Identity Confusion

This is kind of about subcultures, kind of about narratives, kind of about self-deception, and mostly about me just trying to sort through a few things. I’m still not satisfied with this. It might be the kind of thing that arises from a wrongly asked question, and so all I need to do is yell about it for a while and it will cease to trouble me, but for now, this is what I have.

I’ve written about stories a few times, now. I think of them differently than I used to, giving them less inherent value but maintaining my belief that they are a deeply important element of a certain kind of affective human existence. Both from the perspective of wanting to understand humans better and to participate in that type of existence, I find that their critical role as a nexus of much of what humans do and are pops up again and again in my thinking.

I also wrote about subcultures once or twice, and in looking back, I find it frankly astounding that I didn’t connect the two. Because I can’t think of anything more predicated on the telling, imbibing and engendering of stories than subcultures. I’m not even sure that’s the word I want anymore. What I really mean, I suppose, and this word choice makes the connections much clearer, is identities. Identity is this strange beast of notion that grips us, consciously and subconsciously, that feeds itself on our every thought and action, and in doing so becomes powerful enough to effect those of our future.

So what is identity? Not sociologically, historically, politically, academically, religiously. The thought-catalysts for this piece have come from all of those sources, and those are important, too of course, but because I’ve never heard a rationalist account, I have to assume that much of the less rigorous writing about this topic has come out of unacknowledged intuition manifesting itself in all sorts of ways.

Let’s see, then, if I can’t create a mental image of what an identity is. Small town white man. What does that make you think of? It doesn’t matter, really, except that I bet it wasn’t just a small town white man. You knew maybe what a set of possible names could be, hair color, political and religious affiliation. And that’s all fine, given that there are good statistical, rational reasons to expect all of those things to map onto each other. But the power of that image is such that it may override other rational considerations. Because this image of small-town America may be, if such is your image, a god-fearing Christian, a loving husband, maybe several kids, probably right-of-center politics. You could construct a whole story, narrative, existence out of so little information. Maybe Bobby Hunter was the varsity football player in college but his dad died so he never got to fulfill his dreams. How does he feel about his wife? Does he vote Republican? You know him as well as I do, and I bet you’d feel pretty comfortable answering those questions. You not only know him, you have feelings, positive or negative about him. You can think of songs written about him. That’s crazy. Almost as crazy as if I offered you an alternate narrative, forcing you into a gestalt shift. So maybe instead of small town white man, say, from Kansas who has a blond wife and hates immigrants, it’s small town white union man. Now, Bobby might still have xenophobic tendencies, but I’d be willing to bet your feelings about him just changed. Now he’s running with a whole different crowd, and he represents an entirely different facet of America. More than that, a different narrative, a different tone, and a different trajectory. Now you’re thinking Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs. And all sorts of other identities come popping up. The first Bobby Hunter was considered perhaps on his own, or maybe in contradistinction to the urbanite Jew, an indigenous peasant farmer, a young black family. The second, existing with the help of the contrasting image of evil capitalists with aquiline features and a healthy sense of greed. And that’s not even the half of it.

I’m not talking about stereotypes and the harm they do. That’s too simple. Stereotypes aren’t just problematic because they’re untrue, but also because they’re incomplete, and moreover, have devastating power over our brains, as illustrated above. We are each composed of uncountable threads of existing archetypes. A better way to put it, perhaps, is that we all are simply ourselves (as distressingly cliche as that sounds), and archetypes, stereotypes, identities are built out of statistically relevant and/or psychologically salient facets given a life of their own and rent-free lives in our heads.

And these identities, these little nuggets of intuition generation with all their emotional power, they give us a deeply misguided sense of being whole, coherent selves. It’s actually probably more accurate to say that we create our sense of archetypal identity because our psychologies tell us we are in fact, these consistent beings, but the causality is irrelevant. The point is that we enjoy these psychological ticks so much, we derive such meaning from them, but they feel to me so arbitrary and based on such an incorrect conception of human identity.

People on twitter, tumblr and other blogging platforms have the chance to write a very short autobiography, and what many, myself included, write, is a series of identifying labels, descriptors meant not only to evoke an activity, lifestyle or set of beliefs, but an overarching sense of the ‘kind’ of person your friendly neighborhood blogger is, to be all of these things in one. People talk that way, too, and it’s at once easy to understand and empathize and on the other hugely irritating, and I would be lying if I didn’t admit that those dual reactions map all too well onto how much I already like someone. But the point remains that we seem to act as if we were composed only of identities, rather than the other way around, and so to feel or feign surprise at their clashes within us is unimaginative and uninsightful at best, and actively harmful at worst, priming us to again and again think of ourselves as entirely consistent wholes.

