Reflections on identity

– Essay –

Throughout history, two major opinions have been noted regarding identity. The first refers to identity as an inherent construct in the human being yet to be discovered. The second argues that identity is formed and it is constantly redefined by interacting with the Other and depends on the context (Hall 1992, cited by Lawrence Grossberg, 2003). This essay is built on the second perspective.

Amin Maalouf presents the identity of a person as a sum of affiliations (national, family, religious, professional, cultural, etc.) most of them not being born. These affiliations have a different weight in terms of their importance for the person in question and, although certain affiliations are specific to several people at the same time, “certainly the same configuration will not be found in two different people” (Maalouf, 1998, p. 19). Being born in a certain country gives a person a common identity with the rest of the population of that country. But the fact of living in that country, being a graduate of a particular institution, employed in a certain company, speaking one or two foreign languages, coming from a certain family, practicing a certain religion, etc. makes that person unique.

The birth of nation-states and nationalism played a decisive role in identity. With the end of the colonial era, in the 19th century, nationalism grew, legitimizing itself on the existence of a common social identity and the sovereignty of the people. Discussing the psychosocial dimensions of nationalism, Kelman states that the nation-state is perceived by its citizens as a source of personal dignity in two respects:

Insofar as it represents the ethnic and cultural identity of the population, it provides individuals a sense of participation and control over their own fate. Through identification with an independent state, individuals affirm and express their personal identity and experience an enhanced sense of self-respect and self-transcendence. At the same time, insofar as individuals are included within the boundaries of the political system and are secure in their citizen status, they can rely on the nation-state to meet their basic needs and protect their interests.

Herbert C. Kelman, 1997, p. 167

For these reasons, it is easy to understand why the nation – understood as a population living in a particular territory, sharing the same myths and memories, a common public culture, a common economy, and common rights and obligations (Smith, 1996, 447 ) – and belonging to it has become, over time, a defining aspect of a person’s identity.

At discourse level, nationalism focused on the idea of ​​unity. Cultural unity and language unity, however, posed real challenges for minority ethnic groups who were forced to adopt the majority culture and language, a process known as “cultural assimilation” (Modood, 2008, Bloemraad, Korteweg and Yurdakul, 2008).

According to Bauman (2003), if before and during the modern era the problem was in terms of building and strengthening an identity, in the post-modern period (after the Cold War) the problem of identity is to avoid stagnation and keep options open. Referring to lifestyle and life perspectives, the author places the “history” of identity between “life as a pilgrim” (born with Christianity) and “life as a player” (specific to the contemporary period). The identity of the pilgrim is built in his relationship with the road and is a continuous process. His destination is “somewhere there”, a projection of the future. With each advance, he discovers new meanings of his existence, whether the destination and the road belong to the physical space (the journeys of the hermits in the desert, the pilgrimages of the faithful to the holy places, etc.) or to the inner world (the turmoil of the great philosophers’ reason, the creative path of artists, etc.). “Life as a pilgrim” was possible as long as the world offered humans the security of the “reward”, the expected future at the end of the journey. We can identify this perspective in the elderly of today’s society, who have worked for more than half of their lives waiting for a satisfactory pension and a quiet old age.

The post-modern period is under the influence of globalization. As a peculiarity of this period, Paul Dobrescu (2009) emphasizes the spectacular leaps in the field of science and technology, as well as technical infrastructure. These special conditions have been decisive factors in supporting the process of globalization. However, although it arose from the desire to remove some of the barriers in relations between states, globalization has led to the phenomenon of deterritorialization – understood as “suspending the univocal link between a territory and a problem” (Dobrescu, 2009, 12), weakening the importance of the state in certain aspects. Thus, the author claims, global logic no longer operates with the idea of ​​physical space. The contemporary period challenges the previous model of exchanges between territorial units, across borders, by creating a unitary space of supra-territorial, cross-border relations (Dobrescu 2009, 12).

