Identity and Principle

identityWhen people are asked about the main sources of conflict in the world most often cited is religion, ideology, political, ethnic, and cultural differences. The resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and its prevalence in the Arab Middle East, the conflict between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar, as well as resistance to immigration in Europe and the United States, stand as just a few examples. Such are only the most recent instances that are part of a long and tragic dynamic when people are faced with ever-shifting conditions leading to their personal sense of identity being challenged or put in conflict with other people’s sense of identity.

Even if we were able to move past its worst expressions, there remains the deeper problem of a strong psychological and emotional identification with particular ideas or ways of life that impede people’s motivation to adjust to new realities. All of this is quite understandable. When we identify with something we are making a statement to others and ourselves who we believe ourselves to be or want to be, our sense of self-worth, and purpose for being.

All of this sounds as if we are making the choice when, in fact, we have little choice in what we do identify with. This is because the process of inculcation either presents us with our ‘choice’ or at least will frame for us how we will evaluate the options. This leaves little distance between what an individual will come to choose and the country they live in, its prevailing culture, religion and ideology, each of which teach that they are fundamental to your identity. This renders any attack against a country, culture, religion or ideology as an attack on you personally. In this way they are able to justify the call for individuals to risk harm or death or inflict harm or death on others in service to their cause.

I recall years ago watching a television interview with an American soldier who was fighting in Italy during the Second World War. In his recollection, he became separated from his unit and found himself on a mountain ridge overlooking the battle. He came across a hermit who asked him what the conflict was about and found that he could not answer him, yet he was risking life and limb being there. If we cannot provide a clear understanding in our own mind why we are risking our lives and the lives of others, this might present an instance when we need to question whether our stepping up is really serving the Common Good; that is, the needs of society and individuals, as is claimed or just the interests of some parts of society at the expense of other parts.

At this point people frequently express a knee jerk response to say if we could simply rid ourselves of religion or our ethnic or cultural differences everything would be fine. This is an unfortunate oversimplification. Human beings’ potential for aggressiveness is seated in the fight or flight instinct; an aspect of our biological imperative for survival which is stimulated whenever we feel threatened. Evolution equipped our ancestors in this way to avoid and protect against predators. For us, however, aggressiveness is most often self-destructive, stimulated by the affinity for or rejection of forms of identity, which are strictly our own creations, which are by themselves non-threatening.

The problem is not necessarily in what people identify with. We all need psychological and emotional anchors even if we consider them subject to change, which they always are. What is important to consider is why we choose to attach to what we do and the strength of that attachment. It needs to be understood there are at least two entities involved; the individual and an association and or society. The soldier in the TV interview was fighting in Italy in the name of the society, in this instance, represented by the United States. One could also identify with an association such as a particular religious, ethnic or cultural community that, like the individual, is just a part of the society. So other American soldiers who were Jewish would fight to strike out against the Nazi racial doctrine and policy; another of Polish descent to avenge for Germany’s invasion of Poland starting the war in Europe.

Like individuals, associations and society possess a sense of identity which forms a set of interests as in their need for self-preservation and perpetuation, which drives their behavior. To service these ends, it is the objective of these entities to convince individuals that their interests are aligned, whether or not such an alignment actually exists.

Be it an individual, association or society, identity defines the entity in all respects. How one chooses to express their identity is not as important as keeping in mind that all things exist in a perpetual state of change and should not be taken too seriously, but instead be engaged with a sense of light attachment. Any more of an attachment could be seen as attempts to compensate for a perceived lack elsewhere. Instead of compensating, the right action is to identify and correct what is lacking to the best of one’s ability in order to regain individual independence.

In drawing this conversation to a close, we have to ask what does this mean for actions taken in the name of principle? Is there nothing worth the individual making the ultimate sacrifice for? It is important to first recognize that how the question is structured, presumes there are universal truths that exist independent of us, and to be virtuous we should align our identity to those values. It is important to be reminded of the fact there are no universal truths or values which reflect an independent reality ‘out-there’. Instead, we ourselves are the source of truth. In these terms, when making reference to principles it has to be with that understanding in mind.

With that said, we are allowed to come to a conclusion that the individual can in full understanding commit to any action that they believe expresses what defines them. If asked by an association or society to commit to an action, the individual should do so in recognition that such an action needs to be made in both the interests of individuals and society.