This is where cognitive dissonance comes from, and also fashion and styles. We have senses of who we are, of these one things that we are, and we do not want to give them up. So we talk about them, and act like them, dress like them and see them in each other. When we say we want to be like some badass movie character, let’s take Trinity as an example, is that true? Is it true in any sense? Do we want her characteristics, her moves, her life? Or do we want to feel about ourselves the way we are made to feel by the entire contextual reality evoked in our brains by the limited and carefully calculated information given to us by a movie? We go shopping and buy the things we buy because they feel right, because they fit into our senses of who we’re supposed to be, according to ourselves.

I’m not saying it doesn’t matter. But these considerations have begun to make the feelings of identity ring false in my ears. especially when such grave importance is placed on tradition, on birth, in religion, in identity politics, at rock shows, I question these consistent wholes. It’s one thing to respond to power with resistance. It’s another to not change your mind in the face of evidence because what would that mean to the kind of person you imagine yourself to be. It’s one thing to spend time with those most like you and come up with a language, hand signals, an understanding of each others’ behavior. It’s another to use the immensely meaningful sensation of the weight of millenia to justify certain actions.

Far be it from me to judge or deny the power of meaning, the deep wells of happiness and intensity that can arise from an objective consideration that one’s life fits a desirable or undesirable mold, however much I may question the provenance of the mold. I think the notion that it is irrational to derive joy from things that are arbitrary is a misunderstanding both of rationality and human happiness. But I do want to problematize the questions: “Who am I?” and “What sort of person am I?” and think about what we might replace them with.

Sources of thought: Blu Greenberg’s On Women and Judaism, Michel Foucault, Wendy Brown, friends, people, the world.

I have so much more to say. What do we tell ourselves everyday? How and when do we rationalize? How much do most people define themselves out loud? How does that affect things? Does it make it better or worse? Can we have an identity, a history, without narrative? Does ideology always accompany narrative? When are these things beneficial and when not? How does this work at the group level, with collective memory? I am so confused.

The Importance of Stories, Part II: Groups and Communities

Now I want to connect the idea of stories back to my post on the Texas schoolbook issue. My last post ended up focusing on individual stories, which are very important, but neglected group stories. Political campaigns, concepts of nationhood, genealogies: these are all about stories, lived, and narratives, constructed and imposed. Leftist radical groups, royal monarchies, families, religions, any sort of community. They have stories and narratives. Sometimes those stories are fraught with atrocities, sometimes with good intentions, sometimes with both. They can be long or short, monotonous or conflicted. They give people focus and community, happiness and hope. They deeply affect the way that people think about themselves and they way they act in relation to each other. So when we talk about understanding humanity, we need to understand stories.

Just to preface, I don’t have nearly the reverence for group stories that I do for individual stories. I think they are just as important in many respects, which I will discuss later, but groups are just less inherently valuable than individuals, and in fact their main source of significance is the way in which they affect individuals, rather than the way in which they interact in the group space.

Right, ok, so, the importance of group narratives:

I mean, where to start?

Anyone who’s at all interested in what it means to be human should care. Philosophically, our connection to the people around us, and the communities we belong to, and how those interact with our ‘selves’, should those exist, is a vitally important question. It’s essentially what defines a Rawlsian liberal versus a communitarian. What defines you? Environment, genes, soul, beliefs, values, self?

That tends to matter politically, too, when we investigate things like social engineering and policies that affect groups rather than individuals. Staunch individualists have one view of human nature, other people have many others. If we ever want to come to any sort of agreement or consensus or merely a better understanding, looking at groups and communities is probably a good place to start. The narratives imposed on groups also matters a lot in foreign policy. What does nationhood mean? What does it mean to be part of a people? Nationalism, terrorism, radicalism, it’s all in there, it’s all composed of stories. Maybe it would be a good idea to understand that others feel as strongly a part of their peoples’ stories as we feel of ours.
Of course, this all matters very much to academia. Sociologically, anthropologically, biologically, psychologically, groups matter. How do individual stories coalesce to make group stories? How much does it matter to people to feel part of a group? How have we evolved as social animals? What does that mean evolutionarily or morally? Studying how the stories that groups tell themselves and each other is vitally important in understanding these things, those elements they have in common and those in which they differ.

Both anthropologically and political, the notion of the family is very important. Families are repositories of stories and arbiters of group involvement in a way that few others are. Their genealogies, pedigrees, albums and trees are testament to the importance of stories.

