Life is a pretty huge delivery. It comes in packages of years, each wrapping multiple months, that hold together what we call weeks, which in turn each bundle a few days. And every one of those days is full of impressions, packed with experiences that we react to, relate to, run from, sit through, look forward to, interact with, reason about, get tired of and try to recover from -- only to start afresh the next morning.
All of those experiences, like life as a whole, only have one question for us: How will you react? They demand that we show ourselves, decide on who we want to be. And haven't we asked this kind of question ourselves before? Who are we really? In this article I'm going to dedicate my attention to the questions of what defines our identity, how it is formed and what we aim to be, how we handle our identity, how identifications can cause aggression, and how to deal with such aggression.
Identification - How do I know who I am?
Firstly, we'll have to do some research: What is it that defines us, makes us who we are? Some people might attribute this predicate to the brain or maybe even the whole body. Bodies change, though, and every so many years every cell in our bodies has been replaced by a new one. Have our identities been replaced, too, then? Of course not. Others might consider all our actions, everything we've done, as our identity. However, if we really want to do something and have never done it, should it then be discarded as not part of our identity? Certainly not, so that's not the right answer either.
Linguistically the verb associated with identity is to identify. So, it probably makes sense that our identity is comprised of what we are identified with. But by whom? What if different people see us differently? It is obvious that my identity should comprise everything I identify myself with, everything I have a connection to, everything that I feel is a part of me. This also shows that identity is closely connected to emotions. Let's see how emotions express how we identify.
Experience tells us that we can identify with or against something.
If I identify with something, it is dear to me, I like it and I feel content or happy in, and often even wish for, its presence.
On the other hand, if I identify against something, it is strange to me, I am repelled, perhaps even disgusted. I want it as far away from me as possible.
Linguistically, identification is very much associated with proximity, physically as well as spiritually: we feel attracted or repelled by certain things, for example. Identification with or against something contains our reaction to its presence, be it physical or in our minds.
Lastly, if I identify neither with nor against something, have no relation one way or the other, I accept, I am calm, undisturbed, placid, composed, at peace (a place where nothing else is).
So, emotions can indicate what we actively identify with or against. However, we not only identify ourselves, but we also identify others and can be identified by others. Being the object of identification provokes emotions in a similar manner.
Let's consider Alice and Bob.
If Bob identifies with Alice and thinks that Alice also identifies with him, he feels love (not necessarily romantic love, but some form of affection).
If Bob identifies with Alice and it turns out she identifies against him, he feels sad.
If he identifies against Alice and she seems to like him, he feels disgust.
And if he identifies against her and it turns out she identifies against him as well, the antagonism is established and they hate each other.
There is also another kind of identification, which is indirect this time, mediated through a third object.
If Bob identifies with something and Alice identifies him against that object, e.g. when he thinks he is good at something and Alice thinks he's terrible, there is two ways he could react:
If he identifies with Alice, he feels shame.
If however, he identifies against her, he feels anger.
If, meanwhile, Bob identifies with something and Alice also identifies him with that object, he feels proud (either positive elated pride or negative, disgusted pride).
Mediated identification will play an important role later on, in the context of aggression.
All of these identifications can also stimulate other emotions together with certain triggers, like e.g. when hate has been established between two persons and one experiences shame, the other experiences schadenfreude. Also, if we anticipate negative passive identification (someone identifies themselves against us aka. sadness, or identifies us against something that we identify with, aka. shame), we feel fear.
Grey areas and transitivity
However, while identification may be a discrete relation (yes-or-no), the actual relationship with a person or an object may be much more complicated and especially vary greatly over time. When we identify with/against something we don't consider the sum of properties that we know about the object, but we focus on specific aspects that have our attention. Additionally, since we cannot look into the other's head, we're stuck with subjective assumptions and interpretations of their signals to find out their identifications. So, identity is very much dependent on the current situation as well as the personal perspective and biases.
Additionally, there can be chain reactions of identification. If, for example, I identify with something, and someone else identifies against it, it could happen that I feel sadness or hatred, even though it is not me that the other person identified against.
