Identity: The Mental and Social Barrier to Solidarity

Kali Ma I Society & Culture I Commentary I March 13th, 2014

What keeps the working class from coming together in a united front against the current system of oppression and exploitation? It is a question that, perhaps, has many answers, yet one that must be addressed if we are to understand what it will take to bring about the change that benefits us all. Division within the working class is a major problem that comes in many forms. In addition to living in an economic system that keeps us estranged through competition and an emphasis on self-interest, we are also separated from one another based on our identities and social conditioning. It is a more subtle division that on the surface might seem benign, but one that is extremely insidious because of its perceived insignificance. Even if a revolution occurred tomorrow and the power shifted to the people - how would we deal with each other after centuries of pain, persecution, division, and discrimination, created and antagonized by our identities? Would we slip back into the same roles and slowly recreate the same society we revolted against in the first place? Obviously, there is more to a revolution than simply changing of the guards. If it is to become real and lasting, it has to first and foremost revolutionize the human mind and, in turn, how we relate to one another.

The Shaping of Identity Through Conditioning

Conditioning is "the act or process of training a person or animal to do something or to behave in a certain way in a particular situation." Social conditioning molds our behavior by directly and indirectly promoting certain beliefs, ideas, and values through various institutions within society, most notably, the family and the education system. The belief system created by conditioning expresses itself through a personality or set of identities. [1] Identity within a social context is "[t]he set of behavioral or personal characteristics by which an individual is recognizable as a member of a group."[2] Each identity is, thus, shaped by conditioning and associated with certain behaviors and values recognized by the rest of society. We simply slip into a particular role or identity (black, white, mother, father, professor, boss, employee, athlete, artist, etc.) with its predetermined expectations and play out the script of what society agrees defines that role or a member of that particular group.

Identity gives us stability, direction, and a sense of belonging within society. It is natural for human beings to want to find this type of security in a world that is often unstable and uncertain. There is safety in identity because it ties us to others 'like us' and may even offer us social, economic, and political benefits.

While we are free to express our unique individuality through various identities, this expression occurs within the confines of a particular persona, which serves as a subtle mechanism that controls our actions. After all, we cannot stray too far from our chosen persona; if we do, we would be acting 'out of character' or contrary to the expectations of that particular identity. In essence, once an individual identifies with a role or identity, he or she begins to default to the set of expectations tied to that role and often (consciously or unconsciously) ignores his or her true desires and inclinations. [3] As a result, most of us never reach our true potential because we let our identities (personas) tell us what to do, how to act, and how to be in the world. As psychiatrist C.G. Jung observed, "[The persona] is, as its name implies, only a mask of the collective psyche, a mask that feigns individuality, making others and oneself believe that one is an individual, whereas one is simply acting a role through which the collective psyche speaks."[4]

Essentially, most of us never live as full, whole, actualized, unique individuals; rather, each of us consists of fragments of identities, roles, and personas stitched together into a personality, which we mistake for our true individuality. We interact with one another through these artificial personas and images, which serve as invisible armor that prevent us from relating to each other on a deeper, more genuine level. Meanwhile, the real individuality rarely comes out, and if it does, it is often in fleeting moments only to go back to one of its established personas through which it interacts with the world.

Identity Conflicts

Because there are many different identities, they often conflict with one another and create division among the people. [5] There are countless examples of social roles and designations with their corresponding identities and set of expectations, many of which directly clash with one another: religion (Christian/Muslim), nationality (Russian/American), gender (man/woman), age (young/old) sexual orientation (gay/straight/bi), social status (poor/middle class/rich), political beliefs (Democrat/Republican/Communist/Anarchist), occupation (doctor/lawyer/janitor), relationship roles (wife/husband/friend), race (black/white/Latino) and so on. While there can be conflict between individuals of different identities, division can also occur within the individual.

Internal identity clashes manifest when conflicting (or incompatible) identities reside within one person. For instance, an African-American police officer who participates in racial profiling through "Stop and Frisk," and similar official and unofficial police programs that disproportionately target minorities, is actively perpetuating the racist culture historically present within law enforcement. We can assume that this individual identifies as a police officer first (and African-American second), and as such, has internalized the police culture to such an extent that even though he himself would be a victim of these policies, he has become the aggressor acting out the conditioned set of beliefs associated with the identity of a police officer.[6] Thus, the set of values tied to the primary persona we identify with provides the lens through which we view ourselves and, in turn, others.[7]

Which identity we embrace as the dominant one seems to be in large part dependent on the privileges and advantages it bestows on us in various situations. In the above example of the African-American cop, his status and identity as a law enforcement officer puts him in a position of power and privilege over most other citizens, thus, his dominant identity is tied to his occupation. In certain situations it might be advantageous for this same police officer to emphasize his race in order to relate to other African-Americans, while in other instances his identity as, say, a former college athlete might bring him social prestige and the admiration of others. Thus, persona identifications change based on the environment and circumstances in order to confer to the individual the greatest amount of security, sense of belonging, privilege, and often, power.