What were the effects of this new reality on identity? From Amin Maalouf’s perspective, two of the effects of globalization, universality and uniformity, had a major impact on identity, one positive and the other negative (Maalouf, 1998, 141). The basic postulate of universality, the author argues, is that “there are some inherent rights of every person that no one should deny to his fellows because of religion, skin color, nationality, gender, or any other reason” (Maalouf ,1998, 141 ). Thus, the idea of ​​a unitary space fosters the same rights and freedoms for all its inhabitants. As citizens of the global space, all people are treated equally, regardless of nationality, ethnicity or other affiliation. On the other hand, new media technologies (especially the Internet), the expansion of corporations, transport and communications, as well as labor migration, contributed to the mass spread of the values ​​of the new superpower after the Cold War. Thus, on the surface, we discuss uniformity in the form of Americanization (Dobrescu, 2009, 312, Maalouf 1998, 151), both politically and culturally. Today we believe in the values ​​of democracy, we eat at McDonald’s, we drink Coca-Cola, we have “jobs”, we are “gamers” in our free time, and in cinemas we watch American movies. All these aspects have left their mark on identity, a fact visible especially in the case of generations born after 1989. In the new context, the challenge has shifted from building an identity, to maintaining it. According to Silviu Coposescu, today we are witnessing an identity crisis. The rapid changes that occur in the economic, technological, political, social environment, etc. push individuals towards a continuous effort to preserve and defend their identity (Coposescu, 2009, 13).

Globalization has reconfigured previous landmarks, of which, most importantly, the security of the future, of the “pilgrim’s destination”. The pilgrim ultimately became a “player” (Bauman, 2003, 31). The player’s time is fragmented, a succession of games, each with its own rules. Values ​​such as compassion and cooperation no longer have a place, each player’s goal being to win the game. The constants in today’s player world are risk, intuitive decisions and cautious thinking (Bauman, 2003, 31). Long-term commitments have been replaced by short episodes of life, with clear beginning and end. Today, 5 years spent in the same company seem like an eternity, and retiring from the company where you first worked is not a professional option. Not only the individual’s relationship with time has changed, but also the relationship with the Other. Thus, argues Bauman, postmodern life strategies:

They all favor and promote a distance between the individual and the Other and cast the Other primarily as the object of aesthetic, not moral, evaluation; as a matter of taste, not responsibility. In the effect, they cast individual autonomy in opposition to moral (as well as the other) responsibilities and remove huge areas of human interaction, even the most intimate among them, from moral judgment (…) The disengagement and commitment-avoidance favoured by all four postmodern strategies has a backlash effect in the shape of the suppression of the moral impulse as well as disavowal and denigration of moral sentiments.

Zygmunt Bauman, 2003, p. 33

The intensification of the migration process is another contemporary challenge on identity. The relationship between the immigrant and the host country raises identity issues on both sides. From the immigrant’s perspective, although leaving the country of origin was caused by issues with which he no longer felt in agreement (oppression, poverty, lack of perspective, etc.), abandonment is accompanied by guilt; blame for the relatives left behind, for the beautiful memories, for the language, religion, holidays, music, cuisine, etc. from the country of origin (Maalouf, 1998, 54). In addition, feelings towards the host country are just as ambiguous. Although he hopes for a better life, hope is doubled by the fear of the unknown, especially because of the unfavorable balance of power; the immigrant fears rejection, humiliation, is susceptible to any attitude that denotes contempt, irony or pity (Maalouf 1998, 54-55). Therefore, he perceives his identity as being constantly threatened. And when faced with social identity threats the reaction may be 1. to avoid interethnic interactions, 2. to deny the perspective of members outside the group, or 3. to adapt ones behavior to create a favorable impression (Shelton, Richeson, and Vorauer, 2006, 330). Unfortunately, today it seems that the most common form of response is to deny those outside the group and highlight cultural differences.

Analyzing the two extreme perceptions on immigration, one seeing the host country as a blank page where immigrants can settle in and preserve their habits, culture and values, and the second seeing it as a page with laws, values, beliefs already written, to which immigrants must comply, Maalouf suggests a middle ground: perceiving the host country as a page that is continuously being written (Maalouf 1998, 56-57). Thus, the author appeals to reciprocity: immigrants must be aware that the more they allow themselves to be impregnated with the culture of the host country, the more they can impregnate it with their own culture, and the hosts must understand that the more an immigrant feels respected, the more he or she will open up to the culture of the host country (Maalouf 1998, 58). In the same note, Michelle LeBaron (2003) calls for “cultural fluency” – acknowledging and respecting the fact that framing, communication, meaning-building, addressing conflicts, identities and roles vary from culture to culture.

In conclusion, today’s global reality raises serious challenges in terms of identity, but also of the political response to the new context. If until recently the desire of nation-states was the creation and strengthening of unitary national cultures, forcing ethnic or religious minorities to adapt to national culture, the explosion of diversity (cultural, ethnic, religious, etc.) we witness today within nation-states, requires a rethinking of the approach at the political level. In the new context, the solution seems to wear the cloak of multiculturalism, understood by Tariq Modood as “multicultural citizenship” (2008, p. 549), in which all individuals have equal rights, regardless of ethnicity, country of origin, religion or cultural customs. However, it remains to be seen to what extent multiculturalism will prove to be a successful strategy.


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