Who Am I?

The challenge for us and for all humanity is to work towards a time when society becomes a big tent that does not leave anyone out, where the benefits of positive social identities do not depend on the denigration of others...

The challenge for us and for all humanity is to work towards a time when society becomes a big tent that does not leave anyone out, where the benefits of positive social identities do not depend on the denigration of others...

No man is an island, Entire of itself . . .
~ John Donne

A woman from Northern Ireland being interviewed on CBC radio recounts a vivid childhood memory: While strolling along a beach with her younger sister, they encountered a group of children who demanded to know just one thing: were they Protestant or Catholic? The girls hesitated, for this was during the Troubles and they realized that the “wrong” answer would result in troubles of their own. Their silence led to a command to recite the Lord’s Prayer, and seeing no risk in this, they chimed in unison, Our Father who art in Heaven. To their surprise, this triggered taunting and pummeling that lasted until they managed to run away. Only later did they learn that Northern Ireland Protestants at that time began the Lord’s prayer with Our Father, which art in Heaven. Who art had marked them as Catholics. However, being set upon had nothing to do with religion, of course. This was no dispute about theological doctrine. Henry VIII’s rupture from the Roman Church was not an issue. It was instead a clash of social identities demarcated by a pronoun. Who or Which; Catholic or Protestant.

Humans are social animals who spontaneously form into groups, and group membership is important to one degree or another to just about all of us. The rare person who chooses continual solitude is considered very odd by others. Belonging to a group satisfies many needs and confers numerous benefits. Being ensconced in a group reduces anxiety and offers security, and we learn early in life that it can be very anxiety-arousing to be singled out whether by hooligans in the street, a teacher in the classroom, a wild animal in the forest, or a police officer in the park. In addition, the collective efforts of a group allow for the attainment of goals beyond the reach of any one individual. Group interaction also helps fill the need for affiliation; the deleterious effects of pandemic-induced social isolation on both physical and emotional well-being underscore the importance of social contact.

Group membership, whether formal as part of a sports team or an environmental action committee, or informal, in terms of social class, nationality or ethnic origin, is the basis for our social identity, which contributes very significantly to self-esteem and to our sense of who we are. Social identity theory, developed by social psychologists in the 1970s, describes three cognitive processes underlying the development of our social identities: social categorization, social identification itself, and social comparison.

Social categorization

Whether or not we are aware of it, our behaviour towards others is automatically and significantly influenced by how we categorize them in terms of group membership. Our actions, our speech style, the words we choose, the topics we address are all influenced by whether the person is priest or plumber, teenager or elder, male or female. Categorization based on physical characteristics, occupation, perceived educational level, race, religion, ethnic origin, and so on, provides assumptions about an individual’s interests, motivations and beliefs. It helps us judge whether someone is interesting or not, trustworthy or not, guilty or not, dangerous or not, or worthy of our attention or not. It is the lubricant that helps us smoothly navigate our way through the complex social universe in which we live.

And physical characteristics can lead to miscategorization, such as considering someone as suspicious because she does not make eye contact, feeling threatened by a man because of the colour of his skin, or assuming that someone cannot succeed as a firefighter or lumberjack because she is a woman. And then there is this unusual example: Years ago, in India, I met a young woman whose mother was Indian and whose father, whom she had never met, was a British soldier who had lived temporarily in India. The genetic roulette wheel of life had given her Caucasian features including very pale skin. She expressed extreme frustration with her life because, she said, it made no difference whether she dressed in a sari or in Western clothes, fellow Indians judged her at first meeting to be a foreign tourist. Her appearance similarly attracted beggars seeking baksheesh from a presumed tourist. Her social identity was strongly tied to being Indian, but because of how she looked, she was routinely categorized as a stranger in her own land.

Social identification

Whereas social categorization refers to how we sort people in terms of social categories, social identification is based on the way we identify ourselves in terms of belonging to categories or groups that have significance for us. We all have a number of social identities, some much more central and important than others. How would you respond when asked Who are you? Perhaps a parent during your child’s hockey game. Or Canadian if in a Parisian restaurant. Or an accountant when meeting strangers at a party. In each case, this reflects membership in a particular social classification or group. Which social identity is dominant at any given moment depends on the circumstances. A student’s social identity in terms of being female may be irrelevant in the classroom until a male teacher makes a comment that belittles women.

Identifying with a particular group does not typically depend on feelings of liking and attraction for others in the group, but on perceived similarities that produce a sense of group identity. The differences between categories are usually viewed as being much greater than the differences within. Whether people view themselves as similar to or different from others varies with the situation. Being Canadian may be important to a tourist on a boat where almost everyone else is American, but Canadians and Americans are likely to see themselves as part of a common group in the face of threat or insult from, say, an ISIS supporter.

