The Identity Lie Pt. II

(In part 1 I attempted to describe our modern way of thinking about identity)


Here’s the problem with our modern concept of identity – it shuts us off from one another, it gives fuel to division and it causes us to be inflexible to the detriment of others. Make sense? You with me? No? Okay, let’s keep going.

As I was saying in part one, we have come to have a massive emphasis on identity being formed from the inside out, we get to decide on what defines us. One natural consequence of this is that we’ve come to underemphasise how our identity is formed by external things e.g. nobody has the right to tell me who I am.

Now, before you get the wrong impression, I want to say that I don’t think it’s either-or when it comes to identity formation. It’s not that it’s only internally produced or only externally shaped, I think it’s clearly both. I just want to point out which way the scales fall.

We’ve come to so emphasise a sense of identity that is self-driven that we’re often quite blind to how external forces pull and tug on who we are.

I think we find here something of a dichotomy. It’s a dichotomy because our fixation on forming our identity internally is precisely because of the external voice of culture. We’re persuaded from every angle, in every new release on Netflix to find who we are in ourselves and to have nothing to do with people who can’t accept that. What a funny contradiction, don’t you think? Nobody can tell me who I am (except for everything in our culture that states exactly how I should figure that out).

This must be the most bamboozling (I may be a serious writer, but I’m not above that word) blind side we’re committed to ignoring right now in the western world.

Surely this, like so much else, has to do in part with making money. It’s effective marketing to sell, not just a thing, but a brand and certain idea of personhood: a healthy person, a successful person, an environmentally conscious person, a stylish person etc. Part of the package that’s being sold to you is the possibility of being someone “worth being”. I think it’s clear that we must be cautious and critical when it comes to this external force.

Our blindness to the most significant external forces that form the way we think about identity has, ironically, meant we’ve bitten off whole the idea that an individual, self-regulated, expressive way of thinking about identity is the only way to go.

So why is this such a problem? Well, our lack of awareness over how much we financially enable the capitalist world to take advantage of our desire for a sense of self is one problem.

Another is exactly what I said at the top of this post – it shuts us off from each other and causes division. As we’ve prioritised self-creation we’ve made identity into an unassailable fortress: above all criticism and beyond negotiation. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If a person is only who they define themselves to be then of course, the stakes are high when we talk about identity. Too high for us to ever concede ground on how we want to think about ourselves.

I’ll get to some examples of this problem in part three.

Before then, I want to propose something of a way forward. I’m not saying I have the perfect philosophical, psychological, sociological and theological corrections to our current predicament surrounding identity. But I do have some thoughts that I think are worth your time.

I was listening to The Psychology Podcast a month or two ago. The guest in this particular episode was James Clear, talking about how to build good habits and break bad ones. Towards the end of the episode he talks about the link between identity and creating good habits. For example, if you start to think about yourself as the kind of person who religiously goes to the gym four times a week, you’re more likely to consistently go to the gym four times a week.

This concept of identity is really more akin to a psychological tool, rather than the essentialist “be who you are above all else” brand of identity. It’s a tool that helps you motivate yourself to do the kinds of things you think are worth doing.

So that’s the first thing; identity, as a concept, can be used as more of a psychological driving method, rather than a roots down, concretised thing from which every other part of our personhood is built.

Secondly, I want to discuss two terms that are important in identity philosophy; ontology and phenomenology. Ontology is all about the essence of something; it’s a field in which people consider questions surrounding being and existence. Phenomenology is probably a little easier to make some guesses about – it has to do with experience and what goes on in our consciousness. I think we have too much ontology in our way of thinking about identity and not enough phenomenology.

For example, and to pick up on a theme of Transparent, when I refer to myself as gay I’m not saying that that is an essential part of my humanity and I wouldn’t be me without it. I wouldn’t cease to exist if I weren’t gay. To say otherwise would be to make the term “gay” into a completely ontological term. What is an ontological term is sexuality. All human beings are sexual in design and so saying I have a sexual dimension to myself is an accurate ontological statement. To say “I’m gay” is a phenomenological statement – it is a description of the experience of my sexuality.

To merge these last two thoughts, my guess is it’s more productive to use the idea of identity, in the modern sense, as a tool to describe our individual experience of our personhood or our humanity. We all share the same basic building blocks of personhood (sex, intellect, emotions, desire etc.), our experience of those things is not the foundation of our humanity.

(Part III coming soon)

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