Recently, my friend Little Lamb wrote a post about how people react to identity (gender or otherwise). Now conceptions of the self have eluded me for a while, and I love reading what others have to say about the issue. Here’s a short snipet from her article—you should read the whole thing, of course—but this will do well enough to situate my post:
Of course, we do judge the authenticity of identities like these—often identity groups to which we ourselves don’t even belong—every day. We distinguish between “normal” Muslims and violent ones, women who kiss each other at parties and dykes, “real” bisexuals and gay men in denial. But every time we make judgements like these, we imply that we are better judges of authentic identity than those who live these identities. [Original emphasis]
Before I go on, I should say that I completely agree. From an observational standpoint, when someone judges the identity of another he is as a matter of fact asserting his perception of that person onto that person, perhaps against that person’s will. The question is not whether the judge is imposing his viewpoint onto another, but whether there’s any significance in the act at all. After all, in some cases it could be very useful indeed.
I grew up in a very small, white, Irish-Catholic suburb of Boston. Now it’s important that I say Boston, because already there are tremendous differences between say a Boston Irish-Catholic community and a Chicago Irish-Catholic community, and both of them, in turn, are vastly different from Irish Irish-Catholic communities. I’m not about to dismiss local variation. That said, I’m not Irish-Catholic. According to legal documentation, I’m Mexican. And as far as the law of Moses goes, I’m also Jewish. But having grown up in an otherwise homogenous environment, what being Mexican and being Jewish means to me might very well look like what being Boston Irish-Catholic looks like to you. But that’s okay. How I feel and what I know to be Mexican is largely an accident of my youth. So, whatever I think it is, it is. It’s all a matter of perspective, right? Well, maybe.
Once I went to college, I met lots of people who, like me, were Mexican, Jewish, and sometimes even Mexican and Jewish. (Now I’m going to start lumping Mexican and Hispanics into a single term. From now on, when I write Mexican you can assume I mean Hispanic. While I know this may sound clumsy and callous, it’s not. I’m Mexican after all, and who are you to tell me what it means to be Mexican—er, Hispanic?) However, unlike me, most of them grew up with other Mexicans or Jews. Consequently, they painted a very different picture when they described the Mexican experience. Still, due to legalities, I was accepted into the two groups, I think, as a matter of technicality. But the more time I spent doing “Mexican things,” the more sure of my heritage, and all the perks that come along with it, I became. I had always thought I liked spicy food because of my Hispanicidad, now there was no questioning it.
So, where does identity exist? Some might argue that identity is something that each individual chooses for himself on the inside. However, I don’t buy it. If I don’t think you’re a Mexican, then to me, you’re not a Mexican—even if you think you are. Likewise, I might think you’re a Mexican, even if you insist you’re not. The problem is that identity is not an objective fact. It lies somewhere between a speech act and something else. It may feel a little unsettlilng that you’re not in control of who you are. Identity is an emergent property of the way one person interacts with several, other people. Who you are isn’t entirely up to you, it’s up to us. Let me explain what I mean.
When I meet you for the first time, I’m going to assess the way you look, act, make me feel, etc.—I’m going to perceive you. Now, of course, I won’t get an exhaustive look at you. I probably won’t be able to guess that you’re favorite number is 11, or that you find global warming so scary that sometimes you can’t sleep at night. Everyone has to operate with incomplete knowledge. We fill in the gaps with likely probabilities based on our previous experience (some might call these probabilities assumptions) and do our best to form a belief that makes sense of the situation. Because of the way I treat you, you’re going to adjust your behavior. Your change will trigger me to adjust my beliefs and therefore behavior. Eventually, the way you act and the way I act will settle down—and voilá! What is identity other than a set of behavoirs that largely matches some (loosely if at all defined) generic shadow of behavoirs?
Humans are dynamic entities. We respond to our environment. The trick is, humans are also a part of their environment. So it’s easy to forget that other people are part of our environment, too. Before I talked about why Vygotsky thinks man is special: we use signs to store information outside of our brains. Our minds, in a very real sense, are distributed all over the world around us. It’s not so suprising, then, that each individual identity should be spread out all over a mass of other people as well.
Humans alter their environment—I write down ideas I have in a notebook I keep in my pocket, for example—so that later they can use the environment to alter our behavoir—say, like remembering what to write my next post about. What’s important to remember is that every interaction with our environment is a form of communication. Humans love gathering and piecing together clues. We impute intentionality on just about everything. So we don’t even require that the other end of the conversation come from another living entity. (Consider books, for example; if that doesn’t satisfy you, consider geologists who try to reconstruct the Earth’s past recorded in the bedrock.) And most interactions end up changing all the parties involved. (Leave no footprint after camping; reconcile after a fight to feel better; drink orange juice for energy and hydration.) The fact that we interact with other people means that we change others and are changed ourselves a little bit every day. Just like small changes slowly birthed Modern English from Old English, we, too, are not who we once were.
Few people would argue that they are exactly still their six year old selves. However, what some people might be slower to admit is that they largely have no say in who they are. Much of who we are, how we fit into society, is not up to us. It’s up to the caprice of the society we belong to, the rules of which are subtle and complex. So, let’s get back to the question of identity. It looks like it is impossible not to judge the authenticity of person’s identity. (If I agree with your perception of yourself [when it matters—fill out an online questionaire for your friend in front of your friend. You’ll see just how much of the same person the two of you see. Careful, it can get tense.] then I reinforce your conception of yourself and at the same time reinforce my assumptions about you.) That’s not the problem. The problem is not in judging, it is in how we judge. Maybe what we ought to investigate is not that we judge but the assumptions that guide our judgments.