Of course, members of a given group or category are not simply clones of each other, and social behaviour is influenced by our personal characteristics as well as by our social identities. We can think of this in terms of an interpersonal-intergroup continuum where interactions vary, sometimes determined almost exclusively by individual characteristics, other times governed primarily by social group membership. Personal aspects involve both physical and personality factors, as well as one’s attitudes, beliefs and personal history. People tend to seek a social identity that does not conflict with their personal identity.

Social psychologists consider social identity to be the crucial link between individual behaviour and social networks. Successful group behaviour requires a shared social identity and identifying with a group brings into play a shared belief system that influences our thoughts and actions and values, which in turn provides shared social norms and goals and a platform for cooperation and leadership. Thus, if you associate yourself with a group working to fight racism or rescue the environment, your participation will both sensitize you to issues of which you may not have been previously aware and help identify measures to deal with them.

Because social identification often involves pressure to conform and to adopt the beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that make that group distinctive, this can unfortunately provide fertile ground for the development of prejudice and discrimination towards people in other categories and groups. Sometimes, social identity can even become almost the sole basis for how people define themselves, resulting in depersonalization, where people see themselves less as unique individuals and more as members of the group. As a result, the line between social and personal identities virtually disappears, leading to identity fusion, a “feeling of oneness” with the group. People then go to whatever lengths are necessary to support the group’s cause, sometimes even to the extreme of sacrificing their lives. Members of terrorist organizations as well as some antiabortion and animal-rights activists exhibit signs of identity fusion.

Uncertainty reduction and self-enhancement: Group membership supplies us with norms to guide our behaviour, thereby reducing or eliminating uncertainty about how to act in various situations. In addition, group membership also provides an opportunity for self-enhancement; it is an important source of self-esteem, and we can take pride in the glories of the groups to which we belong. For example, most Canadians feel good if they read that Canada is ranked as one of the best countries in the world in which to live. And even those Canadians who rarely watch hockey are likely to feel some satisfaction when a Canadian team defeats an American team in the Stanley Cup final. The vicarious pleasure or disappointment that we feel is the direct result of social identification. Note that it comes about despite having no personal connection with the players, ignoring the fact that there may be more Canadian players on the American team than on our own, and despite the fact that it is only a game being played for the most part by millionaires!

Because group success feeds individual feelings of well-being, this motivates an effort to exaggerate and glorify the group’s accomplishments and specialness while whitewashing its dirty laundry. Most people everywhere, revelling in their nation’s glories, readily accept an unrealistic version that is heavily skewed towards positive virtues. As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, “Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it….”

Henrik Ibsen, in his 1884 play Vildanden, coined the term Lebenslüge to refer to a “life lie,” an important self-delusion that protects an individual from recognizing an unpleasant truth about self or family. One of his characters argues that such a delusion serves a valuable function, stating that (in translation), “If you take away the life lie (Lebenslüge) from an average man, you take away his happiness as well.” The term has since been generalized to mean a “grand delusion” shared by members of social groups, including nations, that casts the group in an unjustified positive light and becomes part of the core social identity of members of the group. The delusion serves to promote feelings of self-worth through identification with the group while providing shelter from feelings of shame or guilt. A vivid example: It is extremely uncomfortable for most Canadians to accept the truth about residential schools and to recognize the personal and cultural devastation brought about in the effort to “take the Indian out of the child.” The grand delusion that the schools were an honest attempt to improve the lives of native children, and that the sorrows they caused were due to a few” bad apples,” protects both national pride and personal self-esteem.

And yet, provided that the delusion is not so distorting that it interferes with rational problem-solving, Lebenslüge can bring benefits to a society beyond assuaging self-esteem. For example, despite the odds favouring the Germans during the Second World War, the British success in preventing an invasion was significantly helped by Churchill’s success in persuading the British public that their national character, their history of resolute courage in the face of danger, rendered them unconquerable: Rule Britannia; Britons never ever shall be slaves. Subscribing to such a belief elevates hope over despair, motivating efforts that can transform the delusion into reality.

Social comparison

Social identification leads almost automatically to social comparison. Although self-esteem can be preserved and increased by a focus on one’s satisfaction with being part of the group, it often benefits from comparison with other relevant groups. For example, Canada’s ability to deal with the pandemic is most often judged by its citizens not on its own merits but through comparison with the efforts of other countries such as the United States or Great Britain. Social comparison feeds competitiveness, and competitiveness among countries contributes to increased nationalism, which all too often has proven to be destructive.

Children as they grow up are subtly – and sometimes not so subtly – encouraged to favour their own group. Discrimination towards the out-groups in favour of their in-group develops almost automatically through competitions, be they spelling bees or baseball games. Self-esteem is boosted when one’s group succeeds. As adults, we continue to cheer for “our” team, our city, our country. While social identification can promote civic pride and enhance cooperation and unity in goal achievement, it also can feed prejudice and discrimination towards people of different social identities – recall the experience of the Irish woman mentioned earlier.

