Category Archives: Philosophy

Identity from a map is never a good starting point

Humans have long pondered what makes up our identity. Recent research shows moral characteristics are more important than memories. Some of us emphasise our individual identities, some our collective ones. Whatever the various aspects that make up our identity, as the defining feature of who we are, having one that is clear and strong is important.

David Brooks writes that “Strong identities can come only when people are embedded in a rich social fabric.” He cites new work looking at “separability amid situatedness” as a way to enhance social connections. The thinking: in an increasingly fragmented world, where individuality is prized above solidarity, we want the ability to go off and do our own thing but still feel connected to community.

The Economist has also analysed the decline of social democracy in Europe, identifying a precipitous drop in support for the parties of class solidarity since 2005. It blames four issues: “[the left’s] own success, structural change in the economy, a reduced fear of political extremes and the decline of monolithic class groups.”

Taken together, these trends point to a reorganising of social identities. Yet, at the same time, national identities remain strong. Indeed, as part of that reduced fear of political extremes, they are becoming stronger for some. Donald Trump’s message that borders can be closed and Americans can be protected as Americans has won him many votes. Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Viktor Orban, all define their political philosophy around a national identity.

Yet, defining oneself around national identity is dangerous. For one, defining a national identity is messy. Gordon Brown once tried to promote a British identity. The core of his argument was that a defence of liberty ran throughout British history as a “golden thread.” Britons were indifferent. His campaign failed. Some will argue that British identity is nothing more than a flag and a Queen, that English and Scottish and Welsh identities are more meaningful to people.

A bigger danger is the ability of national identity to become a harbinger of doom. It requires a closing of minds, a dehumanising of the other.

One hundred years ago, the Easter Rising marked the apogee of a particular Irish identity: romantic but bloody. It is an identity with which Ireland has long struggled. Those rebels would have disagreed with Brown. For them and many others around the globe, Britishness equated oppression, not liberty. But their actions in April 1916 have defined an Irish identity that still sits uncomfortably with many on the island.

For some the actions of 1916 are a point of pride, a moment that launched a path towards independence. Some ask “Why would anyone in Ireland not be proud of the Easter Rising?” Others ask how is it possible to be proud of such a violent birth, especially one that has spawned so much division on so small an island?

At its heart, the Rising, and the expression of national identity, cemented a them and us mentality. “The British” included the neighbours of the rebels. They too were fathers and brothers and sons. They too were mothers and sisters and daughters. Britain’s reaction to the Rising ensured the marytyrdom of its leaders. It produced a retrospective democratic mandate in the 1918 General Election. But the violence of the Rising is what produced a negative definition of Irishness and from which dissident republicans continue to claim an intellectual inheritance.

The real danger in all of this is the ease with which identity becomes nothing more than a label.

Three issues come to the fore. First, our identity should be thoughtful and considered. The country in which we are born is an accident. My identity should be something I choose, and spend considerable time in the choosing. It is not something automatic. Such roads are lazy.

Secondly, old identities are breaking down. In an increasingly mobile world, the Trumps and Le Pens, bemoan a world where Dublin has more in common with Copenhagen than Castleblaney. They rail against difference, against otherness, and cloak themselves in a flag believing that only people who do likewise can be right.

Third, identities should be more than labels. I am more than one thing. If we are to have pride in our own identity then how can we believe it is right to stereotype, to denigrate, to discriminate based on one aspect of someone’s identity? Death and untold unhappiness have been the result of arbitrary lines on a map or the symbols hung in a building. The issue is not confined to national or religious identities. All group identities are ultimately about them and us.

So, identity should come from within. It should be what we choose in life. Everyone should have the right to freely express their identity. But, imagine a world where that wasn’t constrained by labels or by lines on a map.


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Filed under Philosophy, Politics

The legacy of cowards

Sometimes the ignorance and hypocrisy of people amaze me. It can be a gentle roll-of-the-eyes moment when I realise that the person in conversation with me doesn’t know where Bhutan is. Other times, it is a stop-me-in-my-tracks incident that makes me question how we have allowed our ‘civilised’ society to be moulded into what passes for civilised today. There are moments, like Abu Ghraib, which put under the microscope my belief that the western world is a civilised one that forswears vengeance and retribution in favour of justice and right.

For three weeks I’ve been having one of those moments. For three weeks I have been unable to shake a question deep in my head, about why some people believe justice equals revenge and revenge equals justice. And for three weeks I’ve been awe struck by the determined approach of the people of Norway to prevent their society from being be bastardised in the name of justice.

It started as I listened to Talkback, a local phone-in radio show on BBC Radio Ulster; not a regular habit because on the rare occasions that I listen to some of the show, I usually leave the car filled with despair at the place in which I live and the people who inhabit it. It is almost virtually guaranteed to give me a moment of eye rolling.

The segment in question was about reaction to the sentence given to Anders Behring Brevik; sentenced to 21 years for the murder of 77 people in bombing and shooting attacks in Norway last year, it was the maximum sentence available under Norwegian law. Two Norwegian guests, one a journalist and one a student who was actually on the island of Utoya when Brevik carried out his massacre there, had spent ten minutes methodically and articulately explaining the context for the sentence – 21 years would almost certainly be extended to life because Brevik would still be a danger; Norway wanted to move on and not have its legal system defined (or redefined) by the actions of one crazy man; the people of Norway were proud of their society’s ability to recognise and punish evil whilst not being consumed with the need for justice and revenge. In the student’s – Tor – words, “we will not subvert the principles of our legal system to suit a need for bloody revenge…we want to be better than him.”

But the people of Northern Ireland could not understand it. Indeed, a lot of the reaction I read from the UK and US was based on peoples’ inability to understand why the sentence was so lenient. The ‘good’ people of Northern Ireland wanted Brevik to die for his actions. They believed that the only justice available for those who were murdered and for their families who remained was that Brevik should be killed. Of perhaps eight or ten messages read out, only one or two ran counter to the “Kill Him” mentality. The show’s stand-in host, William Crawley, almost apologised for the reaction when explaining to his Norwegian guests that it needed to be understood in the context of Northern Ireland having suffered from terrorism over the years.

One caller stated bluntly, in that particularly blunt North Antrim accent, “I’d just like to say that I believe that Anders Brevik should be hung.” Asked why, he responded “I say that because I think of the victims” before going on to say that all murderers should be hung.

The reaction of Tor, one of those young people who had managed to survive Brevik’s madness, was as inspiring as it was withering, saying that he would rather die than live in a country that had the death penalty – “I am very, very fortunate to live in a country where the death penalty is not part of our legal system.”

“We try to be more civilised than him. There’s no revenge; there can be no revenge. You cannot kill him 77 times. However, we can choose how we allow it to shape our society…This is about attacking the principles of our democracy. He had a problem with our organisation because our organisation, in a democratic society, can build confidence around our political programme in a way that he was unable to; and he was unable to get power through democratic means, and he couldn’t handle it. He didn’t even have the cowardice to attack unarmed adults. Instead, he had the cowardice to attack unarmed children.”

Tor saw the cries for the death penalty as being in line with Brevik’s political views, not those of a civilised society that was willing to defend rational debate and democratic principles nor those of a society that was unwilling to compromise its principles on the basis of the actions of one man, however destructive and heinous those actions were. “We are not allowing someone like that to set the agenda,” he declared.

Stephen’s response was silence. He was gone. He had no ability or confidence to argue his point. I would like to say that he had no ability or confidence to argue his point because his opinion was based on an emotional belief that revenge is the same as justice, not on a principled belief that the death penalty is a deterrent for murderers. But I can only make an assumption that that was why Stephen had hung up. I can only assume that Stephen was unwilling to defend murderous revenge against a victim of the murderer himself, a victim who was resolute in his belief that revenge was not the answer for Norway.

There is perhaps no better legacy for the 77 people whom Brevik brutally killed last year, nor no better sense of justice for them than that his actions do not cause Norway to become obsessed with security or revenge in the way that other countries have done. In Tor’s words again, “We didn’t choose what occurred, but we can choose what changes we will allow that to trigger in our society.”


Filed under Northern Ireland, Philosophy