Thursday, 28 November 2013

Identity: Part 1

Everyone living in this world in any time, has had to face their "Identity." This two-part blog post is an exploration of both physical and digital identities, and how they have come to drastically change the way we build our identity.

One part of our Identity is thrust upon us, leaving us with little or no choice. Another part of our identity is something we can build and increase our control over. Today, the societies permissivity to free ourselves from the 'identity' that was thrust upon us is (in the first part) is far greater, than several centuries ago. 

Several unchangeable parts will cling on to ourselves until we find ways to exercise change and control over it if necessary. 

The second part of our identity (covered in the follow-up to this) will be one that we can shape and control even today or perhaps at any point historically. It is that part that has to overshadow the former and help us define us far better by action rather than circumstance & causality.

What follows is an exploration of key parameters that differentiate us, with viewpoints borrowed from different sources to help us understand "identity" better ...

Identity Parameters that are outside our Sphere of Control

In the physical world, identity starts the day we are born:
  1. Gender - The most significant differentiating factor that affects us lifelong is never selected by us. Whatever opinions of egalitarianism across genders float, the female brain is evolved differently than the male brain. This ends up offering distinct set of capabilities, advantages and handicaps either which way. Physical appearance, physiology, susceptibility to disease are strongly linked to gender.
    Gender [Female / Male]

    This one factor would force a man to never be able to experience being a woman, The converse would also hold. This would ensure that you can never put yourself in another person's shoes to think from their perspective with any level of accuracy.
  2. Color - Although racial tendencies are strong in some places, weak in others, color helps us either blend in, or stand out. Here too, there is little that we can do about selecting pigmentation. This also shows up in the eyes, the texture of our skin and hair colors, collectively establishing a label for us that we have very little control over.
    (src: 'United Colors of Benetton' Ad Campaign)
  3. Build - Being tall or short, or broad or lean, for women: being appealing to look is a genetic lottery. (Model 'Cameron Russel' does an insightful, short TED-talk about what this lottery throws in.)
  4. Language - This is often labeled 'mother tongue' as most children first communicate with their mothers and thereby learn a language that their mothers are most conversent with. Of course, different situations might make one fluent in a specific language - also working as a lottery.
    There are studies indicating that the ability to speak multiple languages also helps one develop a stronger cosmpolitan identity. This of course, along with the other groups of society with whom interaction is possible will decide whether a person begins to develop egalitarianism and altruism or separatism and extremism.
  5. Geography - The place of our birth and the place we are brought-up in (the latter being a stronger identity label) is something that will go on to identify us in the modern world for a long time. This combined with the first language, color, build and ethnicity might establish a core part of our identity that we carry all our lives without the ability to change it.
    World Geopolitical Map: 20th Century, Winkel Tripel Projection
  6. Parentage - Another part that controls our identity, if we have parents or for those unfortunate to not have parents, this hinges on as a very strong part of the identity over which we have little or no control. It is left to our parents though to give us the ability to develop ourselves in dimensions and areas that can be controlled. However, their own identity casts a mark on us.

    Someone born to a "Sports Legend" will have society set high expectations for them. Someone born to a 'convicted criminal' will have an unfortunate dark spot that will affect them for the rest of their life. This too works like a lottery, with the actual birth rendered unable to control what transpires. The identity our parents held, (which they could not control) also decides our "ethnicity" over which we have little control.
  7. Religious Affiliation - The 'religion' we belong to begins to affect our identity in more ways than we think. This too is decided by our parentage. Free thinkers on one side of the spectrum, with Orthodox thinkers on the other side. Our very window to the world begins with a socio-religious affiliation (or the complete lack of it [based on circumstances.])
    It is a pity that this identity is used to classify children even as they move through schools. We can choose not to follow this religion, yet will be identified forever as a 'Muslim' or a 'Sikh' or a 'Jew' or a 'Christian' is not something that we have much choice over as we grow up.

    Scientific thought has also spurred spiritual cults claiming to use "scientific reasoning." A good example would be 'Scientology' which appeal to those who would like to be seen as rational thinkers. The lack of older religious belief systems to cater to modern identity crises has given rise to cults, some with rather disastrous consequences like the infamous "Heaven's Gate."
  8. Time - This, strange as it may seem also ends up affecting our identity. The year in which we are born, introduces us to science, technology and ways of life that perhaps are improvements from before or degradataions from earlier [e.g. Taliban controlled society is an example of degradation over time.]
    Without much choice, the mannerisms in which we make choices, perceive reality depends a lot on the year of birth.

