Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Tale of Two Identities

The struggle for belonging and social acceptance has always been a balancing act: conforming enough to be an accepted member of a group, yet being just unique enough to differentiate yourself from others so that you can be appreciated as an individual without risking that acceptance.

And as the world gets smaller and different cultures mix in ways they haven't before, it's getting harder and harder to pull this off.

So how do we form our sense of identity, and what are the identifiers that constitute that sense? To me, it seems that these identifiers can be lumped into two broad categories - "inborn" identifiers and "acquired" identifiers.

Inborn identifiers include factors such as race, ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation, and gender - these are "unearned" attributes that we usually have at birth, that nobody can take away from us. The majority of us keep them for the course of our lives.

But as most of us evolve and develop, we begin to formulate an acquired identity - shaped by "earned" identifiers such as choice of profession, personal philosophy, wealth, social status, parental/marital status, and the lessons learned from consequences of personal life decisions.

Adolescence is probably the time during which this transitional interface is most visibly manifested - there isn't too much to work from on the inside at that age/stage in life, so most of us embellish ourselves externally to distinguish ourselves, through fashion, hair, piercings, makeup, and so on. The rebellion is cautious: a fragile balance between being different - but not too different to risk becoming an outcast. Being an outlier is still okay, as long as you're within the fringes of the bell curve.

From this point on, many of us continue to evolve, to develop ourselves on the inside, gain an education, form perspectives on our lives and the world through what we see and learn from our experiences, earn a definitive social and financial status in our communities by working hard and making decisions, settle into our professions, and become parents, philanthropists, journalists, artists, engineers, businesspeople, physicians; as we do, our need to cling to our inborn identifiers becomes less urgent.

For those who are not adequately able to formulate that secondary, acquired sense of self, or - importantly - who are stripped of the opportunities or resources to do so, falling back on using inborn identifiers to define themselves is convenient, and very easy: these attributes are always there, and you don't have to work for them.

This is why pride - based on our inborn identities - is so dangerous.

Proud to be American. Proud to be black. Proud to be a Muslim. Patriotism. Nationalism. All of these notions are based on taking immense pride in things you didn't achieve, you didn't work for, and you didn't earn - part of what George Carlin called "false patriotism" in his last performance. These things were always there, since birth. And precisely for that reason, they are the easiest ones to fall back on when you feel like you've been shut out.

There is nothing wrong with feeling fortunate to be born in a Hindu family, or feeling grateful for being American - those sentiments at least still retain a sense of humility. But pride comes from the ego, and when undeserved and unearned, pride can kill - differences over inborn identifiers such as race, religion, and nationality have resulted in most of the crimes, wars, and genocides in history.

"Homegrown terrorism" in Europe, for instance - facilitated by several English speaking, second-generation immigrant jihadists born and raised in Europe - is a consequence mostly of disenfranchised young people who have failed - or haven't had the opportunities and resources - to construct an acquired identity for themselves in one or more spheres of achievement in their lives. So they have fallen back on things like religion and ethnicity. Although their ultimate goal is different, what drives these neo-jihadists is the same phenomenon that drives the blue collar, red-state voters who continue to elect and re-elect politicians, to their own economic disadvantage, because of race-based or religion-based fears about issues such as gay marriage or embryonic stem cell research.

To me, it seems that a person's acquired identity develops and evolves primarily depending on three factors: (i) age, (ii) education, and (iii) socioeconomic status.

Evidencing this is the fact that most of the people who define themselves by way of these identifiers, such as jihadists, are (i) young, (ii) not very well-educated, and (iii) socially or economically disenfranchised.

Some of them get where they are because of bad decisions they have made.

But others - most of them, I believe - get there because they haven't had the opportunities and resources to move beyond their "socioeconomic adolescence" to develop their own evolved, acquired identities.

To combat factors (i), (ii), and (iii), youth empowerment, anti-poverty measures, and massive investment in education are the way to go, not bombs and sanctions, which only increase poverty and disenfranchisement, further curtailing opportunities and resources for education and socioeconomic security.

I was born in Pakistan, lived in North Africa for half a decade, then England for a little less than a year, then Saudi Arabia for eleven years where I went to an American school, then to college and university in Pakistan and Canada, and now, for the last four years, I have been living in the United States. Having no real geographical roots - or many, depending on how you look at it - I have seen that wherever in the world I've been, crimes have almost uniformly been associated with some racial/ethnic groups more than others, and wars almost always appear to be across ethnic or religious lines. Yet, factors like economics and level of education are the common denominator across the board: the main impediments to allowing the individuals in these factions to evolve beyond a blind adherence to their inborn identifiers.

And in places where educated and financially secure people coexist together, such as the university where I work, people who would be killing each other in other parts of the world - Pakistanis and Indians, conservative Muslims and atheists, Palestinians and Israelis, Mel Gibson and Steven Spielberg (okay, that was unfair - sorry, Mel) - somehow get by on a bloodless, gunless, academic form of debate and discussion that, though often heated and passionate, can be civilly conducted over coffee.

How nice would it be to construct a social, political, and economic global environment where others across the world are able to avail the same opportunities and resources that these people have had, making both Lenin and Lennon happy? Imagine.


Jack said...

I summarize your article to mean that individual empowerment, education and prosperity breeds desirable virtues like tolerance of otherness and rejection of violence. But I must point out some holes in this argument that I believe demand a more rigorous defence. One, jihadists most of the times are highly educated. This would include the engineers and trained pilots of the 9/11 twin towers episodes, the medical doctors of the london car bomb attempt. As for wealth, many sponsors of terrorism worldwide are deep pocketed. Even Bin Laden himself is an engineer and the scion of a wealthy family. If education and wealth does not deter the top echeleon from planning and funding terrorism, why should it deter the recruitment of middle and low level operatives? The definition of terrorism these days has a shade of western assumption to it: islamic, asian and irrational. But when you begin to include the British IRA, the Spanish ETA, the russian Chechnya, Hezbollah, Hamas (and previously the south african ANC with Mandela, a modern day secular saint according to TIME magazine, who until recently was on the US list of terrorists) the root and causes, even the definition of terrorism become more complex and controversial.
In fact examining individuals and states more closely you will recognize that prosperity or education or power does not adequate vaccination against terrorism. If you expand the definition of terrorism to mean the illegal and unjust use of violence to pursue political goals, many modern states would be caught with blood on their hands.
Secondly, the distinction between a innate and acquired identity is really very blurry. Though not obvious both are certainly the product of education; one more formal than the other. Take for instance, religion, culture (ethnicity) or nationality, it does take some degree of education or indoctrination, to acquire some sense of self definition in such a group. But the larger argument is that neither an acquired sense of identity, through education, empowerment or prosperity will really deter terrorist or hate crimes.

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