“Who am I?”
If we take a moment and ask ourselves this simple question I wonder how people might answer. Perhaps the easiest reply would be ethnicity, nationality, religion and perhaps even career.
Yet, these simple boundaries are increasingly coming blurred as races mix, people immigrate, knowledge obtained and the job market being very volatile. I often wonder how this will affect the sense of self and how we will define ourselves in the future.
It would seem that from the moment we are born, various groups lay claim to us. The easiest of these would be ethnicity as the belonging to a certain tribe. In Europe, as nations and tribal groups merged, we have arrived at the point of large nations with distinct languages. It has been very easy for the European, Middle Eastern and Asiatic peoples to say “I belong to this group of people.” But I’m getting ahead of myself and will return to this later on.
After we are born a certain religious group will also lay claim to us. In the Western tradition this has usually meant a baptism – through no choice of the baby – and they are initiated into a certain religious sect.
Perhaps by age 6 or 7 we start to notice differences and our mentalities have been formed by our ethnic or national group. We see that others are “different.” With the passage of time these differences only continue to grow and separate people.
By age 15 or so we become smarter, have been indoctrinated into a certain religious discipline and taught that all the others are “wrong.” When the young person asks an adult why others follow a “wrong” religious discipline the answers are simplistic and only refer back to whatever religious teaching the parents were brought up with.
By the time we reach adulthood, we have a thorough sense of identity and are sure that we are defined by the parameters we were raised with. This is what I would like to challenge and wonder if there is anyway to possibly transcend these boundaries.
Our own ethnicity we are pretty much stuck with. But for my own tribe the waters have been muddied and are not so simple as it may be for the European. America was formed by various nationalities and ethnicities. If I look at my own bloodline I would be Irish, German and Polish. Yet, I have no connection to these nations and my blood is a mixture which thus makes my “identity” harder to define.
Further, the races have started to mix at a faster rate and the connection to any “pure” ethnicity will be harder to find here in the USA. Large homogeneous countries such as Japan will last much longer and I’m quite certain these folks will still see themselves as defined by ethnicity.
Therefore, for American citizens we reach for the next parameter which is nationality. This however is superficial and was constructed by liberating ourselves from England. We just celebrated the Fourth of July in which American citizens reaffirm their patriotism and shout “I am American.”
This sense of identity also works the same way in other countries in which we define ourselves as belonging to the land which was captured from another group of people. The division of land is never permanent and over the next couple of centuries it is a certainty that boundaries will change and given the possibility of another super war such as WWI and WWII these boundaries could change quite rapidly. To give an example of this, as much as I’ve tried I find it hard to find anyone who still defines themselves as a Roman or Ottoman. We now all belong to our own individual nations and should anyone have the good fortune to live another 500 years the nationality will most likely change.
If we deconstruct this notion further we all used to belong to a certain village comprised of the same ethnicity. Warring tribes conquered, were conquered and formed a certain set of people. These people created villages and made banners which often survive to this day in Europe. Towns and different localities will have their banners and in Medieval times would send their Knights to represent their region.
When the USA was formed the bonds were broken and people needed something to belong to at a local level as the States were new and nobody was sure if the confederation of States would actually survive. So, the population looked for something else to identify with and other than the Church the University seemed to fill this void.
Now, we wear our school colors, join Alumni organizations and continue with a sense of “belonging” to a certain university in the USA. It is easy to see that people of other nations identify more with their locality and less so with the school they attended.
At this point, the “normal” American might identify themselves as, a Christian, an American and an Ohio State Buckeye. In the American mind anyone can come and join their specific groups but it would be very unusual for an American to cross over the sea and become, a Buddhist, a Japanese and a Waseda University graduate.
Changing religions can be achieved but the ethnicity cannot. One can become Japanese in that they hold a passport but never be accepted as a true Japanese due to ethnicity. As for the school, they simply do not rally around a certain school to the extend that an American would.
Religion is simply what one subscribes to in terms of belief. In the past, the population was not very educated and relied on the learned men which usually belonged to a religious order. As these members of society were highly respected it was almost non-existent that any normal member would challenge these beliefs.