    The month of our birth decides a lot of factors along with the "geography" introducing us to a specific seasonal climate or weather pattern. Strangely, this also gives us a ticket to join mainstream primary education sooner or later in our life.

    I have a cousin born in the same year as mine, but set a few months apart, he had to end up one class lower. This is something over which we have little control over, yet becomes a decider of the groups of people we blend with and our perception of 'good weather' or 'bad weather' based on the geography.

    Those born during wartime or conflict with lesser reserves tend to cultivate stronger survival instincts as compared to those born during peace-time or prosperous times who tend to use comfort zones. This "identity" that time/place/circumstance imposes is a massive deciding factor in what a person goes on to do with their lives.
  9. Economic Class - One of the most deciding parts of modern society is based on "wealth" of our parents, and also of the socio-economic capabilities of the society we are born into. We could be born into a family or Rich Lawyers or Industrialists or Blue Blooded Aristocrats or Servile, Ill-treated groups of society with lesser economic wherewithal. Capitalism, Marxism, Fascism - each has a top-down structure that inherently carries within it imprints of fuedal structure. Here is a congressional fuedal system, that is embedded, yet less apparent when choices for the lowest rung and the highest rung are high.

    This will unfortunately decide a strong part of our outlook toward the rest of the world. The more buffered the 'economic class' is, one may develop an easier philanthropic outlook. In the absence of such a buffer, if one is pushed into an extreme where society distinguishes heavily between haves and have-nots, that would get ingrained into our identity and if we aren't groomed right, or cannot be groomed well [circumstances are harsh deciders], even our behavioral tendency.

    Although visibly "Feudal structured society" has seemingly vanished, these factors still exist in the backdrops of society, painting pictures of people. This even decides our choices, including that of a life-partner should we choose to have one. This discrimination, or rather choice is rather subtle, but transcending religion and caste would indicate another common attribute such as geography, area-of-work or interests rather than the absentia of economic compatibility in entirety.
  10. Name - Strangely what we are named has a very strong effect over us. This is chosen by our parents or guardians or whoever grooms and brings us up. Yet, we have little choice but to accept the name that was given to us. Changing this at a later time, still does not let the childhood "tag" of our name disappear. As an individual, you might ask, "What's in a name?" - the answer today is complex. Many who have never interacted with us make the very first judgment of us through our name. A person with a name that sounds Greek or English or German or Chinese might be mistaken even if they are truly not of that origin. Names also help form our nicknames. Nicknames are sometime related, at other times unrelated to our name (though nicknames are built more from all the above as well as our behavioral disposition.)

    Authors have explored this in building characters. Pip [Pirrip Phillip] of 'Great Expectations' is perhaps an illustrative construct by Charles Dickens, beginning with the name and then moving on to all factors that affect identity. There's a movie "The Namesake" (2006, Mira Nair), which also shows how a person's own perception of their name affects themselves, thereby affecting the reflections from those they interact with.
Identity and Civilization: Why is it significant Today?

Civilization itself derives a collective identity from the group of people within and reflects this identity back into that society. This would give rise to impressions of prosperous/technologically-advanced nations/poor nations in perspective. This may only be a projection of collective identity, while facts and statistics may spell otherwise.

For us, humanity collectively to improve, we need to reduce the number of factors outside the sphere of influence of an individual that control identity. Genetic or hereditary traits also help shaping identity, but they are easily changed by grooming patterns. Here is what could help reduce the above to a bare minimum thereby truly freeing each human irrespective of the parameters:

