Identity

Last Monday, market research firm YouGov published the results of a survey on British prejudices.

YouGov split British society into 48 different demographics and asked members of the general public to score those social groups on certain criteria, both positive and negative. The lowest scorers, and by what I could view as a statistically significant margin, were white British men in their twenties.

In his article “Young, hated and white: What it’s like to be in Britain’s ‘most derided group’“, most of the white, male, mostly-all-in-their-twenties respondents to Jonathan Wells questions were failing to identify themselves as belonging to a demographic ranging from Etonians to knife-wielding skinheads in grey tracksuits. I don’t know whether it’s fair to identify those two groups as being mutually exclusive myself, but it goes to highlight how stereotyping can work.

I have always been a person of self-reflection. I would look back on situations and see what I could learn. This is easier in work than my social life, I admit. But while I can reflect on my actions, until very recently I’ve never really been one to contemplate self and how I identify myself and therefore apply my learnings. I can see three ways of finding identity:

  1. As everyone travels through life they make decisions. They make choices and some of those can be right and some of those can be wrong. They interact with people and their environment in a multitude of ways and they become moulded by them. In essence, people can become a sum of their life experience. They act on that experience, and whether you call it a belief requiring conscious thought or whether it becomes reactionary, the experiences can make a person.
  2. One form of identity is best described by way of an example. The person in question identifies them self with a particular “movement” and, whatever the belief of that movement, because that is how they identify them self by title, they will also maintain that belief. In other words, they pick what they think they should be and adapt themselves to it. This person is choosing an identity and chooses the become that. This is how I see election voting, as an example. Some people will vote Conservative because they are Conservative so it doesn’t matter what the policies are.
  3. Close to this second method is the one where the person decides that they need to be something else, that they need to create something. They feel a need, so they will become that and will stick to it because they believe that it is the right thing to be. This is different to point 2 in that the person can change by their own free will, but it’s very conscious and very distinct. To use my voting analogy, this is the Conservative voter who decides they actually disagree with a few policies so can no longer call themselves Conservative and make up another tag for themselves, but they do still very much identify themselves with that tag and won’t budge until the next monumental impact to their system of beliefs.

The first method is evolutionary, while the second two are revolutionary. The evolutionary approach sits better with me as I can understand it, and unfortunately there is a lack of permanence in the world that does fundamentally affect us. However, this gives that horrible feeling that we can’t actually ever be the person we want because of the connections we have with the world around us and that we may never be in total control.

The trouble is that I’m not sure I’m happy with the idea of revolution either. Both ideas I listed above seem restrictive and claustrophobic and limiting to future learning, freedom of expression, choice, opinion and, ultimately, possible happiness.

Some people, for example, may claim that they don’t want commitment. They will go out with friends and declare that they will always be happy living in the short-term. And then they meet someone, or they get a job, or they find a home, and they actually quite like it. Things feel right, but they’ve identified themselves as not being that person to hang around in a situation so they break the relationship, change career direction and move to a new city because they’re scared or confused of becoming someone that they never thought they’d be.

Other people may be the opposite and, because they’ve had the same relationship status for a long time, or they’ve worked for the same company for a decade and lived in the same area for most of their life, any change can be scary. There is a scene in the The 40-Year-Old Virgin where the guy I only know as Phoebe Buffay’s boyfriend Mike Hannigan sits down with Andy at a cafe and asks him why it hasn’t happened for him. Andy replies that (basically) he was the victim of several fates of circumstance and that, as time went on without anything happening, the very thought of it was scary and off-putting and so his constant virginity was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Andy had come to identify himself in a particular way because he was scared to be anything else.

I think that the key to self identity is being happy with yourself, and that this is a theme that runs through both the evolutionary and revolutionary approaches. It’s revolutions that cause us to evolve (whatever the size of the difference between old and new), but only where we choose to let them. Sometimes we feel the need for revolution and massive change because of the things happening around us or some event in our past that make us have to adapt to our surroundings. We need to allow for that constant flux and scariness about what the future holds and aim at what makes us happy in the now because, ultimately, that’s probably how we all want to be identified.

Who we are
(in the fever of our youth).
Who we are
(We’ve got nothing left to lose).
Who we are –
(There’s still time enough to choose)
Who we are.

Who We Are by Switchfoot

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