As time went on and universities sprung up non clergy were able to gain an education and started to challenge the teachings of the Church. This lead to fractures and many new religions springing up. As the ideas spread they began to consolidate in certain localities and now we have certain areas that subscribe moreso to one religion than another. In the West, most lead back to Christianity but due to education and the ability to travel there is a small trickle of people who may convert on their own accord just because they choose to.
This is perhaps the least weighty and the most likely to change over time. In the past, one joined a guild and became a Baker, a Tanner, or a Smith and continued this employment down through the generations. When they came to America they chose these professions as their actual surname and thus the reason we have so many Smiths, Bakers and other profession names.
In the past century the economy changed from Agrarian to Industrial and finally a service economy. In my grandparents and even parents generation one could be assured of job security and it was quite easy for them to identify themselves by the work they did.
Yet, times have changed and there are new rules to this game. If one is not very good at what they do they will be fired. By the same measure, if they are quite good they can demand more pay or go elsewhere. Therefore, identifying oneself by their employment has pretty much gone away.
5. Open mind
For those that travel and have the capacity to learn other languages, the question of “Who am I?” becomes more difficult to answer. I wonder to what extend are we able to break free from the parameters set for us and become something completely different if we wish? We may not be able to break free from race but all the others are superficial.
In fact, even race becomes a bit muddy. When I meet a “half” which is to say half Japanese and half white who grew up in Japan, they will identify themselves as Japanese. They speak Japanese (some do not even speak English) their mentality is Japanese and both the Western and Japanese groups may lay claim to them. To what extend can they define themselves on their own?
As for me personally, I find it interesting when people tell me to “be more American.” I am expected to support America in sports, foreign policy and so on because others expect me to. I have no problems with this but find it fascinating from a sociological point of view. I also find it very interesting that people of other nations can come to America and become American. Their children may intermarry and thus the offspring will join an “American ethnicity” whatever that means.
However, this does not work the other way. For an American to become a Japanese or Chinese is a thing unheard of. As there are certain ethnicities defined within the nationality it is very strange to see a “White Chinese.” Although, there is a certain region in China where the population has Western features (long noses etc) and can be read about here: http://www.archaeology.org/9905/newsbriefs/china.html.
Recently, there are whisperings and even blogs such as this one dedicated to “Global Citizens.” A Global Citizen is not bound by a certain nationality and would simply like to be viewed as a member of the planet and would find national borders more of a hindrance than a benefit. I’m sure this will upset the Nationalists, ethnic purists, religious folk and whatever other groups people so ardently identify themselves with.
But is it possible to transcend these boundaries and become whatever they wish? Or, are we so stuck in trying to define everyone into groups that the idea of a “Global Citizen” is more of a “silly concept” than something that might actually be a possibility?
From my perspective, I would say I’m stuck with the blood but everything else is simply an idea and with an open enough mind, one could become whatever they wish.
Interesting blog post. Here is my answer (I apologize for the length):
National borders may change but they do not disappear. In the course of a person’s life they are unlikely to change more than once and thereby make them irrelevant as identification markers. You are right that for a person today to identify with say the Roman Empire is ludicrous. That does not mean that there are no other nations and borders for him to identify with.
The same goes for personal values and priorities. Just because they may change over time does not mean that they become weaker or less. Values and priorities are not cumulative. They are exclusive by nature.
Ability to travel and learn languages-> Global Citizen. My impression is that it is actually a minority even in my country in this wealthy part of the world that has both the ability and the desire. And you are talking on a global scale? In Denmark statistics show that the majority of Danes are born, raised, grow up in and die within a 45 mile radius. For the average Dane, travelling and learning a number of neighboring languages on a basic level is fairly easy. Lying on a beach in Spain or Turkey (which is what most people do when they travel) still does not change your values or challenge your identity.
“Is it possible to transcend boundaries and become whatever you wish?. (…) I’m stuck with the blood but everything else is simply an idea.” Two part answer:
You want to be able to jump from group to group and yet not be restricted by any of them. First I will argue why it is impossible. Then I will argue why it is not something to wish for.
First, you yourself even give the example of not being able to become Japanese. Despite how hard you may wish for it.