  1. World Economic Reform (A goal of the World Bank) - to eliminate or reduce poverty to below 8% of the world's population.
  2. Religious Reform - especially to help conceal one's religious identity in certificates enabling each person to have their own system of faith. Identifying people in the name of religion has to be reduced. Build more schools/colleges/medical-centers/civil-protection-setup[police stations]/communication-centers/administrative-centers rather than places of worship to reduce identification by religion.
  3. Peaceful Geopolitical solutions - Reduce instances of war, civil-war and regions of conflict at a global level. Terrorism as it is labeled is not a singular unitary phenomenon, but one arising out of malcontent - especially the inability of many to express themselves of experience freedom or prosperity.
  4. Marital Reform - Marriage based on ceremonies strongly tied with religion, sometime caste and societal groups (even Mormons, Samaritans, Jews, Yiddish) and race as a strong component encourage these uncontrolled identities from perpetrating.
  5. Cultural Mixture - Encourage and permit people to mix across cultures. In the truest sense, the gene pool has to diversify rather than be restricted to a closed system. This would the best way to ensure that we can deal with chronic or hereditary disorders. This would be possible only as long as "Racial" control is not imposed. Examples are requirements of 'Racial' information in "Migration forms", "State identification forms." The truth is most governmental and administrative agencies have racist discrimination. 
  6. Sexual Identity - Sexual identity on the basis of gender as well as sexual orientation easily takes on as such groups begin representing themselves on the basis of gender and sexual-orientation. Feminism is in itself self-defeating as it forces women to be identified separate, yet asking for equalitarian status. The same would hold true for LGBT, whose lack of anonymity and identification is more due to repression by society. Social networks, Advertising networks all have collected data on sexual identity to target customers or plan. This data is the easiest source of discrimination. 
  7. Economic discrimination - The opportunities available to a child to develop to adulthood need to be equated. Even meritocracies are discrimination - merely choosing a mind that is developed sooner rather than later. Equality, would have to be exactly that. This can be achieved only if nation-states join together in programs to provide education and even shelter as part of what a nation is obligated to offer its citizens. This does happen in countries, but too few and is heavily dependent on the economic prosperity of the nation, wealth distribution within that nation and such factors.
  8. Commercial discrimination - The choice of a certain stereotype of women and men for modeling or advertising is initself discrimination. When distributed by the media, these stereotypes tend to change individual's self-perception of factors they have no control over. This should either be regulated or stopped by those indulging in such discrimination to propogate their products. There is no dearth of products that can be sold, but discriminatory "Fairness creams" in a population where people have mixed colors is not a smart proposition.
  9. Parental Discrimination - This goes on to affect children who are orphans, children of those convicted of criminal activity. Such discrimination only furthers the existence of crime and reduces the ability for children to choose a better livelihood. Single mothers or parents with persistent drug abuse problems are also viewed as negatives for the children who rather than being pitied are themselves discriminated against.
  10. State-level or Multinational Ethnic Discrimination - This is done in several ways - especially resulting in genocide or while granting displaced people refuge. Unless better systems and funding mechanisms are in place for this, such discrimination will continue. Often political leadership draws upon historical events to justify discrimination. Bringing discrimination upon a group of people, especially youngsters growing up just because several generations earlier that group was dominant and stood accused or ostracized by their deeds, only furthers hatred and differentiation. Geographical displacements, admixture of people to work with each other in a better climate is the best solution. States having separate laws for followers of different religion (advocating Catholics, Muslims to not follow family-planning) is a product of state-level discrimination. States further discriminate on the basis of caste (think: Malaysia's Bhumiputra scheme, India's Mandal Commission) while promoting officers, rather than on an equal basis that is required in that particular area of expertise. ( For most cases this is performance, rather than merely academic merit. )

In summary, Identity (physical uncontrolled aspects) is used as an instrument for discrimination and forced self-incrimination on that basis alone. The solution is to "engineer" society as we go into the future and invest sufficient resources, especially in terms of technology and science to achieve this goal.

Goals: Engineering "Society" to remove discrimination

An important requirement of society is to grow into one that ensures that these parameters do not result in lack of choices, or oppression or preferential-treatment. As society, being a perspective of civilization itself, is 'artificially engineered' in most part to be against the laws of nature, in order to transcend all the above parameters, this 'artificial imposition of equality' in terms of choices and lack of discrimination is a strong socio-political goal. Otherwise, we are merely victimizing ourselves to the forces of nature which already affect us in building our identities.

Political and Social Scientists understand that allowing oneself to re-engineer or adapt their identities as they see fit is a key factor and metric in development. Societies that are less malleable - forcing one language, one religion, one ethnicity, one identity are less likely to experience development than those with a more cosmopolitan structure. 

Many argue that learning in one's own mother-tongue and living among that ethnic group is a strong motivator for self-development. They could not have been more wrong. Countries with cosmopolitan setups, like India which for at least a millennium has had a rich composition of languages, ethnicities, colors of people living together in different geographic regions and migrating to-and-fro absorbing complex and malleable identity - are likely to spur intellectual development and reformist thinking. The USA being a recent society setup only with migrants also owes its prosperity to such thinking brought in by admixture of identities.

Capitalism or economic control can be used as an instrument to bring strong egalitarianism. There are those who profess that it is impossible to bring equality within humankind especially when it has been non existent for almost the majority of time recorded historically. Contrary to that, this is merely opinionated on the basis of lack of sufficient improvement in Socio-economic sciences (which unfortunately aren't driven by the need to accumulate wealth - a harsh highlight of capitalism, which is not fully representative of capitalist economic systems either.)

Identity: Part 2 (Brief)
In the next part, I shall continue with the parts of identity that are controllable today, and how that can be used as an instrument to reduce discrimination brought on by factors that are uncontrollable or less controlled.