Over the past couple of months, both online and in the real-world, the issue of identity has come up in a number conversations I’ve had. A recurring theme has been the explicit rejection of identity as a meaningful category or, more plainly, the assertion that folks don’t want to claim an identity or “don’t want to be defined” as one thing or another.
The notion of identity and the related but different “subjectivity” in social theory is a given, so this attitude surprised me. Which, of course, is a sure sign that even I can get a little myopic out here in the academic hinterlands.
So I thought I’d write about it, organize my thoughts, and make a case for not only the reality of your identity but its relevance to Buddhist practice.
Let me start by suggesting that there are actually two separate but related levels of identity that each and every last one of us possesses. (All of us. Me. You. Yes, even you, the guy cowering in the corner with your fingers in your ears. Don’t be afraid. Stick with me. This will all make sense in time.) For the sake of argument, I’m going to cal these two senses of identity our personal and social identity.
The Freudians out there will recognize the personal identity as the “ego.” The Yogacarins in the audience will recognize their identity as the “manas.” Most of the rest of us will recognize it as our own personal sense of self. And we all have one, like it or not. Whenever someone asks you if you like the band Radiohead, you’re identifying as the kind of person who likes (or dislikes) Radiohead. Most people believe believe that there are two types of drivers in the world: good drives (me), and everyone else (all of you). Most folks like to believe that they are rational, kind, loyal, funny people. Most of us think of ourselves in these terms.
That sense of self, that sense I have that “I’m a fairly even-tempered guy,” that’s my identity. It’s who I think I am.
It seems to me just this side of delusional to believe that you don’t have an identity. To the best of my knowledge, every last person on the face of the planet has a sense of who they are with one possible exception: the Buddha. To the best of my knowledge, letting go of that sense of self, honestly, thoroughly and completely, is a unique characteristic of the Buddha.
It also seems to me that if the central project of Buddhism is to end suffering by deconstructing my sense of self in order to understand how I am interconnected with the rest of phenomenal existence, then I need to accept the fact that I have an identity. Step one: acknowledge that I have an identity. Step two: start deconstruction.
You can’t tear down a building if you refuse to acknowledge that the building is there.
Speaking of the interconnectedness of my self and all phenomenal existence, let’s talk about that social identity. Just like each of us (even that guy with his fingers in his ears) has a personal identity, we all have a social identity. When you tell someone you like the band Radiohead, they conjure up all sorts of meanings about what Radiohead fans are like and ascribe them to you. As a straight, white male, living in the United States, you’d better believe I get treated differently than a person of color, than my wife, than many of my friends who through accidents of birth were born gay or female or of color or taller or shorter or not in the United States or whatever.
All of those identity markers are really just systems of meaning agreed upon by society at large. To deny that society treats people differently based on accidents of their birth is also just this side of delusional.
I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say that those systems of meaning white, black, gay, straight, blah blah blah aren’t “real.” They’re meaningless. And just because I happen to look like a particular stereotype does not mean that I embody that stereotype.
And you’re right. Of course you’re right. But to assume that just because you happen to know that, to assume that just because I happen to know that, that just because we’re smarter than the Michele Bachmanns of the world that those systems of meaning are suddenly rendered meaningless or have no real consequences out there in ordinary, everyday life, is, like I said, just this side of delusional.
It might not be “real.” But people sure as hell act like it’s real.
And just like we can’t deconstruct a building that we refuse to acknowledge is there, we can not change the way people behave without first acknowledging how they’re behaving and why they’re behaving in such a way such a way that based on a fundamentally flawed perspective on reality.
These two senses of identity are important and interrelated. They’re important because they’re both fundamentally untrue. I am not a good driver. I am not an even-tempered guy. I am only a good, even-tempered driver to the extent that (a) there are other people in the world who are not good, even-tempered drivers; and (b) someone other than myself acknowledges that I am a good, event-tempered driver. The fact that I like Radiohead is meaningless. The fact that I am a straight, white man is also meaningless. None of these markers of identity exist in some pure, Aristotelian vacuum. They only exist because you and I (and everyone else) behave as if they are real, as if they have meaning.
It is a collective delusion. And believing that if only one person changes his perspective (that guy with his fingers in his ears) that the whole mass of collective delusion will come to a stop is just as much a delusion. We all gotta change or none of us will.
This is where we are. It is where we start. Acknowledging that we have these identities, both personal and social, is only the first step. And ya gotta start somewhere.