I have explained in previous essays that humankind (because of our consciousness) has unique needs not shared, as far as we know, by other animals. These unique needs are our spiritual needs which compel us to strive to have a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. Elsewhere I have written that humans are meaning makers and purpose seekers and such activities underpin our sense of self and our place in the world.
Competent human beings have always had a robust sense of self. It is fair to say that a robust sense of self underpins our ability to objectively make our way through life with well-understood beliefs that enable us to engage the world, whatever our circumstances, with consistency of purpose and a certainty of identity.
Frank Furedi points out that whilst through most of history:
,,,,,,,identity conveyed the notion of sameness and continuity, in recent decades it has become associated with the imperative of differentiation.
Thus in modern times the quest for sameness and continuity have fallen by the wayside and, more and more, identity has been conscripted to the cause of differentiation.
Traditionally, individuality was something that a person earned through work and vocation. But in the 1960’s and 1970’s individuality acquired a different focus. This change was highlighted by the American social critic, Christopher Latsch. He pointed out that identity had been decoupled from work and achievement as people began to aspire to celebrityhood regardless of achievement. A psychological movement glorifying the self and asserting everyone’s right to specialness underpinned this change.
Erik Erikson was a psychologist famous for his writings on human development. He outlined what he considered the eight stages of human psychosocial development, viz.
- Trust vs Mistrust
- Autonomy vs Shame
- Initiative vs Guilt
- Industry vs Inferiority
- Identity vs Role Confusion
- Intimacy vs Isolation
- Generativity vs Stagnation
- Ego Integrity vs Despair
According to Erikson the fifth stage of development (Identity vs Role Confusion) typically occurs in adolescence from age between 12 to 18 years. Erikson wrote:
The adolescent mind is essentially a mind or moratorium, a psychosocial stage between childhood and adulthood, and between the morality learned by the child and the ethics to be developed by the adult.
At this stage in their lives children are becoming more independent and begin to look at the future in terms of careers, relationships and so on. The individual at this point is usually driven to want to belong to society and to “fit in”.
Erikson wrote at length of a “normative identity crisis” that adolescents faced and needed to resolve to have fulfilling lives. Certainly, if an adolescent makes a good fist of this process as they transition to adulthood, they are more likely to have stable platform of beliefs, morals and ethics with which to sustain them through life. But it is not uncommon at all that life experiences cause people of any age to question the pillars on which they framed their identity. Consequently, “identity crisis” is not just a phenomenon confined to adolescents.
Now this situation has become more problematic because of the modern trend not to “earn” identity by our words and actions but eschewing personal agency to have identity “bestowed” on us.
The relationship between a sense of active agency and the establishment of a stable identity is well explained by the political philosopher Hannah Arendt. Arendt stated that people’s identity is realised through action. She believed that it is action that discloses our unique identity.
In acting and speaking men show who they really are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world.
This of course speaks to personal integrity. Universally we admire those whose actions are congruent with their words. Colloquially we say, “What you see is what you get!”
Today, now that identity has been decoupled from work and achievement, identity is often seen as bestowed by nature or by membership of a particular community. As Furedi declares:
In contrast to its previous version, personhood has acquired a strikingly passive form. In Western societies, identities are treated as sacred and ready-made objects that need to be validated and esteemed regardless of someone’s accomplishments. The obligation to respect identity has acquired the character of an ideological dogma in relation to group identities. In such cases identities are conferred by either nature, institutions of cultural conventions, rather than earned.
True identity is based on an unshakeable belief in oneself. Let me be quick to point out this is not a belief that you are infallible, invincible or in any way particularly special. It is a belief that you know yourself, warts and all, and are comfortable in your own skin. It is an acknowledgement that whatever my strengths and weaknesses, I am trying to do my best in the world as just as likely you are as well.
And of course one of the fallacies of the modern identity movement is its propensity to lead people to believe in specialness and difference. This exaggeration of difference often leads catastrophic results. It has underpinned wars, racism and other suffering based on minor differences in human appearance and other attributes.
In their book The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow wrote that by exaggerating these differences
….we can easily forget how minor these differences really are. By any biologically meaningful standards, living humans are barely distinguishable. Whether you go to Bosnia, Japan, Rwanda or the Baffin Islands you can expect to see people with the same small and gracile faces, chin, globular skull and roughly the same distribution of body hair. Not only do we look the same, in many ways we act the same as well (for instance everywhere from the Australian outback to Amazonia, rolling one’s eyes is a way of saying ‘what an idiot!)’
(Researcher Anthony Dillon when writing about the tensions between indigenous and non-indigenous people often makes a similar point.)
Consequently those relying on racial differences to establish their sense of identity ignore two facts. Firstly, as we just saw, the differences aren’t as great as they might like to believe. Secondly our genetic inheritance is an accident of fate over which we, as individuals, had no control. Hence it is nonsense to say I am proud of my Irish ancestors (or whatever racial subgroup I happen to identify with).
[In many countries, including Australia, we are still dealing with tensions between indigenous peoples and those who followed after. Commentators often overlay this assumption of difference and specialness in its extremes. Non-indigenous commentators largely form a dichotomy of those who believe indigenous people were backward uncultured savages with little intelligence and those who believe indigenous people were invariably wise, enlightened people whom we should all emulate. Indigenous commentators on the other hand vacillate between blaming the newcomers for all the ills that have subsequently befallen them or being benevolent but sometimes misguided benefactors whose efforts to improve the health and education of the original inhabitants has improved their overall welfare.
Of course none of this is true. Whilst indigenous commentators might wish that indigenous people had exclusive access to truth and wisdom, the reality is that they don’t and like all populations there is a mixture of the enlightened and the foolish. It is not helpful in deriving an understanding of human nature to portray our fellow humans as saints or demons. It merely provides a convenient way of avoiding confronting the opinions of those we disparage.]
Now since the 1960’s Western societies began to assert that the right to personal validation was an integral element of social justice. Hence, identity, which no longer needed to be strived for but was bestowed on everyone in recognition of their need to have their self-worth affirmed, was surely devalued. Lasch (quoted above) pointed out:
Today men seek the kind of approval that applauds not their actions but their attributes.
Now fate deals us each a hand that grants us our attributes. Our character is not so much determined by the attributes that we are given but how we use such attributes. Our essential identity is defined by how we relate to the world given the attributes we have. So the things that identity politics tend to emphasise, like race and gender, certainly help frame our identity but it is only the starting point.
American philosopher, Christine Korsgaard proclaims:
You can’t maintain the integrity you need in order to be an agent with your own identity on any terms short of morality itself.
I agree with this position. Our essential identity is not the attributes we bring to the world as popular ideology would have you believe, but how we relate to the world whatever attributes we have.
Frank Furedi reinforces this notion.
Psychic unity with society’s moral norms provided the normative resources for what Korsgaard characterises as self-constitution, the possession of which is the precondition for a dynamic sense of identity.
Unsurprisingly, like most important things in life, true identity has to be earned. The self-identity that is endowed by others due to our attributes and various social or institutional relationships is a very fragile platform to build a life on.