We think about this incessantly but seldom, if ever, mention it, except perhaps to a confidant in existential moments. We have had many of those in the age of coronavirus whose masks, shields and social distance provide the perfect camouflage for contemplation.
Who are we and why? When, where and what shaped our experiences and perception? How do we come to terms with personal identity?
These are difficult philosophical questions. But everyone asks them.
John Locke (1632-1704), the philosopher who shaped America’s character via natural law — the inalienable rights of equality, life, liberty and happiness—links identity with consciousness. If we think and are rational and can assess our actions in the past and foresee them in the future, we possess identity.
This was a radical idea. (Previously, people believed religion defined identity to one degree or another.)
In “John Locke on Personal Identity,” a case is made that we begin life with an “empty” mind shaped by our experiences, the emotions they elicit, and the reflections that they create over time. In sum, life is a story.
To understand personal identity, we must distinguish it from other variants of the concept.
The general term, “identity,” means the physical attributes of people or things that differentiate one from another, as in “the identity of flood survivors.”
We also may ascribe to “cultural identity” or the specific group, generation, religion, ethnicity or nationality to which we belong. For instance, I am a first-generation American of Maltese heritage.
Then there are “identity politics,” which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as groups of people with “a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity (who) tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group.”
These variants sometimes confuse us. Fact is, some aspects of identity are visible, such as skin color. Others are not easily discernable, such as native tongue or ethnicity. Some may be invisible, such as religion or sexual orientation.
We often err or lapse into racism, sexism or homophobia when we make assumptions about another person’s identity.
Society also divides us according to cultural and political identities. The Pew Research Center reports that Black adults “are about five times as likely as whites to say they’ve been unfairly stopped by police because of their race or ethnicity.” About 88% of white Democrats believe that Black people are treated less fairly by police whereas only 43% of Republicans feel similarly.
As mentioned earlier, I am of dual heritage. I was brought up with Mediterranean culture in every aspect but one: language. My parents refused to teach me Maltese in the belief I could integrate more easily into U.S. society and not be viewed as an immigrant.
My parents knew by experience that immigrants face discrimination. That bias exists today.
My white privilege allowed me to succeed. Others cannot change their skin color or sexual orientation and so face challenges that I have never experienced.
Make no mistake: I am profoundly proud of Maltese history, art and cuisine; but I cannot fully identify with hundreds of Maltese relatives, friends and colleagues because I do not know their language. I feel inauthentic even though my bloodline traces back to the 16th century in church records.
Cultural identity typically asks us to conform in one way or another to be a fully credentialed member of a specific group. Identity politics sometimes does the same.
Personal identity is about character.
Elisabeth Camp, associate professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, narrates a short but insightful video, titled “Personal Identity: The Narrative Self.”
In it, she makes these points about “what makes me, me?” She asks, if someone made an exact replica of you, would it be you? In some sense, this is what identical twins confront — a genetic exact copy of themselves. But each, of course, is an individual with unique personal identity.
Is identity really a story with a beginning, middle and end? If so, how do we respond if a person passes early in life — their future, cut short — or if an elder needs continuous care and outlives their life purpose?
Cultural stories have narratives, too, as in the “self-made” man or woman. What if we fail to live up to that model? What if injustice prevents us from participating in or achieving that outcome?
Identity politics asks us to vote for a platform whose several components we may or may not fully support.
Professor Camp makes a valid case that personal identity is about character — literally and figuratively. We may be a character in life’s narrative, but the goal is to develop character via ethics.
To be sure, we can embrace our physical, cultural, religious, ethnic and political identities. They play important roles in relationships, activities and society and influence our self-perception.
But when we define ourselves by the content of our character, we question our biases, attitudes, choices and actions and strive to be more truthful, responsible, prudent, generous, fair, open-minded and empathetic.
Imagine how society would change if we and our elected representatives embraced that identity.