To sum up, the key to understanding your identity, is understanding your emotions. Likewise, to understand your emotions, your anger, your fear and your shame, it is helpful to think about the identifications that triggered these emotions.
Individuation - How do I come to be who I am?
But, how do these identifications get into my head? How does identity form? Emotions are not only the result of identification, they also shape identity in a way. We identify with things that have felt good before or that are similar to things that have felt good before. The brain categorizes our memories by emotions and the more emotional an event was for us the stronger we remember it. Since we identify with things we feel good about and we feel good about things we remember positively, we are incentivized to repeat positive experiences and avoid negative ones. This way our experiences effectively limit the paths we will take in the future: if I have bad experiences with something, I will identify against it, and am thus unlikely to repeat it too often. In essence, the brain tries to optimize our happiness (upon closer examination, this turns out to be a so-called local search optimization, which is quite ineffective, but at least there's some optimization -- thanks god!).
But where does this search for happiness start? As we've seen in my article about free will, we are where we come from. And thus it is not surprising that we start by inheriting many traits regarding physical and mental activities from our parents, comprising basic things from the speed of physical growth as a child, to mental stress tolerance. These are the boundaries within which we need to find happiness and thus our identity. Slow physical growth, for example, could influence us to search for happiness more in mental fields, rather than say competitive sports.
After we are born, with our genes set in stone, we are also taught a lot of things to build upon this foundation: Important things like our mother tongue, or the rules of society. But even more important are the things we're not being taught. The things we just pick up on automatically. I'm talking about what is commonly described as norms, principles or values.
Values and the social need
Values are abstract identifications that people identify with or against. Identifying with my blonde hair would mean I like my blonde hair, maybe because it has a special tone. In contrast, identifying with the abstraction of blonde hair would mean I like blonde hair in general. I don't necessarily have to have blonde hair myself to identify with its abstraction. Values are often the subject of mediated identification.
Which values we identify with determines how we judge others and also ourselves. This is important because we have the social need for people to identify with us. A need for recognition, acceptance. Values act as scales to measure compatibility and approval. Depending on our experiences, our parents, our education, and our acquaintances, we pick up different values.
Who do I want to be?
So, what values are there? Unfortunately, there are more values than people in this world, so to list them all would be too long a list for this article, but I've taken the liberty to collect the most basic ones.
One of the most basic values is power. The power over other people. We shall see later why it is such a popular value. If we strive for power, we see people as objects that we want to manipulate. This manifests in the desire to set the rules, to control the identity of others, and in admiration for those that have managed to get into a position of power. We assess our actions by the gain in power or the amount of control we were able to assert. In a society dominated by the drive towards power, there's a climate of mistrust and suspicion.
Similar but less intrusive is the value of honor. It manifests in the need to be remembered and in the admiration of those that are famous for having done something important. It is the desire for unidirectional identification from as many people as possible. We assess our actions by how many people will praise us for them. Since honor doesn't involve controlling people, though, it is easy to loose oneself in the values and expectations of others, as it is virtually impossible to be loved by everybody.
With the advent of money and trade, a new value became available: Wealth. This value says, the more I have, the better I am, and we assess all our actions by how much we gained by them. Money has no morals, no memory, however. It abstracts away all values into one artificial dimension: How much money do you have. If someone has a lot of money, all I know is that many people valued what he or she had to offer, but not why.
In contrast to the above values which are coined by selfishness, there is a value that seeks a very different outcome: community. All our actions are assessed by how much they benefit the community we identify with. Everyone is seen as part of the whole and helping each other is paramount, so that the whole thrives. The questions that are often left out or ignored are: Who controls the identity of the community? Who decides how much each individual benefits the community? And what happens to outsiders and people that don't contribute? Tolerance is, by design, not part of this world view -- a community can convert individuals that don't belong to it, but it cannot tolerate them. Also, even the identifications of the community members often still differ significantly so that real unity and equality are hard to achieve.
The last value we're considering here, is actually not really a value at all as it doesn't have a scale: It's originality or authenticity. When we strive for originality, all our actions are assessed by how well we expressed ourselves, how content we are with ourselves. We constantly try to learn and improve ourselves for our own enjoyment. And we respect the work and identity of others. Differences are welcome because they are natural and part of originality.
