I’ve been thinking about “identity” a lot of late. In fact, in preparation for writing my thoughts up I did some reading about the various theories about identity and let me tell you, that stuff is impenetrable. I don’t recommend it. John Locke, you my friend are one baffling fellow. More on the philosophy of identity later.
I’ve arrived at the realisation that our modern way of thinking about “identity” is startlingly new and almost certainly wrong. Well… if not wrong, then definitely somewhat misguided.
Let me have a go at articulating the way we think about identity in the modern world. We think about the concept of identity as though it’s a fundamental category for personhood, something at the core of what it is to be human. It’s something that comes predominately from our internal life: thoughts and feelings. It’s what you choose to define yourself as on the basis of introspection; you answer the big questions of “who am I?” “what makes me a person, specifically, this person?” by considering what emerges from within. Identity is completely regulated by the individual, and it is the over-arching feature of what makes one a person.
Like I said, this is actually quite a new idea that has spread very quickly.
In fact, the sheer quantity of how much we use the word Identity has gone up astronomically since the 60s. Check out the graph below which shows the increase of how often that word is used in publications over the last two centuries (nabbed from my mate Nathan Campbell who got it from Google Ngram).
So you have to ask the question why? Why this modern fixation?
Well, I think there’s some heavy research worth doing in that area. For now, let me make some educated guesses.
I have to imagine that all the modern developments in technology and such have opened up the space in which this concept has been able to propagate. Each new generation has found themselves with more time and resources than the last, generally speaking. This is, of course, thanks to more economic systems in the workplace and in our personal lives that allow us to be masters of our time with ever increasing control. What once took a face to face meeting can now be dealt with through a direct message.
The younger the generation, the more accustomed one is to extremely economic processes. We’re not lazy, but we’re not used to things taking a lot of time either. One outworking of this is that we’ve become used to a greater amount of leisure time, with an ever-enlarging selection of things to do in that time.
Another consequence of these advances in technology (visual communication, online connection etc.) is that different stories from a wide array of people are a part of our consciousness to a greater extent than ever before. We have a dizzying collection of categories for people and sub-cultures and it’s become important to understand and know how to relate to each one from your defined position. It’s a barrage of contrast and points of personal comparison.
On top of this, people are following less and less of a prescribed approach to relationships. Basically, people are getting married later, are having more romantic relationships across their lives, and are spending more time single.
So even just considering these three things – more time to ourselves, more time unmarried, more access to narrative content – it’s unsurprising that we’ve come to look to our individuality for a sense of self.
Where we used to depend on work and a more prescribed direction in life (including marriage) to find what we call “identity”, we now look to our minds. Since we spend more time on our own, outside of our familial and work environment, we ruminate over who we are when we’re sitting doing nothing in our room, slowly reinforcing our sense of self through growing and refining our Spotify playlist.
Instead of asking questions of “who am I?” or “who will I be?” as a worker, spouse and parent, we’re learning to first ask “who am I?” as someone who dresses a certain way, watches a certain show, listens to a certain music, speaks a certain way, thinks about a certain set of things. We live in a world where branding is of peak importance and that has seeped into our identity-formation to a degree unprecedented in former generations.
As you can guess from the title of this post, I see some problems with this.