One’s social identity is basic to building a self-narrative, the means by which individuals project their stories for viewing by others. Consider social identity like a stain-glass window, it allows a person to see inside but only through the selected colors by the person who built it and often the window as a whole pictorially represents a story of some kind. The extent or fullness of that story is dependent upon a person’s felt need and broader social context. If there’s not much inquiry going on, internally or externally, there’s not much need to devote time and energy to fully articulate the details.
For Americans especially, social identity has become largely conflated with the notion of self, so much so that when discussing other people we view them primarily and initially by political affiliation, sexual identity, or career choice. Who we talk about is no longer an issue of finding out how the various aspects of a person’s life join into a complex whole, interacting in various social contexts. Instead we talk about “the democrats” or “the republicans,” “the gays,” “religious believers” or “nones,” and there’s an increasing call by fair-minded liberal activist groups to broaden out the terms for sexual and gender identity. This tendency to fine-tune our social identity has led to a bizarre social reality where a term that used to classify a group has become so particularized that it can almost be said to belong to a single person. For a people who loudly and vociferously hate labels, we are decidedly dedicated to making more and more of them.
The purpose behind this trend concerns power, more precisely, social influence. A lone voice in the wilderness is rarely heard by anyone, but get enough screaming in unison and the sound will carry. By isolating social identity into smaller and smaller categories, people can effectively have their individual cake and yet still eat of the power that a group brings.
One of the consequences of this concerns social responsibility, as in, it allows people to ignore it. Referred to at times as the “no true believer” defense, the argument goes that the behavior of person X is, despite their personal declarations, not a true example of the ideology they’re publicly espousing. In modern times this argument is largely associated with religious ideology, primarily that of Islam. A person can scream religious invective while committing heinous acts and defenders of the identity of Islam will shake their heads and note that certainly the person is not a “true believer,” but some version of apostate.
To simplify, the argument essentially boils down to a definitional issue, though it comes in two forms. The first is what has been referred to so far, making a group identity so particularized that any difference can be said to cast that person out. We can refer to it generally as the “no true participant” rule. The second form takes this one step further, making the definition not about behavior at all, attempting to portray it as simply an absence of whatever is being stood against. We’ll call this form “absence of an affirmative” and it is is epitomized by many in the atheist community. Any attempt to note that atheism can be construed as standing for something, some value or principled way of viewing the world that is contrary to its opposite, i.e. theistic ideology, is almost immediately met with shocked calls for literary purity.
Let’s be clear, the philosophical definition for atheism is indeed “a lack or absence of belief in a god.” Problems come up when the application of this definition is brought into the social realm. First, the term “god” has no inherent meaning, it can be and is used for everything from the supernatural monotheism of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, to other forms of supernatural kind in Hinduism and the Christian cults of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, to a fully naturalized concept in paganism, far-left Christian ideologies, and some sects of Buddhism and further to a broad conceptual identification with the whole of the universe as in many mystic traditions. What precisely is being stood against or lacking when there is a multitude of potential definitions, many of which are contradictory to others, for the term “god”? Holding to a strict philosophical definition seems more an instance of not wanting to engage in social reality and escaping the responsibility that such entails, than it is about any literary integrity. That there exists numerous calls to stand up and identity as “atheist” only makes this even more peculiar. If there’s nothing positive or affirmative in the term, then how does identifying as such make any contribution to social discussion?
The two forms of defining social identity, “no true participant” and “absence of an affirmative,” both attempt to hold onto the positives of a social identity and maintain the perception of power that groups have, while also removing any need to answer to or feel responsible for how ideologies function as important determinants of behavioral manifestation. When we use an identifier we are proclaiming to those who hear it, an affirmation of a particular behavioral set. It would be peculiar indeed for someone to identify as a “political democrat” and then declare support for unilateral state rights or identify as a “political republican” and declare support for social welfare programs. This is where calls for hypocrisy start being made, it happens when a particular set of behaviors associated with a particular identity are no longer being displayed. The same goes for declarations of values, as when a person identifies as honest and then proceeds to steal the family jewels.
We need social identities and we need them to stand for something, they work as important cognitive short-hand. By using an identity, other people don’t have to sit and wait while the person spells out every peculiar iteration of their personal philosophy and how it will manifest in behavior. Like language broadly does, identity structures save time in communication. Unfortunately, this time saving device can support a profound laziness and when the two forms of argument-by-definition talked about are used, generate a sense of social separateness such that the responsibility associated with being a social species like humanity is ignored.
Identities are important, we’re not going to get rid of them. What we can do is attempt mitigating the negative effects of over-use.
1) Take time to personally determine how personal identities are connected with affirmative statements about one’s behavior.
2) When hearing an identity, be aware of the bias that arises due to preconceived notions of what such an identity means to you.
3) Remember that no single identity can ever hope to fully encapsulate what a person believes of themselves or serve as a means of predicting every potential behavior that may arise.
4) If a behavior, in word or deed, arises that goes against your preconceived notions of what the stated identity is believed to entail, ask for clarification by engaging in generative dialogue.
The key here is to actively engage in conversation when and as needed for the goal of clarification and increased understanding of self and others. This is certainly a heavy ideal and one that is not inherently inevitable with how our minds work. Like any good skill for progress, however, it is important to work towards. The separateness associated with over-emphasizing identities is not helpful now, nor will it be as the future unfolds. The fact of our incredible capacity to imaginatively manifest identities is precisely because we all share the common shared reality of being human. Remember that and perhaps we can reduce our anger and increase our sense of social connectivity.