To sum up this section, we come to be who we are by (consciously or subconsciously) learning from our emotions. Many of us pick up certain values as we grow up, that we strive for and that shape our actions and our identity.
Identification patterns - How different people identify
Although everybody has their own unique identity, there are certain patterns that we all exhibit to some extent in different situations at varying degrees.
The first such pattern is disidentification. It can range from the disidentification of people from other nationalities, over the disidentification of our own shortcomings or our family to the disidentification of our own desires, drives perhaps even our own body, as can be found in some ascetic traditions. It has the advantage of soothing us with the illusion of control by admitting nothing and submitting to nothing, leaving no vulnerability, but the drawback of this is that we loose ourselves in the fear of being identified, that our identity becomes an empty fist, identifying against everything, an "anti-identity", if you will.
The second pattern is the other extreme: boundless identification. It can range from the constant need to be entertained, over being easily manipulable, to the inability to commit to close relationships. It has the advantage of openness towards the world, however, the drawback is that we loose ourselves, that our identity becomes a reaching hand, desperately grasping for something else, while never able to hold on, identifying with everything, submitting to anything, while committing to nothing.
The last pattern is a balance of both other ones, combining their advantages. It is acceptance. It can range from simple contentiousness, over complacency to stoic apathy. It has the advantage of openness and calmness by accepting the self and the other, but it runs the risk of standstill, if it is used as a constant state or value, rather than as a tool: If we accept everything, we have no urge to do anything.
Identity and aggression - Why so angry?
Believe it or not, identity, this precious product of our complex emotional journeys, is one of the major causes of violence and war in human history. The basic idea of property is based on identification: If you take or have what belongs to me, I get angry -- and already we're at war. This was the primary cause for many wars in human history starting with tribal rivalries about the most fertile patches of land or the best springs of drinking water, over the medieval territory wars, to the conflicts of our time such as the Israel conflict. And just like property, discrimination is based on identification as well: You claim to belong to me or my group, yet you are strange to me, I cannot or don't want to understand you and hence you disgust me and I want nothing to do with you. Extreme examples of this pattern in human history are the witch hunts in the middle ages, the holocaust of jewish people in Germany, slavery and later the racial discrimination of African Americans, just like the discrimination of homosexual people.
Why is aggression so common in people? Are we born aggressive? Because, it seems, you know, when nobody is around us, we're quite calm. Where does all this aggression come from?
When we're alone we're free to identify with whatever we want, unaffected and unrestrained by identification of others, we are at peace and enjoy infinite, unbounded freedom.
However, as soon as we encounter someone else, we are an object to them, bound by the matter of our body, the actions of our life. Our identity is no longer free but constrained by how we are seen, open to determination by an "objective" outsider. Others are able to judge us, identify us with or against principles, gauges, categories, values etc. And consequently, as Hegel described in his "Phenomenology of Mind", we struggle for freedom, try to enforce our view on the world and on ourselves. We do this by in turn objectifying and thus restraining the other -- a struggle for power, where each tries to dominate the other.
In defeat we have to identify with the determination of us made by the other and thus recognize their dominance. The other, meanwhile, successfully identifies against us and takes pride in the fact that we recognize them as dominant.
Now, how did we end up here? What were the conditions that lead to this situation?
- Someone wanted to establish dominance (active aggression).
- Someone was not able to distance their self from the identifications that were being attacked (passive aggression).
- The outcome is a struggle for power until one dominates the other.
This aggression, both active and passive, essentially allows us to avoid responsibility, to remain unconcerned, lets us disregard the other as inferior, as an object, by denying them recognition. The voiding of the other's perspective is a method of self-defense and self-assertion that strengthens our feeling of identity. In fact identifying with something always opens up a new attack surface, it reveals more things for others to identify us against, it further diffuses our identity (because said object might entail other identifications that we haven't considered) and thus leaves us vulnerable. Meanwhile, identifying against something draws a clear line, gives us space, as we say, and strengthens our feeling of security.
To sum up this section, we get aggressive when we feel objectified, unrecognized of our freedom, our consciousness. We want to in turn objectify the objectifier, and once someone has lost this struggle, the winner gets recognition from the loser and has thus asserted their identity.
