Who Are You?

The word “identity” ultimately derives from a Latin word meaning “sameness.”  An identity is the cluster of traits that point to one individual remaining the same, identifiable individual over time.  There are many aspects to identity, many of which are changeable. A woman marries and changes her name. A person has Alzheimer’s and loses his memory. A person converts to another religion. She immigrates to another country. A person starts taking a medication that stabilizes her moods and personality. Someone changes political party. He has plastic surgery and changes his appearance. These days a person can even change gender. Yet there is some “sameness” that the word “identity” points to.  The interesting thing is, no one is quite sure what the essence of that “sameness” is. There is ultimately no one thing you can point to and say “this is it.”  Even so, it is something. I know that you are the person I encountered before because something remains even if much has changed.

Identity is social. It needs to be lived and observed. I can claim that I am Jesus of Nazareth or John the Baptist, but if you do not accept my self-definition then I am deemed mentally ill. It is not enough for a transgender person to have an internal sense that she is female, she has to manifest it outwardly and have that identity accepted by at least some members of the wider social world.

For the past year or so I’ve been noting various articles that touch on the concept of identity. Here is a sampling.

What type of identity do you have when you do not interact with anyone else for months on end? None at all, Christoper Knight, the “North Pond Hermit” told GQ.

In fact, we have different identities for different people in different situations. As humans, we are very good at reading a situation, and presenting an appropriate face to the right audience. We are not nearly as good at figuring out how to present ourselves to a vast anonymous public online. This is called “context collapse.

“We have a lot of social norms to invent these days,” reports The Message.  “Learning to handle context collapse is the social project of the internet the way learning to live with strangers was the social project of 20th century urbanization.”

Yesterday The Guardian featured an article on the Czech author Milan Kundera. What distinguished his fiction and made it so influential, wrote Jonathan Coe, was that it “beautifully illuminates the points in our lives at which identity – the very construction of our selves through memory – intersects with the political forces that are in conflict with it.”

Our selves are fluid. We often make decisions we believe are the products of conscious reasoning when we are actually being influenced by things of which we are not even aware.  Two examples: priming people to think about money seems to make them more apt to cheat, whereas priming people to think about time tends to make them behave more ethically and a 2010 study shows that teachers give harsher grades when they mark papers while using a red pen.

From the blog Inequality by (Interior Design) comes a report on a sociological study on the factors that go into whether or not a transgender person’s identity will be accepted by others.

Deciding that a transwoman “counts” as a woman is done on multiple levels. It’s done in our interactions when we publicly recognize her identity. But it’s also done institutionally, if we consider whether or not she ought to be allowed to change her driver’s license to represent her gender or whether we ought to let her compete against other women in competitive sports. A great deal of anxiety is often provoked around these issues — what Westbrook and Schilt refer to as “gender panics” — and Westbrook and Schilt use the media as a litmus test of that collective angst…

It turns out that the criteria for determining a person’s gender vary — they’re not the same everywhere. As Westbrook and Schilt argue, while most people “keep the same classification in all spaces,  transgender people may be given different gender classifications… depending on the type of interaction occurring in the space.” So, for instance, while we might collectively acknowledge transgender women as women in their daily lives, we are often less willing (or have a different set of criteria) to acknowledge them as women in restrooms or on sports fields.

Simon Kuper, writing in The Financial Times argues that shifts in the economy are causing a widespread identity crisis among members of the middle class:

We middle classes are simply experiencing what the working classes have been through since the 1970s. Miners and factory workers had hard, unpleasant jobs but these jobs conferred identity – in part precisely because they were hard. Today most working-class jobs entail serving people: pouring coffee, driving taxis or looking after toddlers or geriatrics. But it’s difficult to construct an identity from servile work. In one sequence of the Peanuts cartoon, Snoopy is a “World famous grocery checkout clerk”. He always starts enthusiastically then gets disillusioned. “Sigh. Seven hours and 40 minutes to go …” he’ll say, or: “It’s hard being a world famous grocery clerk.”

A class divide separates people who choose their job from people who don’t. Today’s young people mostly don’t. If they have work, it’s often servile. That means they have to define themselves without the benefit of professional identity.

People’s innate need to maintain their sense of identity as a “good person” can lead to injustice when members of the law enforcement and legal community find it hard to admit they’ve made mistakes and address the consequences of those errors, says Pacific Standard.

“It’s because your brain all the time is building constructs that make sense of your behavior,” he (Anthony Greenwald, a psychology professor at the University of Washington) says. “And people want to have a good self-image. The forensic examiners think they’re scientists, that they help the criminal justice system. And the last thing their brain wants to entertain is that they’re sending innocent people to jail…. We have to feel good about ourselves. People who suffer from depression have better memory than people who don’t, because part of our ability to survive and not to be depressed is to forget a lot of stuff.”

As much as our identities shift in a constant dance with “the other” our cultural rhetoric continues to be very much about discovering and expressing a beautiful, sui generis self. An article in The Atlantic by Kevin J.H. Dettmar argues that the film “Dead Poets Society” is a terrible defense of the humanities because it misrepresents literary education as a coming of age search for one’s true inner self. When we approach arts with this self-expression bias we miss the whole point:

But for Keating, it’s the text (like Frost’s poem) that is changed, not the reader. He does the same thing to the Whitman poem “O Me! O Life!” that he recites to his students. Used as the voiceover for a recent iPad ad, Mr. Keating’s pep talk quotes the opening and closing lines of the poem, silently eliding the middle: “Oh me! Oh life! / of the questions of these recurring, / Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish, /…/ What good amid these, O me, O life? //Answer. // That you are here—that life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” He’s quoting from Whitman, he says, but the first line he omits is telling: “Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?).” Go back and add that line to the quotation and see how it alters the whole. For Keating—and one fears, examining the scant evidence the film provides, for his students—every poem is a Song of Myself. This, then, is what’s at stake in Keating’s misreadings—I’m not interested simply in catching a fictional teacher out in an error. But he misreads both Frost and Whitman in such a way that he avoids precisely that encounter with the other, finding in poetry only an echo of what he already knows—what he’s oft thought, but ne’er so well expressed.


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