An interesting conversation took place at work, over lunch. In general it had to do with different phenomena contributing to the world’s status quo. Our lunch table was occupied by a Dane, a French, an Indian, and myself a Sri Lankan. Despite our similar, and at times diverging perspectives and conclusions, there were fundamental issues which none of us could ignore. One such issue is a crisis inevitably taking place; broadly speaking, a crisis in Identity.
The evolution of the meaning, and source of individual identity has been somewhat parallel to the rapid yet profound changes in society and culture over the last millennium. In particular, the rise of modernist individualism may have inverted our source of identity and how we view the individual. While it has become incredibly complex to define the process by which identities are formed or assumed by individuals and groups today, the result is much more apparent. The western political sphere for example, is roughly polarized into the left and right, and identity formation also seems to follow this polarization. Those who belong to the extreme right, hold to a more conventional sense of communal identity, retained by virtue of conservative religion. The American right wing is a case in point. Conversely, the extreme left has a more fluid and what could be called a ‘post-postmodern’ basis for defining their identity.
Concerning the latter, issues on gender identity have gained a lot of media prominence. Apart from the familiar traditional genders, each individual is at liberty to create their own gender or lack thereof, notwithstanding the gender pronouns that follow each of these. Going further, appropriation of ethnic identities where a white woman “identifies” as black, a white Brit identifying as Korean, a person born a female after many surgeries now identifying as an “alien”, and the list goes on. On an individual level, these self-assumptions of identity pose no threat, so long as the process itself does not affect others. There is no real harm to the rest of the world if an individual identifies as a different ethnicity or some non-existent species for that matter. The problem however, lies in the fact that a large following of those who subscribe to an aspect-based-identity-ideology, define themselves to the rest of the world purely in terms of these aspects of their person, i.e. gender, color, – and dare I mention – body fat percentage, etc. The situation is then exacerbated by supplementary movements and “influencers” who feel the need to over-validate an individual’s feelings that are bound to change due to infinite external and internal factors, with no stake in their lives whatsoever.
It wouldn’t do much to philosophize the issue or even try to understand the mechanics of it here, simply because it’s near-impossible to keep up with the non-stop novelty. However, there is an all too real ground reality that can be observed. Prior to the shifts that led to what we understand as modern times, people largely relied on their communities and social structures which made up the cultural ethos to define their place in the world and in life: the social class of the family, profession, geographical region, birthplace, political affiliations, and most of all religion. All these components of society and more, in synergy helped define identity, be it for an individual or any social entity. Religion in particular provided a transcendent basis, something larger than life from which people derived a sense of identity. For example, ancient Jews believed themselves to be chosen by God as a nation, and this narrative fueled and complemented the lives of different subgroups, be it the priesthood, the ruling elite, or the ordinary citizen. Further down the line with the advent of Christianity, the Roman Catholic church, and Islam, the general locus of identity rested on the church, empire, caliphate, or the dominant political structure with which religion was inextricably linked. This locus defined morals, ethics, and the boundaries of the spirit of society.
Religion acted, and still acts as a theory of identity; a theory based not on experiment and formulae, but on narrative, ritual, and daily experience. The collective experience was based on organizing in groups, communities, derived from the social bonds of history. And so for better or worse, the individual identity was rooted in the more or less solid ground of their historical heritage. There was little to no self reflection necessary in order to define one’s identity, until the likes of the 15th century under which this superstructure of western civilization started to crack. With the likes of religious reformers, renaissance artists and philosophers, and scholars setting the stage for the rise of the individual, the strict dominance of larger organizations over public life was waning. This led to the flourishing of new ideas, a renaissance of science and inquiry that was free of institutional bonds that opened the human mind into a universe that was unimaginably vast and fundamentally different from that of the past. This much needed leap into the future is still in flux, but it has inevitably led to an identity crisis for the modern man.
This old system of the world is all but gone. What’s left is highly politicized, but also marginalized due to a sense of irrelevance and an apparent inability to address the twenty first century human condition. The rise of secularism has indeed broken the power and potential of religious hegemony, and it continues to stand guard against extant religious extremism. But the people of planet earth are certainly in a period of muddy transition where the ground of identity that was once provided by the old world has been pulled out from under out feet. In a highly individualized culture, identity formation is fragmented and has run lose. We have no more narratives nor communal beliefs to unite us. For a large and vocal percentage of the population, identities depend on whim and rhetoric, where the sole ground becomes individual feeling.
Whether or not this is “good”, depends on the observer’s perspective. Those retaining strands of the past, long for what was but never will be, and the ones trying to “break free” do so providing no solid ground for those to follow. But to criticize the past on skewed ideology for our current woes is to entertain alternate history and abdicate responsibility, which has no practical benefit. To criticize the present while holding onto things that are bound to disappear, is arrogance and foolishness. The push towards a hyper-rational society devoid of the old traditions has had the unintended consequence of leaving a void which is constantly being filled with temporary, and mostly reactive ideology that provides no lasting benefit to society.
We must ask ourselves if as societies, are we self aware of the cultural and societal upheavals that are taking place? The ancients envisioned such upheavals as the end of an age. We may not need “ancient wisdom” to address our own situation although, we must arrive at a point of brutal self awareness in order to understand why society is changing the way it does. One prominent clue may lie in the fact that we have no solid ground for identity anymore. The former theory of identity is not as effective as it was, at least not en masse. We need a new theory of identity, possibly combining the rigor of modern science as well as the spirit and aesthetic of the former. Basing our identities on reactive social movements that almost always originate on a negative premise, have rarely solved real problems. Rather what’s required is a thoughtful, systematic, and preferably an organic solution starting on a positive premise to inform us and provide solid ground for any further progress to be rooted in.
Our lunch conversation ended with a somewhat unrelated suggestion for a social experiment where we would start a cult in order to test the dynamics of cultic ideology from a position of authority, but then decided otherwise either due to lack of confidence in our skills to sustain one, or our overconfidence in thinking we had the charisma to attract people. We could at least agree on this.