Why can’t we all just get along?
Diversity and pluralism have informed America’s identity for generations. In these two principles, we celebrate the fullness of our humanity: the similarities as well as the differences that make us the individuals we are. Yet today we are short-changing that humanity by confusing social labels with the real meaning — and power — of human identity…
We struggle to hear one another, understand one another, indeed, accept one another. The lightning rod for our national bickering is identity politics and the heated divisiveness it has bred among races, ethnicities, religions and, of course, political parties.
The sharpest evidence of this divisiveness is found in extreme identity-choice polarities. At one extreme is the idea that you can define yourself any way you please, even if that definition flies in the face of conventional norms. A white person can decide she is really black because that is the race she relates to most closely, that she feels she is actually part of.
At the other extreme is group identity, whereby you associate with others who are the same as you: white, blue collar males, lesbians, Christian conservatives, Hispanics, and on and on. It is from these outward, nearly tribal affiliations that we discover an inner sense of belonging that suddenly warms us, fires us up and brings seeming clarity to our lives.
At either extreme, however – individual identity-choice or group identity association – we diminish ourselves. The need to look to others to decide who we are is the essential mistake people make. It is a reflex that feeds off of the unspoken assumption that a person is incomplete, perhaps even flawed, without the validation a social label provides.
Taken as a whole, all of the hullabaloo about identity today is detracting from the very idea of identity itself. Let’s put down our identity cudgels for a moment and take a fresh look at what identity is really about.
“Identity” isn’t a new idea
Human identity has captured the imaginations of thinkers and scholars for millennia, most notably, starting with Socrates, whose words “Know thyself” have influenced countless numbers of people over time. Socrates recognized the depth of the challenge contained in those two little words. He knew that if you don’t understand your identity, you will wind up lost. On the positive side, he recognized that if you stay true to who you are, you will have the foundation you need to make wiser decisions.
More recently, there are two people whose particular contributions to this subject amplify the inescapable impact knowing thyself has on how we shape our lives. One is Erik Erikson, the German-born psychologist who has been called the architect of identity.
Erikson helped to illuminate the roots of human identity and its impact on how we mature as individuals. In his seminal book, Identity and the Life Cycle, Erikson describes identity as the blending of two forces: an individual’s ties with the particular values of his or her family, history and heritage, and the natural-born traits that simply make each of us unique. From Erikson’s perspective, our identity is a governing force that is with us always.
Another stance on human identity was taken by the psychologist, James Hillman, who looked at identity through the lens of the soul. In his book, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, Hillman asserts that the essence of our individuality – what he terms, our character – is within us from birth. This “essence” can have many names: “genius.” “spirit,” even “guardian angel.” Call it what you will, it’s identity by another name.
You are more than your labels
Today, the notion of “identity politics” undermines the deeper meaning of human identity as articulated by the likes of Erikson and Hillman. For all the attention the identity politics trend is receiving, it reinforces an impression that actually devalues rather than expands upon what it means to be fully human.
Is the fact that you identify as a Hasidic Jew, an African-American, a conservative, or a gay man or woman the most important definition of who you are? I don’t believe so. What defines you goes beyond these descriptors.
Your essential identity — your distinctive, value-creating characteristics — springs naturally from the core of your being. It is a place that is blind to classifications, transcending gender, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation and every other label we adopt as a way to locate ourselves in the world. You are simply you: unique and powerful in your own right.
Sing me your song
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with aligning yourself with others as a way to connect with like-minded people, or people who look like you. But, that isn’t enough. When your idea of personal identity is based upon a descriptive label rather than on the distinctive contribution you alone are capable of making, you short-change yourself, those you care most about, and society as a whole. Why? Because, to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, you leave your music inside.
In short, labels are about what you can get: affiliation, a sense of belonging, social definition. Identity is about what you can give: something of value to others who do not possess the particular blend of capabilities that set you apart from all others.
Having a clear sense of your identity is the key to shaping a life marked by authenticity and integrity — knowing what to do, what not to do, and, most important, why.
With this in mind, we’d all do well to resist the pull of social labels, which distract us from our larger task: Tapping into and applying our innate identities to how we live every day. Everyone would benefit: co-workers, friends, your children, your spouse or partner and, most of all, you. Indeed, America would benefit, because when it comes to hearing one another, understanding one another and, indeed, accepting one another, starting with yourself is the only place to begin.