You also give the example of half-Japanese whom you doubt have the ability to define for themselves who or what they are. All the identity-markers you put forward in the blog-post are groups of people that share something together. And yet the arguments you use to claim that you personally can join anyone of them are based on your individual autonomy. This is a simple argumentation error: the levels of comparison are different.
You may claim that you are something or other but if you are not recognized by the others as that, then it does not really make sense to make that claim.
Gender is a simple example hereof. You cannot just put on a dress and then be accepted as a woman. Or squint your eyes and be accepted as Japanese. Or put on a lousy suit and then you are an accountant. It is not up to you only to decide what group you belong to. Unless you want to live alone on an island then your idea of jumping freely from identity to identity is impossible.
Secondly, “whatever you wish?”. There are probably some things you do not wish to become. Some things that you do not wish for other people to become? Serial killers, Taleban, substance abusers, Maoists, racists, compulsive liars? These are examples of groups of people that you probably do not want to join. Or choose to give great influence over interpersonal relationships in the society where you live.
Whereas difference of opinion/knowledge is good then great differences in values like those defining the groups mentioned above, are counterproductive when building a healthy society. There is simply no discussion with me when it comes to allowing or not allowing Sharia to have influence over the society where I live.
Because you assume that your fellow man agrees with you on core issues such as ‘lying and killing is wrong’ then you trust him. Should you suspect otherwise, your trust in him would decrease.
All those groups you want to jump in and out of, they have boundaries within which you there is high trust and across which there is low trust.
Consistence in word and action increases likelihood of trust. For all the time and all the travels that I have known you, your thoughts and actions are consistent and (to some extent) predictable. Therefore, you can be trusted. Should you all of a sudden start acting like someone else then, trust would decrease.
Higher levels of trust result in easier transactions – not only financial but also interpersonal. A decrease in trust means an increase in transaction costs. People then rely on insurance, lawyers, formal contracts and outside arbitration such as the courts. That is expensive and slows down progress for a society. Supposing that you want a society that moves towards increasing levels of freedom and safety then trust is something your will want to nurture.
Trust is actually something you can measure and studies show that in ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the US there are lower levels of trust than in ethnically similar neighborhoods.
See here: Putnam, R. D. (2007). E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and community in the twenty-first century. The 2006 Johan Skytte prize lecture. Scandinavian Political Studies, 30(2), 137-174;
and here: http://www.eui.eu/Personal/Dronkers/English/trust.pdf
The dynamics you describe is a cycle towards stronger individuality and weaker communities. I like both individuality and community cohesion and wish for both of them to be in my life and in the society that I leave to my children. The ‘no boundaries’-type of world that you describe is not desirable in my eyes.
This piece is getting longer and longer…
From the Boston Globe article: “Because they see the world and think about the world differently than you, that’s challenging,” says Page, author of “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies.” “But by hanging out with people different than you, you’re likely to get more insights. Diverse teams tend to be more productive.”
To quote from my Business School text book “Negotiating Globally 2nd ed.” (Brett, Jeanne (2007) John Wiley and Sons, page 217): “Multicultural Teams cannot be left alone to deal with task, procedural, and interpersonal conflict as best they can. These teams need guidance in using collaboration models that neutralize procedural conflict. They need to negotiate task conflict by sharing information and making integrative decisions. They also need to know how to prevent gratuitous and unnecessary interpersonal conflict and to have norms for dealing with interpersonal conflict when it occurs.”
The point is that monocultural teams can better be left alone and not end up in conflict because they already agree on how to work together.
Jonas – Good points! I’ll keep my reply short.
I think I’ll just accept who I am then which is an Irish Catholic American.
I’ll see you in the pub where I’ll be telling everyone why America is the best country in the world. I’ll even buy you a pint. LOLOLOLOLOL
“I’ll just accept who I am”
I ask of nothing more 😉
Great that someone is trying to put words to true identity! I'd like to call myself citizen of my own mind, i.e. you'll know who I am once you get to know me and not by what I label myself as by name, nationality, religion, work etc.
Thanks Natasja! I agree with you and think there are too many things that can divide people. How refreshing it is when we throw away these divisions and engage people to discover who they really are without the superficial labels.
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