Dealing with disidentification - How to face agression?
So far, we've seen how destructive aggression can be and how closely we need to examine our identifications. However, how can we face aggression constructively, instead of closing our hands to fists in the same way? Let's look at the aggressors, for once, and see what we can learn from them.
Being the best
All the values we have seen above are methods to disidentify, to emerge as a winner. We want to be better, ideally better than anyone we meet.
What about those that are in fact the best, though? The winners of our society? Do they live a happy life, knowing they have mastered the challenge? I doubt it: Idolized for a vision of perfection and success -- the a vital ingredient of western society -- the identities of the winners are reduced to their achievements. They become "The world's fastest sprinter", "The world's wealthiest man", etc. They often even overtake this view themselves, more and more defining themselves by this single one aspect: being the best.
Thus their dream of success turns, once at the top, into the urge to keep winning, because losing means losing their identity. The fastest fear that someone might break their record; the coolest fear that someone might embarrass them; the smartest fear someone finding out what they don't know; the richest fear meeting someone richer; the mightiest fear that someone might undermine them. They all live in fear of keeping their social rank, because deep down they know they are not any better than anyone else.
Don't enslave yourself
Let's recap the factors on both sides that led to the above situation of dominance:
- Someone wanted to establish dominance in order to assert and maintain their identity (active aggression).
- Someone was not able to distance their self from our identifications that were being attacked by the other (passive aggression).
- The outcome is a struggle for power until one dominates the other.
Not practicing active aggression is not easy, it takes restraint, will-power and close examination of one's own identifications. How to handle being (verbally) attacked though? The assumption of the passive aggressor is that if they don't give into this game of winning, they will lose. However, this is an illusion: As we've seen above, and as Hegel has pointed out, the "master", the person who has won the battle, is dependent on the "slave" for recognition of their dominance. Nobody can dominate us other than by us recognizing their superiority. When we react aggressively, we are basically enslaving ourselves trying to measure who is objectively better and recognizing their superiority.
In practice this means that we don't need aggression to counter aggression, but merely acceptance. We need acceptance of the fact that the other needs to resort to aggression and a peaceful reaction to remind the other, that violence is not necessary.
Do note that this is not usually advisable when facing physical aggression, because the domination in this case is real and the aggressor may have the power to end your life. Peaceful protest, like Mahatma Ghandi's Satyagrah can still be very effective, if you prepared to take the risk of sustaining severe physical harm.
The sentiment of peaceful reaction traces back much longer than Ghadi, though. Even Jesus said (or is supposed to have said): "Be servants to each other." I believe this was the deeper meaning of his aphorism: By metaphorically serving the other, we accept them and are free from their (dis-)identifications. Also, many other religions comprise this same aphorism. The Buddhists for example have the Eight-fold path that saves one from greed (another term for, you guessed it, aggression). Even god is a useful idealistic tool in this light, because it's much easier to be humble when you are the object of unconditional love.
So, as you unravel your life, this huge delivery, don't loose sight of who you are, think about and bear in mind who you want to be, and be accepting of yourself as well as those, who have not done so, yet. And try not to be aggressive, will you? Cause, we don't need more of that. Thanks.
Thanks to Gunter Dueck for introducing me to and fascinating me with the different popular societal values, which he in turn took as perspectives of society from the book "Spiral Dynamics" by Don Edward Beck.
Thanks to the brilliant Thomas Strässle for the "hand" metaphor. He has written a wonderful book about serenity in which I found it: "Gelassenheit. Über eine andere Haltung zur Welt". Very recommended, if you understand German.
For the curious eyes: The phenomenal picture of the eye used here as the article cover was created by Liam Welch. The symbols and drawings were made by nounproject authors: The stick figures were drawn by Alex Muravev. The magnet symbol was made by Angelo Troiano. The love symbol was made by Kavya. The sad face was made by Simon Mettler. The disgusted face was made by Kevin. The angry face was made by Ali Wijaya. The shameful face was made by Daouna Jeong. The proud face was made by Ari Wibowo. The box symbol was made by Rockicon.