And now we come to history, the academic discipline completely consumed with the telling and retelling of stories:

As I said up above, I have a far more skeptical attitude toward group stories than I do towards individual stories. After all, individuals matter more. But I mean something very subtle by this, which is that while every individual story demands respect (though perhaps some are more inspiring or interesting than others), not every group story does. They are all important in order to learn more about ourselves as humans, individually and otherwise, philosophically, personally and academically, but they are not all as important to learn. By this I do not mean that we should only focus on those groups that made the ‘largest impact’ on current events. That same filter could be applied to individual stories and it would be just as nonsensical, given that importance is largely decided solely by those individuals or groups with the ‘largest impact’ or at least the most highly ingrained power structure within a given society.

No, what I mean is that some stories, while intellectually engaging, are dangerous. The story that nations sometimes tell, or races tell, that they are Divinely chosen, better, smarter, stronger, more valuable. Individuals tell those, too, but it wreaks nowhere near the immense damage. It might damage by tolerant cred, but I declare here and now that those stories are, if not worthless, meaningless. Because if there’s anything we’ve learned from stories, it’s how many of them are valuable, and any story predicated on the extirpation of others can be philosophically, if not historically, ignored.

Unfortunately, those stories are repeated across the world regardless. And this is where the proper teaching of history becomes very important. The way we teach history is, essentially, the narrative our society is creating, and we want it to be a good and accurate one. That means including the stories of those groups that aren’t us, that will never be us, that failed, in some way, to be us. It means avoiding Euro- and ethno-centrism. It means working hard to locate the stories which are the most telling and instructional, as well as inherently meaningful or inspiring, wherever they come from. It means deciding, as a society, how we are going to best learn from the stories that have been told in order to create better stories going forward.

And that’s why the Texas textbook issue needs, desperately, to be paid attention to and rectified.

The Importance of Stories, Part I: The Individual

Disclaimer: This is somewhat incoherent. There is so much to say about this approach to humanity and knowledge, and this alternate approach to truth. The implications are wide-ranging and somewhat radical. It would take me years to fully flesh this out. But here’s the germ of an idea.

There’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. It’s stories and how they relate to truth and understanding. Stories are everywhere. Everyone has one; they spend their entire lives living out stories, as a matter of fact. I would never claim that objective truth could be arrived at based on some kind of abstract averaging of all the different stories. But there’s a different kind of truth that is based on stories, that it based on looking at humans as inherently valuable and thus placing value in their stories. Those stories are vast – repositories of knowledge, memories, hopes, dreams, fantasies, delusions. About themselves, about other people, their families, their communities, their histories. They’re beautiful, too, and their individual beauty along with the diversity they exhibit, is reason enough to maintain them, pass them on. Which is why we protect ancient cultures and traditions, even as we march onward to a brighter future. Which is why we bother to listen to people without power, without elite intellectual or financial status. Because they have stories to tell. We are a community of learners, knowers and we communicate this by being also a community of story tellers. It would be a grave misfortune, a travesty, if that aspect of our humanity were to be lost.

The implications of this value are immense. It means that despite our own biases, prejudices, opinions, preferences and aesthetic desires, we simply cannot write off other people as useless or worthless. We don’t have to respect their ideas, or spend our time getting to know them, but we have to acknowledge their power as storytellers.

This has clear consequences for our systems of morality. For example, personhood might be defined as having a story. That’s not an entirely well-formed idea, but I kind of like it. Humanistic morality might benefit from approaching self-actualization in this new light. We help people live out the stories they would want to later tell, stories that are fulfilling, that can help and inform and inspire future generations of storytellers. We have no right to write the stories of others, or to tell them how to make their stories more like ours. Also, everyone should have the chance to tell their stories, both for their sake and the value that can be transferred to the community at large that can benefit from it. That allows us to pursue the value of tolerance without relinquishing our ability to note where harm is being done, stories and being censored and humanity is being lost.

If one prefers, they might reconceptualize this idea as placing the value of knowledge above all else. I’ve already discussed here and elsewhere that the stories people tell are extremely valuable sources of knowledge. This could inform our views on language extinction (see here and here) and biological diversity (over here and yonder). There’s no need to posit objective values when we understand that valuing knowledge and understanding is a human value we can all support, and we can achieve those through a variety of methods. Some are biological, scientific, what have you. But some are stories, those sets of experiences that seem so meaningless on an individual scale. Why bother listening to what people have already done when there is so much more to do? I counter that not only do those stories provide a treasure trove of knowledge relating to history, politics, sociology, anthropology, linguistics and more, but they also help us see what the future holds. Most importantly, they help connect us to our fellow humans, in a way that can only be mutually and communally beneficial.