The idea of identity has been debated in western philosophy and sociology for a long time. Of course, it also comes up in my current course “Consumerism, Politics, and Values,” ranging from Benjamin Barber’s discussing of “branding” and how companies try to market identities to consumers, and Don Slater’s probe of theories of modern and post-modern identity.
Erik Erikson coined the term “identity crisis” and defined identity this way: “a subjective sense as well as an observable quality of personal sameness and continuity, paired with some belief in the sameness and continuity of some shared world image. ” In other words, identity is both subjective and social, identity is not a free standing individual trait. How could it be? Without some social measure or sense of relative existence (difference), identity would be meaningless as a concept.
Yet most of us go through life with a very individualistic idea of identity, the so-called Cartesian ego. DeCartes famous “cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am” posits the notion that if there is thinking being done, there has to be some entity doing the thinking. DeCartes reached that position through rational reflection, apparently divorced of any kind of social or collective influence. To be sure, he used words — language is a social construct — but arguably he could have had the idea even if he didn’t have the words to communicate and symbolize the idea.
Modern western liberalism (liberal in the philosophical sense, not the American politics jargony sense) puts the individual at the fore. Identity is individual, and defined by ourselves. The external world gives us choices, options and opportunities, each of us chooses how to construct ourselves in the world. The market is thus a place of consensual exchange, freed from the demands of tradition, pre-ordained status (i.e., aristocracy vs. peasantry), or coercion. The government exists primarily to defend our individuality, protecting our lives, our liberty and our property.
To modern liberals, questioning this individualist ontology is to embrace collectivism, and risk undoing the good brought about by the enlightenment. Government, in the name of the collective, will lay claim to our property, infer status on people, and construct the social order, thereby asserting the power to assign identities. Thus for modern liberals individualism is both a political value and a moral good — it asserts liberation and freedom over oppression and even slavery.
Yet what if that individual concept of identity is misguided? Many modern liberals cover their ears and go ‘yada yada yada’ at this suggestion, so important is the concept of individual identity to their world view that they dare not consider a challenge. However, if they are wrong their entire philosophical framework is an illusion, the liberty they proclaim is false, and their claims to represent moral good a delusion.
And, of course, there are numerous reasons to question that concept of a rational chosen identity. There is the challenge Freud posited when he discovered that the motives for human behavior come not from rational reflection, but rather the subconscious. Regardless of what one thinks of Freud’s various theories, the idea of subconscious drives causing human behavior is so well proven in psychological studies that no one can seriously question it. The so-called “id” — the desire for instant gratification of whatever we want — apparently comes from a time when surivival required a strong drive to eat, procreate and overcome danger. Nature kept it in check. Freudians believe that now a “super ego” reflecting an idealized version of how we should behave (social rules and personal expectations of perfection) counters the “id”, with the ego trying to balance the two.
But if I am in part defined by a subconscious and irrational set of desires that must be repressed or controlled in order to act in society, my identity can come neither from individual rationality or those desires alone. One navigates this world and culture in order to find socially and personally acceptable ways to fill desires and drives, meaning identity cannot be completely individual, and must have a social component.
This opening to the social, especially as it involves subconscious activity, means that we are open to emotional manipulation — such as by advertisers, politicians, and art. In fact, one reason theater, poetry, music and art have been prized in most cultures is that this is seen as a positive sense of emotional connection. Rather than manipulation it is edification, and it is overt. You know the poet is trying to reach an emotion, you are connecting with something honestly. When politicians symbolically try to connect their program with strong emotional themes, or advertisers show McDonalds or KFC with images of family and wholesome pleasure, that is manipulative because we don’t recognize the power of the emotional appeals. We think we are rationally choosing the political program we believe in due to consideration of policy, when we’re really going more from the gut.
Yet it is not just our preferences or choices being manipulated, it’s our very identity — something we’re also blind to if we cling to the idea identity is pure choice and individual. Moreover, without ascribed and clearly given identities, that power to choose ones’ own identity produces, as Slater notes, “anxiety and risk.” We have to find a coherent notion of the self that we can internally identify with over time, and connect it a position within the social framework: there are commonalities and differences to others that allow one to feel that one inhabits a place in the social order that makes sense — even if it is something like an ‘eccentric artist.’ Yet marketers constantly push us to question and shift identities, meaning that many people find themselves having to constantly re-create their identity, superficially connecting with symbols or labels rather than something personally and socially meaningful.
The key to personal happiness and contentment is that identity must have meaning — a person has to feel not only that he or she has a label, but that label is meaningful, both internally and in the world. That’s why nationalism, religious faith, and other notions of identity — with strong symbols, historical and clear connections, and often an exclusive population — are powerful. People can identify with something greater than themselves, and find meaning in so doing. Modern enlightenment liberalism distrusts those identities — they are not rational (why be proud of being an American when it is an accident of birth, why simply identify with the collective) or are traditional (religion is seen as myth). So the individual must find meaningful identity on his or her own, presumably through rational choice. Yet the enlightenment and rational thought are tools, unable to themselves provide true meaning. This is a recipe for chronic identity crises and personality disorders.
That’s the modern challenge: to literally define oneself in a meaningful manner, cognizant of attempts to manipulate people and market faux identities (identification with brand names, lifestyles promoted by advertisers, political movements, etc.) To do so, one must accept that ones very essence is not purely individual, but part of a social context, and includes subconscious drives and desires from both our childhood and our genetic heritage. We must defy both the philosophical hold modernism has on our notion of the self, and the psychological sense that the other — society, culture, other people — are completely separate and detached from self and identity. This cannot be done with reason alone, and opens up a need to consider the realm of understanding beyond reason — the inspirational, artistic, spiritual, or transcendent. How to do that will be the subject of a future (likely the next) post.
Update: I feel a need to write my next post on the 30th anniversary of Carter’s malaise speech, so this will be continued later this week.