Identity—the very essence of who we are and how we interact with others—is in the middle of a period of extraordinary tumult. The Internet and a host of new communications technologies have transformed the concept of identity and redefined our relationships to businesses, governments and constantly churning networks of friends and peers.
Growing numbers of digital natives now define themselves by their Web presence as well as their real-world presence. Indeed, they move seamlessly from their online to offline lives, and they expect to assert who they are on their own terms.
Call it the audacity of self-identity. I am whatever I say I am.
J.D. Lasica, Identity in the Age of Cloud Computing (emphasis mine)
There are several types of identity by which we all are known. The two identity types that most people are familiar with are:
Self Identity – the way one person is defined by one’s self. It is the act of a person telling a group – “This is who I am”.
Group Identity – the way one person is defined by a group of people. It is the act of a group telling a person: “This is who you are”.
Most of us employ a mixture of group identity terms as self-identity. We use language, which we did not invent, to describe who we are. Often, we did not even choose the words we use (i.e. fat, skinny, smart, gay, man, woman, tall…and so on). Labels, judgments, names, terms – all consisting of language.
It is society, in this model, that decides how ‘best’ or fully to recognize someone and define them. What are a person’s rights? Society will decide. What is good behavior in personal appearance, sexual preference, gender assignation? Society will decide. Who is good-looking? Society will decide. Basically, when the question is ‘how am I to be identified or valued?’ Society will decide.
Regarding labels, let me briefly touch on some reasons why they are unreliable, right out of the gate:
Language is a metaphor. The words we speak and print are substitutes for things that we use to communicate. The words ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ are not people. Each of us is our own self, made up of different atomic mass, independently operating, existing and thinking. We don’t even look or sound the same from one person to the next, based on differing values and sensory perceptions. ‘Gay’ or ‘straight’ mean different things to different people and they mean different things simply if the label is applied after or before two people meet for the first time.
Perceptions vary. What looks blue to me can look violet to the next person. I can look at a 30-year-old person and see someone young. My daughter can look at the same person and see someone that is ‘very old’.
My working theory is that labels are most effective when a person uses them to describe one’s self. They are much less accurate when someone is labeling another person.
None of this is new or revolutionary, but it’s important to bear in mind for this conversation.
The dynamic between self-identity and group identity is mirrored in the competition between self-determination and herd/mob behavior. This struggle has been in the mainstream conversation for over 200 years, because it played out in the struggle for democracty and liberty in the United States.
The evolution of ‘the rights of the individual’ is interesting because the topic is framed within a context that rights are granted by government, society, the group. The Declaration of Independence opened the door a crack with the following language:
This document is essentially a list of ways that the group (US Government) will recognize people. The Bill of Rights, furthers this assertion of primacy in the description of individuals. People exist as rights, because the document (as proxy for the group) says so. Also, the document states the manner in which people will be recognized, not just who but what.
For its time, the documents above were revolutionary. Everyone’s frame of mind was in the collective…parish, village, family, clan, tribe, kingdom and so on. They took group definitions ‘out onto the skinny branches’ where they were dangerously close to being more about the individual than the group – by asserting that in some ways the group must recognize the individual.
From there, the definition of the individual has been tested, refined and broadened to extend these rights to include blacks, indigenous peoples, women and children. As grew the rights of the individual, so grew the expectation of autonomy from one group of individuals to the next.
Looking back, I think that the biggest crack in the herd model was the First Ammendment. Free speech, freedom of assembly basically left open the barn door, eventually allowing the herd to roam free. There have been attempts to slow the exodus by trickery and fear-mongering, with lines drawn in the sand even now, on issues like gay marriage, gender rights and more.
A common thread persisted however, that when these individuals spoke up for and demanded their rights – it was over the larger group’s objections and with their permission or decree that rights were granted. The framework of the group granting the individual a definition of rights persisted. It was still about smaller groups fighting to have rights as individuals.
Over time, the framework for the conversation shifted. The model for a group demanding the rights of its individuals had been established as precedent. Namely, that individuals could wrest power from the mob. Eventually, people began to ask other questions, changing the context:
What other rights do we have?
What rights to I have?
Why am I asking for my rights from the group?
The cat is out of the bag. Not only are people asking these questions, but we are coming up with answers. Free speech gave power to the individual.
The Herd or the Individual?
The herd-mind is everyone working for the group.
The hive-mind or herd-mind can be inefficient, dishonest and manipulative. The herd-mind behavior is assumed to be a coordinate effort by many to achieve a common goal. Even if the coordination is merely a reliance on tradition and allegedly proven ways of success and the common good. The messaging of herd-mind labels and definitions of who people are and what they should be doing, comes from religion, government, advertising, entertainment and corporate culture settings. Dress this way, speak this way, think this way…and so on.
It is in reality, many people operating for the benefit of a few or for no coordinated reason. Whereas most people in the herd are working, making money, spending money, paying taxes and going along with things because it is a past-looking view. A patriarchal view of the idealized family structure imprinted upon the society at large. It is also a convenient responsibility dodge for the timid masses. As if people become clones of Sgt. Schultz “I see nothing!” becomes the mantra.
It is the status quo.
The individual mind is one person working for their own benefit.
The examples of selfish individuals, concerned only with themselves and their own successes are in everyone’s life. That is the unhealthy version. The image of a balance individual is not one propagated through history. In élite circles, certainly these minds exist, but as ‘shakers & movers’ and ‘captains of industry’. For a very select few, the whole slate of freedom and individuality have always been available.
The model of an individual naming one’s own self in one’s own terms is not a common one – until now. What has been needed is for individuals to stop defining themselves on the group’s terms.
Neither a society of only individuals or only the group can be viable.. There needs to exist a middle ground, where the health of the group and the individual are both supported. Throughout history, the balance of power was tilted toward the group. With overpopulation, starvation, disease bearing down on us, we will either choose now to find that balance or soon find ourselves without a say in the matter, as military dictatorships place us all under their thumbs ‘for our own good’, using the urgency of the world crises as justifications for their draconian dictatorships (see Bush/Cheney right after 9/11). We can look in our past and our present for some likely examples: Somalia, Ethiopia, India, Burma, China, Darfur…and that shameful list goes on.
Our societies are in crisis and status quo political and religious organizations propose that we eschew science for religion, and reject birth control for rampant breeding. Both strategies good only for swelling the ranks of poverty.
Signs of change and a way forward.
Social media is a playground for creating new identities on the fly. People are practicing the craft, the thought process, the experience, the creativity and the rewards of creating themselves in their own image – for their own reasons. Web presences in various formats abound with new ones being created daily, from pictures, email addresses, names, avatars, moving characters, sounds and operational / functional creations each serving as a new identity.
Here in the phyisical plane, we are seeing an explosion of ways that people identify themselves in their own terms and for their own reasons. In terms of sex, gender, body – definitions that have been taboo or criminal for centuries are now simply someone’s way of saying ‘this is me’. Which, is what they always have been.
Conversations in the lives of trans gender people are among the most rich and fertile examples of the choices and fluidity of self-identity.
Sex-positive groups, blogs and other social meeting points are a place for individuals to practice this new craft of individuals existing in their own terms as a healthy group that can sustain itself and its members. It is a very exciting time that we live in. We are watching the birth of a society built upon the strength of individual identity.