Identity - who are we?

Identity - who are we?

[Back to Human Identity]

There is so much talk these days about identity, arguments about whether people should be able to identify in ways that feel natural to themselves, even when it challenges the norms that the majority of society has evolved to accept. I’m thinking here of gender identity. However, perhaps our reactions, positive, negative or ambivalent are merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of how we are as human beings.

What is our identity? Is how we see ourselves the same as how others see us? Or something else? Does identity have any meaning out side of relationship? Identity is certainly a major way in which we describe belonging to a community; to be part of one we need to see our identity reflected back by others. We need to feel part of the social order rather than excluded from it.

Is identity synonymous with how we present ourselves, how we are identified by others? If so then we could postulate that our identity is in a constant state of flux, depending on who we are with and all sorts of extraneous factors that could affect how we are perceived and how we perceive ourselves. Or is there a ‘core identity’ that is immutable and perhaps hidden by a glass darkly, something beyond even our own capability to assimilate and understand? 

Advertising agencies build identity profiles of their target audiences, using various techniques to try and ensure the maximum return on investment, which clearly shows a form of categorisation into 'identity types'. Various personality tools have been developed over the years, such as the well known Myers Briggs Type Indicator, all seeking to pin down which category people fit into, albeit with well publicised questions regarding their usefulness or accuracy.

I think it is beyond reasonable doubt that who we are is shaped, perhaps dominated by our genetic inheritance, our experience of life, the people, events and circumstances we have encountered along the way. How we see ourselves is perhaps only meaningful in the context of how we think other people identify us, and conversely how we identify others. A sort of categorisation which helps us to make sense of the world and our interactions with others. This is also subject to subjugation by circumstance; if our home is burning down we listen to the firefighter not our best friend, we don’t care about any other aspects of their identity only their special skill.

I’m sure I’m not alone in realising that we consciously and unconsciously decide how to present ourselves depending on who we are with. We don’t launch into a big discussion on philosophy with a person in the checkout queue in the supermarket, but we might with a friend over a glass of wine. We often find ourselves performing to the audience, hoping to leave a good impression. Of course we all know that communication is not just about outputs, but largely inputs, listening is crucial. However do we make more of an effort to listen if the person(s) we are with are more important to us?

Should we be concerned about how others see and perceive us? If we are seeking to effect and model changes in attitude and mindset, I suggest that how we are perceived is of vital importance, and so we have to make sure we tailor how we present and what we say in order to attempt resonance with those we are communicating with; understanding how that person categorises themselves is perhaps vitally important.

How we are perceived by others has a very large influence on how what we say and do is received; we all bring baggage into our interactions with others.

So should we seek to present ourselves in ways that makes us more appreciated and heard, or should we be completely honest (even if that’s only about the things that we can verbalise, for example our sexuality, skills, interests as examples) and just be ourselves and leave other peoples’ reactions to them?

Our answers to these questions have huge implications.

In extremis a religious believer, to whom faith and belief is a central part of how they may identify/describe themselves, honesty could result in persecution and even death in a community hostile to that religion, or an LGBTQ person who is honest in a harsh fundamentalist community would also likely pay a high price.

So does pragmatism require us to be dishonest or at least discreet?

Of course this isn’t just about ourselves and how we choose to protect ourselves.

Many times, if we consider ourselves to be a decent human being and we hope our identity is rooted in a care for others, compassion and a sense of justice, being true to that will, and perhaps should, cause us to be at risk of at best ridicule, or at worst serious physical harm if we seek to come to the defence of others.

So who are we? The person we think we are, or the person that others see us as? Or maybe we are different things to different people (including ourselves), because we are perceived differently by different people depending on their world views.

Those who subscribe to a theist faith may believe we are something beyond our own experience, made in the image of God for Abrahamic religions. But in many ways this is a sidestep because few believers can agree on what God is like except in vague terms (e.g. omniscient, all seeing, all knowing) – and humans are certainly not any of those things. Many would fall back on the similarity being consciousness, some may say our identity is founded around free will, and in that way we are in the image of God. Yet even that is open to foundational challenge by our modern understanding of how brains operate and human psychology.

