The subtitle of this blog is “deconstructing identity and culture”. The culture part is patriarchy of course. But in these days of “identity politics”, of identity being used as a weapon for exclusion or inclusion, of the proliferation of ideas about identity, I think it’s time I said something about why I feel identity needs to be deconstructed.
Identity is more or less a synonym for what Freud called the “ego”. He coined the word to describe that part of the self that says “I”. In other words the part of us that recognizes ourselves as autonomous and discrete on the one hand, and a unified package consistent over time on the other. That is our sense of self, or of identity as a self.
It’s a challenge to develop a healthy ego/identity/sense of self, and that development is overwhelmingly affected by external circumstances. It takes years for a child to accept that she (or he) is autonomous and discrete, separate from all others. It’s frightening. It means that in some way we are alone on the planet, in the universe. That “alone-ity” can be terrifying. Those who can’t handle it become needy and clingy, always looking for someone to merge with. Then look at whose job it is to guide the young through the journey to selfhood. Ordinary people. Flawed people. People with all kinds of ideas about how to do it. People who don’t care. People who are themselves needy, who’ve had children for the purpose of keeping the aloneness away.
The end result is an ego that is a mess of scar tissue. Wounds to the sense of self can’t be undone, only covered up. Our sense of identity, then, often becomes a clutch of claims we make to make ourselves feel like we matter. It’s like saying, “if I am a discrete, autonomous individual then I want to be a special one, an important one, I want my difference from others to be significant.” But that means we’re not truly autonomous. A truly autonomous being simply gets on with life, being who they are without having to make claims about who they are or measuring themselves against others.
A lot of these claims are really limiting, and I think one purpose they serve is to create walls to box us in like the walls of a house. They’re comforting and they ensure we don’t have to experience the infinity of time and space, which is really, really scary. Think about “identifying” simply as one of billions of human beings who have lived on the planet earth — an outlier planet in the milky way galaxy which is itself an outlier galaxy in the bit of the universe our machines have access to — over the past million or so years. Talk about reducing your importance to nothing.
So on the one hand we make identity claims to make a place for ourselves in the universe and in our specific time and place, in our society. But that brings us back to the second problem, which is that identity is created through interaction with a world of other people. I’m referring now not to the flawed immediate family, but to the public, political world. This world is not unbiased. The world around us has an agenda.
No society wants authentic members. No society wants people of integrity. No society wants self-aware people.
What society wants are copies of itself. It wants people who fit into easy stereotypes. It wants to tell you the size and shape of your box and amputate parts of you until you fit. It wants people who conform, which means people who are controllable. If you want to be authentic, it’s likely you’ll need to withdraw from society so that you can try to liberate yourself from its expectations.
And while we go about making claims about our identity, society is also making claims about our identity. Society identifies us largely by externals: as male/female, white/brown/black, rich/poor, sophisticated/ignorant, handsome/ugly, fat/slim. In that way it imposes identity on us. Then our identity is a box that imprisons us.
Most of us don’t identify with large parts of ourselves. Who identifies as a liar? As a cheat? As selfish? In order to maintain a sense of identity that makes us feel good about ourselves we have to tell ourselves lots of lies because, frankly, most of us are selfish lying cheats, aren’t we?
Identity becomes a barrier to authenticity and to genuine individuation. Our sense of identity stops us from growing up.
Most spiritual paths are about either transcending or dissolving the ego self. Whether or not you think there’s anything “spiritual”, the fact that lots of humans have thought getting beyond the ego was a good thing is itself evidence that the ego self is a problem.
So I think personal happiness and fulfillment requires that we explore who we are beyond identity. But there’s yet another permutation to the problem of identity. If we “identify” in some ways acceptable to our families and to our culture, we perpetuate that culture. When that culture is as harmful and destructive as patriarchy, we bring that destructiveness inside ourselves in order to replicate it outside of ourselves. We internalize patriarchy.
If we want to end patriarchy we need to deconstruct our patriarchally-constructed identities. We need to find ways to be human that go beyond the limitations of identity.