The issue of identity (I)

weir-woodworking

By Enrique Lescure

Introduction

Individual human beings are ill-suited for survival in nature. It takes a long time for a human being to grow up, the pregnancy period for human females is stretching for three quarters of a year. We lack fur, claws and venom. Old natural philosophers claimed that we compensated for that with reason. However, while reason has seldom prevailed (inquisitions, witch hunts and sacrifices of hearts by obsidian daggers are marking most of recorded human history), humans have always gathered together in communities. The community can more easily defend the young and the elderly from predators, and effectivise the gathering of resources to prepare for the hard seasons.

While some market libertarians and objectivists primarily are seeing the human beings as atomised individuals who choose to buy and sell property on a market, property originated as a concept gradually over time. In early communities, of which there are still examples of in the Amazon and in Indonesia, as well as in the Arctic parts of Russia and Canada, there is often not a developed concept of property, and even those who are skilled at for example making tools, are not trying to sell their tools, or making it a precondition for barter. Instead, the entire community is operating like the kind of society proponents of gift economics would want to see.

During most of human existence, human beings organised in sedentary hunter and gatherer societies (it has irked me for years that everyone seems to assume that people were building villages first with agriculture, and that everyone were nomads before that).

It stands clear that humans do not only group together in order to survive, and that only if there were the means, all humans would become staunch individualists who would either make war against one another (as Hobbes said) or become firm believers in the powers of the market and to each’s individual responsibility for their brothers and sisters. Humans group together not only because we had to, but because we like to (generally speaking).

What I want to write about in this article is how we do to connect to one another, and how this force which has allowed us to form civilizations, also have served to destroy civilization and create massive human suffering, and how we can move forward with our identities in the context of a future Type-1.

Connections

Most humans instinctively assume that other humans think and feel what they do, and can empathise with the suffering and joy of others. However, our ability to empathise is generally limited, and we feel more strongly for people who we either have grown up around, or who are reminding of us (share our experiences). While human communities in the natural state rarely exceed 200 people, the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural societies amassed a surplus that allowed humans to organise in larger groups.

Nevertheless, while you might live in a city with over 20 million inhabitants, the likelihood is that you live within a personal bubble consisting of 100-200 people (or fewer) who you know and have most of your interactions with. Likelihood is also that most of those people are either family or friends, and that most of them are sharing your social position in life and have a similar class background as yourself. The freedom to choose your acquaintances is larger in a big city than in a small community, but this might actually serve to increase segregation and create micro-environments where most participants share the same values and norms. The same process can be seen on social communities like Facebook where people generally are adding friends and acquaintances that share their onlook and their cosmology.

Generally, social groups can cover an entire spectrum from egalitarian (a group of friends hanging out on a coffeshop), authoritarian (patriarchal family structures) to totalitarian (religious and political sects). Often, an individual can be a part of 2-3 or more social groups at the same time, with differing levels of devotion.

Institutions

Luciafirande i Adolf Fredriks kyrka under ledning av Karin Bäckström/ Lucia celebration in the church of Adolf Fredrik under the supervision of Karin Bäckström

Institutions do not live their own lives – they exist because humans by their actions and beliefs perpetuate their existence and value what they can gain from them. When the institution ceases to motivate people to act to perpetuate their existence, the days of the institution are numbered. This can explain everything from the inevitable death of the childhood streetcabin club to world-changing events like the collapse of the USSR.

All formal human arrangements, states, churches, social etiquette, marriage customs and family relationships within the context of a specific culture, can be explained as institutions.

I would say there are three types of institutions.

Unwritten institutions, which are agreed upon a priori without definition, and which often determine how humans are supposed to act under social conditions (for example the Law of Jante in Nordic countries, or the American Dream in the US). These institutions work to ease tension in society and establish rules for social encounters between human beings, and often arise organically.

Administrative institutions, such as companies, bureaucracies, states, associations, churches and clubs. These institutions exist to legislate, organise rules and execute collective human action. These institutions are most often hierarchical and are existing to manage aspects of human existence.

…and…

Value institutions. These institutions are traditions perpetuated through repetition over generational boundaries, and are connected to a cosmology that ties a group together. In this category, we will find everything from clans and sects and followers of The Yankees, to ethnicities, religious groupings and entire nations. These institutions serve to establish myths and anchor these myths through rituals, in order to strengthen and rejuvenerate group identities. Often, such identities are formed around groups who share similar physical or linguistical characteristics.

What is an identity?

Identity is connected to Cosmology (the issue of meaning of life). The identity serves as a way for the human being to identify herself in relationship to her peers and to Cosmos itself, and to create a sense of meaningfulness that connects together a group of people, both horizontally and over the generations. It is arguably the strongest force in the life of a human being. It has motivated people to sacrifice themselves, not for their close blood relatives, but for abstract ideals and people they have never met or would never have met.

The evils of identity

islamic-state

The human propensity to form identities have (I would argue) defined what it is meaning to be human. Our art, our literature and our music has been created both within the context of specific identities, and partially influenced these identities (just look at the huge influence that Shakespeare had on the emergence of British culture). On the other hand, identities have often been used as tools and motivation to separate the in-group from out-groups, and then annihilate the out-group (often by physically killing its members).

