower. Few leaders are elected on the strength of their group inclusion alone (if they are, it's simply because there are more people in a particular voting block). President Obama would not have been elected if he only appealed to blacks or only appealed to Democrats. Great leaders have other qualities besides their basic identity that allows them to lead and it is these qualities that should be remarked upon as the make for the entirety of an identity, something that is going to vary greatly from person to person. Lacking a diversity of characteristics means one is a caricature. So we should either give the totality of identities their due or give little weight to such concepts, for now we know that superficial identities are not the whole picture. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Today you are you. That is truer than true. There is no one alive who is you-er than you.” I judge people on their individual merits, not on the color of their skin.*
[* To which some minorities will remark that such a comment is a distinctly ‘white’ thing to say.]