There is also the very dangerous contention that how we perceive others, and how that perception can be manipulated into tribalism and fear/hate/resentment of whole groups of people whom are identified as belonging to different tribe/caste/race/political party/social class, which if allowed to persist can do tremendous harm not just to those who end up being the persecuted, but also I think to the nature of humanity itself. As a friend observed when she kindly read this short essay “The similarity between both nationalism and populism is the need to divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’. In populism the person is either the ‘elite’ or ‘every man’ and in nationalism the person is either a ‘citizen’ or the ‘outsider’. Each is imbued with certain qualities like threat and hate or safety and like-mindedness. Does this speak to how our identity only appears relative to an (imagined or real) other?”.

It is interesting, for example, how easy the victors found it to punish those found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity after WW2, yet the much longer, and hugely damaging crimes against enslaved African people in the USA resulted in no bringing to justice of those guilty of them. Even after slavery was abolished, people still got away with lynchings and other appalling treatment of those they considered lesser creatures. Indeed the compensation was paid to slave owners rather than the slaves themselves.

So what is it about human beings that means it is so easy for unscrupulous people to manipulate whole populations into treating others so appallingly based on caricatures of identity, which we can probably, if we are honest, see in ourselves, even when we try not to. Whether that’s based on a person’s appearance, their politics, the way they speak or anything else.

Identity, and who we are, has some physical features (colour of the skin being an obvious example, but how we speak, how we dress are others). Some we are born with some we have learnt.

So I don’t think identity is the key moral and ethical issue here, it is how we treat other people irrespective of the way they appear to us (which as I’ve already suggested, is both how we perceive them and how they are seeking to present). Do we treat a black person differently because they are black, do we treat people differently based on their sexual or gender identity? Do we respond to an aggressive looking shaved headed teenager differently to a mild mannered youth you meet in the fish & chip shop? Clearly the answer is yes we do, it is probably impossible not to. But should we also try to see through the subconscious and conscious perception barriers?

I think we can change how we behave by exposing ourselves to different ideas and thinking, being willing to become more self aware, and conscious of how others are perceiving us and how our perceptions of them, whether true or not, could be affecting them. Our background and life experience will certainly influence how we leap to judgment, but we can consciously challenge that in ourselves.

So I’d rather focus on how we behave when we are challenged by how others identify. Why people may adopt a particular identity can and should be discussed in order to further understanding, both scientific and social, but using it as a reason to segregate, treat differently or at worst persecute can never be right. And challenging the legitimacy of how a person chooses to identify is always counter productive. Seek understanding rather than judgement.

It may be that the way we use identity now has become highly individualistic, the categorisations can be claimed or assigned in ways that share little in terms of wider social shared understanding, but are embraced by those who share significant emotional resonance. The loyalty to a particular understanding (or the perceived threat by others of that understanding) can have the very real capability to generate hostility and hold back a wider social understanding. It is important not to confuse disagreement for disloyalty.

As a friend who kindly reviewed this document for me put it, “Gender is a major issue not because civil principles are unclear but because the core thinking, the complex amalgam of science, medicine, social contract, moral philosophy, personal choice and so on is nowhere near mature. We are not really clear about the extent to which personal choice can be defining at anything much deeper than a stylistic level. It has some level of aesthetic sense but it is going to take a lot more work and mutual honesty before it becomes a moral definition any higher than baby-morals (don't be nasty to others because they are different). Unfortunately the political and legal pressures are combining to shut down the very conversation we need to be having”.