At the same time, many of us suppress certain identities for the same reasons, whether it is our sexual orientation, ethnicity, social status, educational background, and so on. This suppression, in turn, might prevent us from expressing ourselves more fully because we are clinging to a perception of ourselves from the perspective of the dominant identity that finds parts of us to be inferior or undesirable. What all identities and social conditioning have in common, however, is that they are internal hierarchical authorities that we strive to obey. As a result, our consciousness becomes enslaved to internalized standards that prevent our unique individuality from expressing itself fully without distortion from limiting identities and beliefs.

We Are Not Our Identities

Identities are like costumes - they are not who we are, but merely reflections of parts of us which we express through the many different outfits (roles) we wear throughout our lives. If we cling to one identity, we essentially become its slave. If that identity clashes with another person's identity, it often creates a deep barrier to coming together and recognizing our commonalities as human beings. On the other hand, if we suppress parts of ourselves, we deny a huge element of who we are and diminish our power through shame, guilt, and denial. Only when we embrace all aspects of ourselves and realize that identities are too limiting to define us as human beings, will we begin the process of liberation from our conditioned mindset and all definitions of who we 'should' be.

Essentially, our task is to break through our limiting personas that mask our true individuality and perpetuate division between others and ourselves. This is by no means an easy task - the process of dissolving social conditioning tied to our identities is often experienced as a kind of death because it extinguishes our 'old' self-identification and a perspective that provides us with stability, security, and a sense of belonging. This is precisely why people will defend certain ideas and beliefs even in the face of irrefutable facts and evidence - because an acknowledgment of their beliefs' non-existence or fallacy would threaten the person's worldview and, in turn, their core identity that gives them significance, meaning and a point of reference from which they interact with the world. In other words, the individual experiences the attack on their beliefs as a direct attack on them.

The process of shedding the layers of identity and conditioning is uncomfortable and results in a state of uncertainty and tension because it removes our set of instructions, our map of how to be in the world. We are then forced to live from an internal point of reference, which in our current identity obsessed society, will often lead to a sort of estrangement from the world. The gift of this process, however, is that (with courage and strength) a person is much more likely to live from their core self and express their true potential as a unique being. Consequently, this person gains the ability to relate to others on a more profound, honest level and is more likely to be open to other people's life experiences without the distorted, judgmental lens of conditioned identities and personas.

As so often, the solution resides in a paradox: the more we become our unique selves, the more likely we are to unite with others. From this perspective, we find common ground in the fact that we are all different, unique individual beings and any standards of who we are supposed to be simply fade away. Unity through individuality creates true solidarity and paves the way to a revolution actually worth having.


[1] In this essay, identity, persona and role are used interchangeable. However, there are slight differences in how these concepts express themselves: identity denotes the person's primary way of identifying, or how they view themselves in relation to the outside world; persona is the image the person presents to others, which can be an identity or a role; and a role is the 'part' the person plays in a certain situation, which can be an identity or a persona.

[2] See also the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of identity: "the qualities, beliefs, etc., that make a particular person or group different from other"

[3] Take for example an individual who identifies as a Democrat and who, during the Bush presidency, was strongly anti-war, anti-corporate welfare and vehemently pro civil liberties, pro social welfare programs for the people. Now, however, that the Democrats' superstar President Obama is in the White House, suddenly this same individual finds excuses and justifications for all the wars, civil liberties violations, corporate welfare and bailouts, the cutting of social safety nets, and even chuckles gleefully when President Obama jokes about drones. What has happened to this individual? He or she is so identified with being a Democrat that all rational, critical, independent thinking has been outsourced to the identity of a Democrat, no matter how hypocritical and inconsistent this now seems. It was the identity this person clung to all along; it was never about the issues.

[4] C.G. Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, Second Edition, Bollingen Series XX, (Princeton University Press 1972) p. 157

[5] One key proposition of the social identity theory is that membership in a particular group provides individuals with self-esteem and that groups oftentimes seek to increase their self-image by discriminating against members of outside groups, thus creating an "us vs. them" mentality.

[6] See Janaye Ingram, "(Intra)Racial Profiling: When Blacks Profile Each Other," February 5, 2014, .

[7] Internalized homophobia, sexism, and racism as well as general self-hate based on our perceived inferiority to a 'superior' ideal are some other common manifestations of this internal identity conflict. To illustrate one of many examples this internalized phobia and identity conflict might manifest, think of a gay, female, Christian who identifies as a Republican. What is the expected or 'proper' way of identifying for this woman in our society? If she primarily identifies as gay, then most likely her Christian and Republican identities will conflict with her homosexuality; if her dominant identity is that of a Christian, then her homosexuality might be suppressed or infused with feelings of guilt and shame.