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Friday, 06 November 2020 11:56

04 Nov 2020


Careless talk about who we are supposed to be can throw us into a dangerous identity trap.

Some may think that pinning down someone’s identity is an unequivocal matter. But what is one’s identity is a question that depends on the context in which it is asked. Is one being asked about one’s nationality, religion, moral outlook, attachment to customs, workplace position, cultural preferences, sporting allegiance, socio-economic background, biological traits, role in one’s family, or membership of some group that holds special significance? None of the elements just mentioned is sufficient by itself to cover every possible question about one’s identity. Furthermore, just because one cites a particular category in relation to any of these elements, it does not follow that it must be part of one’s identity to possess all the features some people may choose to ascribe to that category.

For example, pick any nationality, and there will be some who associate it with all that is noble and heroic, and some who regard as the embodiment of untrustworthiness and aggression. The truth, for just about every nation, is that there are proud and regrettable moments in its history, and while its members may be judged on how they feel about these moments, they can’t be held accountable for those occurrences over which they had no influence. Similarly, one may have grown up with certain customs, but it does not follow that one will continue to embrace all those customs and related beliefs, or interpret their meaning in the same way. Short-hand labels like ‘Catholic’, ‘Buddhist’, ‘Shiite’ can be totally misleading if we assume everyone with that label must resemble one another in every vital respect, and share responsibility for the actions of anyone who happens to apply that label to themselves.

Biological features could be relevant when referred to in specific contexts, but are likely to distort how people are viewed if invoked on the basis of dubious generalisation. If information relating to DNA, X/Y chromosomes, bodily health, etc can help to determine the diagnosis and treatment of people, then it should be factored in. However, to talk about someone’s ethnicity, gender, or age as though from that element alone we can deduce every significant statement about that person is clearly absurd. Identity politics may rely on rigid categorisation of people into pre-conceived ‘black/white’, ‘female/male’, ‘old/young’ types; but every attribution of inherent psychological or behavioural traits to these types has been refuted by experience.

Equally unfounded, but just as commonly made, are identity claims formulated about people in connection with their socio-economic circumstances. For instance, people who cannot make ends meet and are socially marginalised (because, e.g., they are hampered by the deprivations in their neighbourhoods, recession has left too few job opportunities, disability limits what paid work they can find, dire conditions back home have forced them to become refugees) may have in common the need for external support to obtain food and shelter, but how they see their predicament and what they do in response vary greatly. Yet, to group them as ‘benefit seekers’ and project them disparagingly, especially by equating them with a small minority who attempt to claim benefit payment on false terms, is simply misleading and viciously hurtful.

The identity trap is one of the most insidious propagandist tools. To counter it, we should:

[1] stress we have multiple characteristics and not any single one of these can be picked out as all-defining of who a person is;
[2] expose any attempt to make arbitrary generalisations about what any partial identity label is supposed to encompass; and
[3] remind everyone that there are other characteristics that are all too often overlooked – e.g., the important self-identification as someone who seeks to be a thoughtful person, a caring parent, an enemy of cruelty, a defender of reason.

Humans are complex beings. We must never let others stick us down with a simplistic label.
Source: Question the Powerful
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Last Updated on Friday, 06 November 2020 12:11

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