I absolutely agree we need to be having the conversation, but would probably not go as far as him in suggesting “My guess is that we are fifty years too early in our politicisation of the issue”, as I don’t think we can choose when politicisation happens, nor do I think we should tolerate laws that make people’s lives worse for no reason. The law surely needs to reflect the Golden Rule; there can be no justification for inflicting legal constraints on people when there is no adverse harm inflicted by not doing so. I’m not sure anything we could learn could improve ‘moral definitions’ or even mature our understanding. Yes, the understanding needs to be socialised, but I am reminded that there were many similar objections to the various stages in the legalisation of gay relationships; people saying we are unsure whether you are born gay, choose being gay or have been made gay. Is our understanding any different now? Has the change in the law had any adverse affects? There are clear moral questions around things such as gender reassignment for those below the age of consent, particularly irreversible interventions, but no different than the serious questions raised by horrific genital mutilation of both girls and boys in various religious faiths and cultures around the world, when parents are seeking to impose their identity on their children. However when interventions are sensitively and carefully managed by caring and compassionate people, much anguish can be avoided. Denying any intervention at all when a person is clearly needing help is far more of an ethical affront than assisting with appropriate reversible means supported by the law and the various health services.

However, the morality of law is a different big discussion, perhaps for another time.

It seems to me that often times the issue comes to the fore when people seek changes in the law in order to legally recognise identity paradigms. Gender identity is a clear modern example, but the same social conflict was there when people rightly tried to get equality for women, black people, gay people. The politics of identity is central to how we should approach so many (perhaps all) areas of public policy including immigration or whether and how we approach armed conflict.

So much of our society is structured around identity (political parties being a good example), that seeking to find collaborative and sustainable fair ways forward in so many arenas is hamstrung from the beginning.

Historical legacy is also hugely important in understanding how we have arrived at this point. Law is based around heteronormative ideas; racial subjugation is baked into our understanding of gender. So much was imposed on other cultures through colonisation, e.g. the relationship between men and women, heterosexuality, the ‘family unit’. There are many examples where prior to colonisation understandings and practices were very different.

Recognising our own limitations (which is also part of our identity!) as well as the limitations of others would be a good starting point. Embracing the generic traits of human beings before isolating specific differences would make a huge difference.

So the socialists could admit that human nature means that socialism has an inherent flaw – when people get power they often cease to be as concerned for the common good. Those who believe that capitalism is the answer could also recognise the same trait, that power often brings greed and selfishness and that for every winner, there has to be a loser. Pure ideology is nearly always self corrupting.

Recognising and embracing identity difference could and should be our biggest defence against fundamentalism and conflict.

Mark Collins
28th February 2024

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  • As I've been mulling this over, I've realised that identity is at the root of all the angst regarding immigration. It isn't really jobs or cost that people really feel threatened by, it is their identity. People who are different in terms of language, culture, attitude and way of life are perceived as a threat to our own identity both as a nation and individually. This is a hard feeling to rationalise or challenge, it is so deeply bedded into who we are. Perhaps understanding this could help frame a more effective response - possibly people need reassurance rather than rational arguments?  Encourage empathy. Facts, figures and statistics are unlikely to change minds.

    Rather like the Christian father who opposes the liberation of gay rights suddenly discovering his son is gay.  There are two choices - reject the son or reject the dogmatic beliefs.  An empathetic response will always choose the son over beliefs surely?  If we can persuade people to see 'immigrants' as real people, far more similar to them than different, perhaps the political landscape would change.

  • Thank you Mark for such a thoughtful post. As I began to read, the first thoughts about my own identity were: white, British, middle class. Oh and male. None of these markers of identity made me proud, indeed rather the reverse: a sense of guilt and shame at the advantages these markers have given me in life. Acknowledging my identity has helped me realise that I cannot expect to *fully* understand those whose identity differs from mine. I find this humbling, yet also exciting because it makes me yearn to understand better the rich life experiences of others.

    As a theist (another identity marker!), I am convinced that *all* human beings are made in the image of God and interacting with others should thus increase my knowledge of God.

    One more thought about identity: I enjoyed two films this week.  One was about Bob Marley, the other was Ken Loach's recent film ,"The Old Oak". Both films touched on differences between groups of human beings according to their perceived identity. In one, differences were addressed via music, in the other, partly by eating together. Perhaps both activities allow a way into finding a joint identity as human, which acknowledges yet subsumes the specific identity markers we carry as individuals?


    • I am sure shared activity and experience is a hugely important mechanism to enable us to be at ease with people who are different to ourselves. It's hard to be focussing on difference when you're emerged in wonderful music or a enjoying a splendid meal together!

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