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THE QUESTION OF IDENTITY
This essay was inspired by a conversation in English with
a German-speaking Swiss banker at an international conference
in the French-speaking Swiss city of Geneva.
The question of identity has troubled humans throughout the 200,000 history of humankind. Just who are we and what makes us different from other humans and how important are those differences?
In evolutionary terms, for most of human history, identity has been a relatively simple matter. But, since the age of civilisations emerged some 5,000 years ago, it has become more and more complicated.
So the issue of identity has become more complicated and more fluid. And, yet at the same time, in many respects we have become more alike: we enjoy each other's foods, we dress more similarly, we listen to similar music, we watch similar films, we all use Microsoft or Apple devices, we all use Google and Facebook, more and more of us speak English, we travel more, so there are powerful forces at work tending to make us the same or at least similar. The globalisation of trade, the pervasiveness of food outlets like McDonalds and KFC, the ubiquity of brands like Adidas and Coca Cola, the cultural impact of American cinema and music, the trend to English as a global language, the power of the Internet - all these things mean that people around the world now have so much in common. So, in a sense, we are now one big global family.
- Humans lived in small groups and interacted with relatively few other humans. Until as recently a couple of hundred years ago, most people lived, worked, and died in the village or town where they were born and made only few and short visits outside of their community. They knew very little about what happened in other communities: there was no printing press and, when there was, for a long time most people could not read. Now, of course, many people travel for work, education or leisure and most people have access to radio, television and the the Internet. Having said this, many citizens of countries like China, India, Russia and even the United States have never visited another country and view other countries through the lens of controlled media.
- A powerful badge of identity is one's role or occupation in the community. At first, effectively there were only a handful of roles: hunter, gatherer, child-rearer. For many centuries, roles were still relatively well-defined: agricultural worker, factory worker, office worker. Even the professions were limited: soldier, doctor, lawyer, teacher. And people generally carried out the same role for their working life. Now we have a multiplicity of occupations and many people have several different roles in their working life. In the past, most women were effectively confined to the roles of housekeeper and child-rearer, but now in most societies occupations are open to both genders. What it means to be a man or a woman has changed profoundly - as it should - and this has undermined some men's image of themselves.
- Identity tended to be fixed. There was always some social mobility but, for most of human history, if you were born poor or rich you tended to die poor or rich. Historically many societies have had very rigid systems for defining a person's role or identity: think of the feudal system in medieval Europe or the cast system in India or the mandarin class in China. Now, thanks to birth control, education, the changing nature of work and improving living standards, there is more opportunity for more people to refine who they are.
- For much of human history, identity has tended to be defined for us. We knew how men and women were supposed to behave and see themselves and ostracised those who broke the norms. Nazi Germany decided who was Jewish. Apartheid South Africa defined who was white, who was black, who was coloured. We are now living in an age when people increasingly want to define their own identity: many people want to self-identify in terms of race or ethnicity, some wish to describe their sexual orientation in non-binary terms, some want to transition from one gender to another, some who have what others would call a disability do not want to be classed as disabled.
On the other hand, people want to be different and to make clear their differences. So we see more emphasis on nationalism and regionalism - whether it is Scotland in the UK, Catalonia in Spain, or Lombardy in Italy - and religion is used as a 'badge' of distinctiveness - whether it is fundamentalist Christians in the USA, Muslims in Europe, Jews in the Middle East or Sikhs in India. We can see resistance to globalisation (protests against IMF meetings) and multinational companies (anti Wal-Mart campaigns) and a revival of interest in local languages and local cultural traditions. Politically we have witnessed the break-up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and pressure for more devolution in many nation states. Every country on earth has its minorities who want fair treatment and proper recognition and a share of power. At the individual level, people want to define their own version of race or gender or disability.