While the human tendency to form collectives which are the size of a large extended family (200 people), and these have engaged in competitive fights to the death with neighbouring collectives, the tendency to form group identities based on religion, political opinions, ethnicity or even sport club affiliations have generally worsened conflicts. Moreover, they have motivated generations of ordinary people to die for rulers and despots for no gain for themselves or for human civilization (on the contrary, wars have generally only helped the elites of the warring societies, while the ordinary folks have suffered).

Another very bad effect of the formation of group identities have been the persecution of outsiders, no matter if the outsiders are people who don’t share the prevailing political consensus of the day, or if the outsiders are of a religious minority or simply are born with traits seen as bad by the dominant consensus. Women, LGBT people, ethnic minorities, the poors and various groups of untouchables can witness of the effects of social exclusion, which are crippling not only to their own lives but to the general progress of society. Even schoolyard bullying is a sort of infancy state of this kind of we-vs-them exclusion.

A third very bad effect is the kind of accepted social coercion that makes people accept and contribute to the continuance of traditions such as genital mutilation of children, animal cruelty, cruelty or disregard for poor people, racism, forced marriages, marriages with close relatives, abuse of children, clan conflicts and machismo, and also jingoism and nationalism. These identity-related prejudices can hamper and even threaten the long-perspective survival of a society, and work to limit and oppress the participants in that identity.

A world without identities

www.fondosyfonditos.com.ar-422323-new-york-city-grey-city423

Some people on the left side of the spectrum in this country (Sweden) have claimed that abolishing identities and value judgements (“being rich is better than being poor” for example) is the right way to go to create an inclusive and egalitarian society. Of course, they do not envision that people would not have any traditions or culture, especially not as they are very active within and in cooperation with certain groups of identities, in order to form and shape rainbow coalitions for groups in society that traditionally have been excluded in one or another way.

In terms of working to abolish identities, we can claim that the undisputed master of this is the cultural entity we can refer to as “McWorld”, the homogenizing forces of globalization, free trade and financial integration, which is replacing – on a rapid pace – local cultures.

On one hand, this process has led to a cultural renaissance as cultures encounter, merge and mix together.

On the other hand, however, this has led to the continuous destruction of society’s fabric – the identities. While identities in themselves always appear, modern society has a general cosmology which can be described as consumeristic individualism.

While in traditional societies, the meaning of life was seen as perpetuating the traditions and values of your ancestors, and to play the role in society that God (or the natural order) had made you born in, in modern society this has been replaced with a new cosmology. This new cosmology is based on your attainment of identity through the consumption of experiences. This means that humans are supposed to strive after possessing trendy products, travelling to foreign countries, partying and ascribing to identities through their choice of clothes and music.

Society is oriented towards youth and towards performance and possession. This intrinsic materialism of the modern cosmology has probably contributed to mental illness and depression amongst many people.

However, the greatest problem with consumeristic individualism is that it fits like hand in glove with the paradigm of the debt-based financial system. For if people are brought up within a cosmology where they (feel that they) must ascribe to the possession of lifestyle through the possession of products and fashion, they will invest a large part of their income into status products which can showcase who they are to the world – thus driving the continued growth of the system, until it inevitably crashes.

A challenge for the future – towards a Type-1

original

Eventually, if we (as in humanity) do not destroy ourselves through nuclear war, human-created pathogens or initiating a sixth great mass extinction, we will form a planetary civilization, a Type-1 on the Kardashev Scale. There are two great challenges for such a civilization, the first being the practical on how to ensure that all human beings can live within the identities they feel affinity for, while having their human rights respected and protected. The second is how we can find a common cosmology which can bring this future civilization a sense of purpose, while also serving to protect the planet’s environment and value the rights of all human beings to strive for fulfillment.

This is the challenge for the future, and in subsequent articles I will try to define how EOS have proposed a framework for the tools we can use to answer this challenge. This is what EOS Umea hopes to help develop with a study circle we will launch in the spring of 2015.

Enrique Lescure, Relations director of the Earth Organisation for Sustainability

Advertisements

2 Comments

  1. Brad Arnold said,

    November 24, 2014 at 8:15 am

    I have a personality disorder (schizoidism, or SPD), so am inherently anti-social. Furthermore, I propose that human society and culture is unable to adapt quickly enough to technological advancements, so humanity is virtually flying blind. Who knows if AI and ASI (i.e. The Singularity) will change that.

    • Eos Umeå said,

      November 24, 2014 at 10:12 am

      Our goal is to adapt us to the reality we’ve created ourselves, and simultaneously change the aspects of this reality which are threatening our continued well-being. 🙂

      Regarding individuals who are not social, note that I wrote “generally”, not “without exception”. In the municipality I grew up (a large area in the north of Sweden) we had a hermit who moved farther into the mountains when he got a neighbour who moved in “too close” (50 km), so yes, there are humans who cannot stand other humans and who choose to survive in small cottages without electricity.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: