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.