In the midst of such confusion over identity, we have seen some leaders seek to exploit this sense of bewilderment. There are two major reasons for this. First, national politicians find it increasingly difficult to appeal to voters with convincing policies of what they will do to solve the problems facing these voters. This is because the major problems of our time - climate change, immigration, terrorism, pandemics, recession - are global, not national. Second, voters no longer think of themselves in primarily class terms and no longer vote mainly on class lines. So, if political parties struggle to offer credible solutions, what do they do? They blame identifiable groups: immigrants, refugees, ethnic minorities, foreigners, and of course the worldwide Jewish conspiracy. And if politicians can no longer mobilise and attract voters by appealing to class, to what can they appeal? Colour, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation - any form of identity which brands 'the other'.
So, one worldwide trend has been political populism as politicians have eulogised about a time when the country was in some way 'purer': examples include the anti-immigrant sentiments of the Brexiters in the UK or Donald Trump in the US or Viktor Orban in Hungary or the hostile attitudes towards Muslim minorities by Narendra Modi in India, Xi Jinping in China or the military dictatorship in Myanmar. Another worldwide trend is the rise of religious fundamentalism: examples include the attempt to brand the USA as a Christian country, the strength of Hindu nationalism in India, the temporary success of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the continued power of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Such political populism and religious fundamentalism offer disenchanted groups a clearer sense of an identity, but at a cost - sometimes of life itself - to groups who do not share or want that type of identity.
So, how do we reconcile these forces which seem so opposite? I would suggest that the answer lies in five fundamental principles.
- We need to recognise that everyone has multiple identities [see footnote] and which identity comes to the fore at any particular time depends on the timing and the circumstances but does not deny the existence and validity of the other identities. So one can be French and a Muslim. One can be British and European. One can be black and a Conservative. One can be gay and a policeman. One can be a Manchester United supporter and a fan of the Jamaican cricket team.
- We need to recognise differentiation does not have to mean stratification. Some people have black hair and some have brown hair Some people are right-handed and some are left-handed. Neither way of differentiating people involves a value judgment and we would rightly abhor any discrimination on the basis of such human attributes. Equally we should not stratify people as inherently superior or inferior because of gender, race, sexual orientation or many other features by which people can be identified.
- We need to have tolerance of, and respect for, the identities of others. America may be the most powerful nation on earth but it doesn't make the actions of its government necessarily right. British does not mean best. People should be allowed to live peacefully in our communities even if they have a different colour, or dress differently, or speak a different language, or worship a different God, or have a different sexual orientation.
- We should go beyond tolerance of difference to a positive valuation of diversity. People of different ethnic backgrounds or lived experience can bring new talents to a team or fresh ways of addressing a problem. This is even true of people who are autistic or have Asperger's. More and more organisations are recognising that diversity can be a strength. At a personal level, having friends with different backgrounds can be very enriching.
- There can be no tolerance for intolerance. Those who deny equal rights to education, work or citizenship because of a person's ethnicity or beliefs; those who try to deny freedom of speech because they don't like some of things that others are saying about their religion; those who deny access to birth control advice or abortion services because they themselves do not support such facilities; those who seek to threaten the values and security of free societies through terrorism or subversion - all these people have to be opposed.
Footnote: To illustrate the idea of having multiple identities, consider how you would answer these questions.
- If someone asked you where you were from, would you say where you were born, where you were raised, or where you live now? Would you name the town or village, the region or state, or the country? Would it matter who asked you the question and whether you were in your home country or abroad?
- If you were starting a degree at a college or university, which student societies would you join? One that reflected your religion, your politics, your favourite sport, your hobby or your pastime?
- If you were on holiday in another country and travelling with a mixed group or staying at a hotel with mixed guests, with whom would you be most likely to make friends? Someone who shared your nationality, your religion, your politics, your occupation, or your cultural interests?
- If the four-yearly football tournament of the World Cup was on television, which team would you support? When that team was knocked out, which team would you then support?
- If you are reading a novel or watching a film or playing a computer game, with which type of character are you most likely to identify. Someone of the same gender, age, ethnicity, or nationality?
Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation click here
International Boundaries Research Unit click here
Last modified on 30 July 2021
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