What is an Identity?

Identity TheftA few days ago I was in a hotel trying to explain the title of my new novel to a Russian friend. He didn’t know the English words “theft” or “identity.” I used Google Translate to define each of the words.

“Deep thought,” he said. “Like stealing your soul.”

I don’t think I quite conveyed the sense of it, that “identity theft” is an expression that we throw around to mean the illegal use of someone’s personal information.

It is perhaps ironic, given my novel’s title, that I have always hated the expression. I’ve never liked the implication that all of that bureaucratic information on computers constitute your “identity.”

I am not entirely sure what the essence is of a personal identity, but I am fairly sure it is not that.

I’ve been thinking about “identity” quite a bit lately.We each have any number of identities. You belong to a social class, a profession, a religion, an ethnic group, a neighborhood, a gender, even a personality profile and psychological labels. Each label has its own set of assumptions and stereotypes. There are aspects that are true of you and aspects that are false. But the stereotypes are persistent, and you generally have the choice either to embrace the identity label and the assumptions that come with it or to rebel against it.

The other day I was reading an article on A Philosopher’s Blog called “Who Decides Who is Muslim?”  (It’s a topic I’ve written about here before.)

“This is, of course, a variation on one aspect of the classic problem of universals,” Michael LaBossiere wrote. “in virtue of what (if anything) is a particular (such as a person) of a type (such as being a Muslim)?”

Chihuahua on Great Dane's backA great dane and a chihuahua are both dogs and yet they are vastly different animals. What is the essential quality of doggishness that puts them in the same category?

When you are asked to imagine a “dog” you probably do not think of either the great dane or the chihuahua (unless you happen to own one). You probably have a picture in your mind of the generic dog. I’m guessing it is more like an English setter, collie or German shepherd than a toy poodle, pug, dalmation or this thing:

Pets Beauty In Zhengzhou

(It seems China’s hot pet trend is to groom dogs to look like pandas.)

The generic dog image will jump into your mind first and will stay there until you are given a more specific image with which to replace it.

Dogs don’t seem to worry too much about this kind of identity confusion.

Humans are a bit different.

When I use the words “corporate executive” a certain image springs to your mind. It is probably of a middle aged or older white male. This doesn’t mean you are shocked to encounter an Indian corporate executive or a female executive. It is just not what immediately springs to mind. We can fairly easily accept that these people, who differ from our initial image, are examples of the category.

Some deviations throw us for a bit more for a loop.

WalterWhiteNAACPFor example, on the right, is an image of Walter Francis White, a civil rights leader and president of the NAACP. He was also a black man.

He was born in 1893 to a mixed race family of middle class African-Americans. He wrote in his autobiography, A Man Called White: “I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.”

He identified with his black heritage and community and used his fair skin to “pass” for white and investigate lynchings and hate crimes.

But was he really a black man posing as white or was he a white man who had African-American heritage? If blond hair and blue eyes do not make you a white person what does being white mean?

There is a wonderful clip of the South African comedian Trevor Noah, who was born to an African mother and Swiss father, talking about signing up for a bank account and being asked to identify his race on the form.

There are other identity outliers that confuse us. There are people who will argue that a person cannot be both gay and Christian. The case of a transgender person– a woman who has a male anatomy– generates heated debate. People have coined the expression RHINO “Republican in Name Only” to disassociate themselves with fellow members of their party who disagree with them on certain points. It will always be those with the most stake in the identity who will try to police its boundaries, to declare certain individuals to be part of the class and certain individuals to be outside of it.

The fear is that if “we” allow someone who is quite different to claim membership then the label will come to have a different meaning than the person who wants to police it feels it ought to have.

According to my Word Press logs, my most popular post now is “Give a Man a Mask and He’ll Tell You the Truth?” It discusses the famous aphorism by Oscar Wilde and its popularity no doubt has more to do with people Googling the phrase than the attractive genius of my writing. The fact that it is so often searched suggests that phrase still resonates.

Wilde wrote “Man is least himself when he speaks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

I’m not sure this was true in Wilde’s own case. At least, it was not always true. Perhaps he told the truth while wearing the mask of his fictional characters, but in life he wore the mask of a respectable Victorian gentleman and lied his socks off about his nocturnal pass times.

But maybe this is not right either.

Was he really wearing the mask of a gentleman while he was secretly something else or is it more accurate to say that he was both things and that they are not contradictory?

Victorian gentlemen are not homosexual. Except when they are.

Oscar Wilde’s trial for gross indecency was an attempt by the culture at large to police the boundaries of the identity of the British male.

Maybe this is the true definition of “identity theft”– when a person is not allowed to claim an identity because of another aspect of his identity.

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