How do YOU “self-identify”? An odd question, for sure, and I followed an odd path to get to it. The stops included a government form, a conversation after hockey, and a documentary on former NBA player Vlade Divac. At the end of this route, the question still seems very relevant, so I’m asking you to consider it. Here, let me explain.
The government form asked for my race and offered the usual options; Caucasian, Black (socially acceptable in Canada), Aboriginal, Metis, and then provided a box for “Other – self-identify”. My first thought was to invent a new race, instantly become an oppressed minority of one, and start a separatist movement. I soon dismissed this as impractical (if not passe) but the question stuck around in my brain and started fermenting a bit. The conversation after hockey helped me see different angles to the larger picture and define whether it really is important. The documentary on Divac showed what can happen when large groups of people suddenly change their identity, making me even more curious how my friends would answer the question.
Divac and his best friend Drazan Petrovic enjoyed great success as members of the Yugoslavian national basketball team but the collapse of that nation into separate entities allowed generations-old nationalistic hatreds to re-emerge. Divac is Serbian, Petrovic was Croatian, and suddenly there was a rift between them that was never resolved. The divide was partially their own doing and partially imposed on them by others of their new identities; the Serbs flat out told Divac that it was dangerous to talk to Petrovic. If this doesn’t make sense to you, check out the Serbo-Croatian war on Wikipedia. It wasn’t pretty.
So let’s take the question to a higher level than just race, and ask it again. How do you self-identify? When you boil yourself down to your core element (an icky process, I expect) what do you find? A Christian? A Republican? An American? A Liberal, maybe? Perhaps a single issue defines you, say, gun control, or abortion. Perhaps you’re a scientist, and the search for knowledge is your core element. You may find more than one, and it may change over time, but do a little introspection and see what you find.
While you’re mulling that over, let’s talk about why it’s important. I’ve come up with three reasons that I think it’s important to be consciously aware of our self-identities. There may be more reasons, and mine may suck, but I’ll let you hash that out in the comments. First, there’s the little matter of the human concept of “us”. Us are the folks we identify with, the ones we’ll help in a crisis, and the ones that we’ll vigorously defend against the onslaughts of all the non-us’es that we refer to as “them”. We work together with others of us to get things done. We’re more comfortable around us than we are when some of them are included. It’s easier to ignore them, and dismiss them as idiots than it is to ignore one of us. This is sad because sometimes one of them has a good point worth considering but our tendency is to dismiss them out of hand. The pull of the dark side is much stronger when you get them involved, too. Humans don’t commit genocide or wage war against us, they do it against them. In fact, differentiating them from us is one of the essential preliminaries to both war and genocide.
The second reason your self-identity is important grows from the first. Put bluntly, it limits you. The more strongly you identify with your us, the harder it is to see things from the them point of view. When us and them inevitably come into conflict the path to resolution is far easier if you can see the issue from both sides. It’s not impossible to be strongly associated with a group and still see things from another perspective, but it does make it more difficult, and at the extreme end of the scale an extremely strong identity with a single cause leads to … well, extremism.
This leads to the third reason that your self-identity is important. Once you’ve picked a core element, it’s hard to change it. Divacs, for example, considered himself a Yugoslav until that rug was pulled out from under him and he was forced to revert to an identity that he was not comfortable with. Because this change is difficult, it’s important to make sure that the identity you’ve chosen for yourself is an appropriate one, and it’s also important to check every so often to make sure it still fits. As a trivial example of both of these concepts is my identity as a fan of the Seattle Mariners. I’ve been a fan for years, but lately the team has proven itself to be a bunch of incompetent fools with no idea how to win. No longer wanting to be associated with (well, more accurately, disappointed by) them, I’m trying to not be a fan anymore but old habits die hard. I just paid $20 to listen to any baseball game I want, and no surprise, I’m listening to the Mariners. As I said, this is a trivial example but it applies equally to important things like political, religious, and social affiliations. If you’re a Lutheran for example, but have lost your faith in God, it’s a pretty good possibility that you’re not actually a Lutheran anymore.
So give it some thought. What’s your self-identity? Does it still fit?