And at the extreme, the feelings of superiority associated with besting another group can lead to viewing that group as inferior and unworthy. This “infra-humanization” of those who belong to disparaged out-groups results in members of the out-group being perceived as less than fully human, supposedly lacking in rationality, pride, morality, and other “human” traits. Sadly, history offers ample examples of infra-humanization. The transport of 10 to 12 million enslaved Africans to the Americas over the course of four centuries was made possible by the belief that Africans were subhuman. Similarly, the Nazi declaration that Jews (and later, Russians, Poles and Ukrainians as well) were untermensch – “subhuman” – was an important step in numbing any humanitarian concerns of German citizens during the Holocaust. Such infrahumanization was also evident during the Vietnam War where Vietcong soldiers were referred to as “gooks ” and it was a common saying that “the only good gook is a dead gook.” Dehumanization is an effective antidote to compassion and guilt.

Identity politics and cultural appropriation

When a group has been marginalized and subjected to systemic injustice, the social identity of its members takes on extra importance, leading to an emphasis on the distinctiveness of the group in order to promote political and social action. So-called identity politics requires defining the boundaries of the group, which may be straightforward enough in the case of, say, women, blacks, or the LGBTQ community, where physical characteristics or patterns of behaviour are generally reliable boundary markers. However, in some cases, the boundaries are not nearly so clearly defined. How many indigenous ancestors must one have to be considered a First Nations member? And how do we define who is and who is not Métis?

The challenge for us and for all humanity is to work towards a time when society becomes a big tent that does not leave anyone out, where the benefits of positive social identities do not depend on the denigration of others …

Such boundary issues are generally of no concern for majority groups spared from prejudice and systematic injustice. Were an Argentinian to pretend to be a Dane, for example, Danes would be unlikely to care, although they may judge the individual to be rather odd. The situation is quite different for oppressed and disadvantaged groups struggling for acceptance and equality in the larger community. This cultural appropriation, in which non-members of the group present themselves as members and speak to the world as such, is considered detrimental to the efforts of disadvantaged groups to define their group boundaries. Hence the hurt and anger expressed by many indigenous people towards Joseph Boyden, the author of several well-received indigenous-centred novels, when it was reported that he had falsely presented himself as being of indigenous heritage. A similar reaction occurred when it was reported that Michelle Latimer, director and co-creator of the successful aboriginal CBC television series, Trickster, did not have the indigenous heritage that she had claimed. This led to the cancellation of the show’s second season.

While identity politics is often viewed by the larger community as the preserve of the downtrodden and disadvantaged, there is an important exception. White identity politics is based not on a history of injustice, but rather on the supposed superiority of “members” of the white race and a concern about the encroachment on their powers and privileges by minority groups. From the Nazis with their notion of Aryan superiority to contemporary white supremacists, this strain of identity politics is directed not at establishing social equality and justice, but at suppressing it.

Alienation and anomie

Who am I to stand and wonder, to wait, while the wheels of fate slowly grind my life away? Who am I?  ~Country Joe & The Fish

Because we are social creatures, becoming estranged from important social groups is difficult to bear. This song speaks to the agonizing reappraisal of one’s life and the recognition that selfish behaviour in the past has led to alienation from others: And I cry into the echo of my loneliness. Yet, such alienation often results from circumstances beyond our control rather than our own misdeeds, for we live in a time of unprecedented social, economic, and technical change that can wreak havoc on social relationships.

Nineteenth-century sociologist Émile Durkheim coined the term anomie to describe such times as these, when change occurs so quickly that the traditional and accepted norms and values of a society begin to crumble before suitable replacements have time to develop. When the social connections that provided security and reassurance in the past slowly disintegrate, some are left feeling disconnected from and abandoned by the very social groups that have defined their social identity. When an individual no longer “fits in” or feels welcome in mainstream society, the core social identity slowly ceases to be source of self-worth and changes to one where one sees oneself – paraphrasing from the Book of Isaiah – as despised and rejected, a person of sorrow and acquainted with grief. Few can claw their way back from this dark place of hopelessness and alienation.

In closing

Social creatures that we are, we automatically sort people into groups and categories, which impacts heavily on our views of ourselves and others. Social identity is a primary source of self-esteem, but the quest to boost our own self-image by extolling the virtues of our own in-group all too often leads to prejudice and discrimination towards out-groups. The challenge for us and for all humanity is to work towards a time when society becomes a big tent that does not leave anyone out, where the benefits of positive social identities do not depend on the denigration of others, and in which Who-arts and Which-arts can live in harmony together.