What is Identity?

Last week, at the pub, my brother asked me what I thought identity is. There was no real context; he interrupted our conversation about unsociable conversations* to say “you tend to think a lot, what do you think identity is?”. The truth is, this is not a conversation I have had often. I meditate (or, at least, used to; I haven’t done for a while now), and that paints a distinct picture of “self”, but not of identity. That confusion, between self and identity, formed the basis of the first thought to come to mind, but it never got articulated.

More things have an identity than have a self. For example, you could identify the Mona Lisa. If you are a particular expert, you can identify a copy of the Mona Lisa and distinguish it from the original. It was those verbs that started for form a concept of identity in my head (all in the time it takes to say “umm…”, so this is still an open conversation for me). The processes of identifying and distinguishing is an interaction; it involved both an object and an observer. Take, for example, me: what is my identity? What characteristics of mine would identify me? Well, that depends on who you are. As a reader of my blog, you are more likely to identify me by my URL (allallt.wordpress.com) and by the sorts of ideas I would share here. But the ideas I share here are selected, unsociable conversations and so my close friends would not identify me by the same collection of ideas readers would. There are some people I see most days but don’t talk to; my appearance is pretty much the only thing that uniquely identifies me as me to them.

When I was a university, a slightly strange long-haired student vanished one weekend. He had attended lecturers, had a few friends, but didn’t talk to many people. Then, one Friday he left campus and never returned. At least, that is how it looked to a large number of people who went to the same gym, sat behind him in lectures or often saw him in the library. But, to his friends and lecturers, he never vanished; he just got his hair cut. That isn’t a facetious joke, either. The long-haired student was me. One weekend, in the spring term of my first year I cut off and gave to charity 18 inches of my hair. It was kind of impulsive, and I didn’t tell anyone; I just turned up to university on Monday. In my third year, we had a house party and discussed people who had dropped out from the course: long-haired me was mentioned. To people who did not talk to me, my long-hair was my uniquely identifying characteristic. As far as they could tell, I had dropped out.

And I don’t think it fair to suggest they had the wrong conception of my identity. They could not fairly be considered experts, as they would have struggled to distinguish me from my brother (who, at the time, has similarly lengthed and coloured hair). They did not have a deep idea of what could uniquely identify me, and I wouldn’t expect them to).

Identity is a perception. I probably identify myself differently from those who know me best, because I have a vested interest in identifying myself a certain way. Afterall, it’s 10 in the morning and I am sitting in a dressing gown with no pants on as I write this.

Identity is also highly complex. My friends would probably recognise my voice, intonation and rhythm of speech but not be consciously aware that the rhythm of my speech had formed part of my identity. The same is probably true of my gait and posture; friends would recognise it if they saw it, but not think of it. The same again probably goes for what conversations I choose to join and my lexis and syntax; they’d notice it if it changed, or tell another person they remind them of me, but they’d probably never write it down as something they notice about me.

If you don’t take a complex fingerprint of someone’s identity, you can get confusions and failure to distinguish, like by university colleagues who couldn’t tell me from my brother. But, simplified identities are also how we create groups. Simple identities refer to a number of individuals. You can imagine it as a vast spreadsheet. Without any criteria (identifying characteristics) all things belong to the same group. As you add criteria to filter the list–”select those with long hair”; “select those who are blonde”–you create the group (in this case, hiding all individuals without long hair and without blonde hair). But you are a long way from understanding any of the individuals. You won’t start to understand the individuals until you have a vast array of identifying characteristics (i.e. identities), but by that time your group will have so few individuals they you may be talking about only a handful of them.

A male friend of mine was proud to belong to a group of people who are over 6 foot tall and under 9 stone (126 lbs). You may make assumptions about him from that, but the group he belongs to only has 4 identifying characteristics (I bet you thought there are 2. There aren’t, there are at least 4. In fact, I’ve given you 5). Can you really extrapolate from those 4 characteristics?

* an unsociable conversation is one that forces a person to be critical of the ideas they hold or are discussing. Questions like “what does it mean to be reasonable?” and “what is ‘good’?”. People tend not to like being faced with hard hitting questions like this, and especially not on the spot.

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4 thoughts on “What is Identity?”

  1. Wait, you didn’t suspect your brother of having turned to a mate and said, “Watch, I’ll set my brother off. He’ll probably end up writing something, too.” Bro “why is there air?” Heh, heh, heh. I mean, brothers being who they are and such.

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