About the All-Important Issue of Identity: The Hierarchy of Identities

Nowadays, we hear the concept of identity being mentioned more and more often, which is no coincidence, as it plays a fundamental role in all our lives. Because we are intelligent beings with our own sense of self, we are constantly reflecting on ourselves in our thinking, and we all develop a kind of inner self-image. This results in our identity, which is essentially the way in which we define and identify ourselves – in practice, this means in part or in whole the role we take for ourselves in life and society.

One of the most important pillars of a healthy personality is finding one’s identity, which basically starts in early childhood, and although it is most intense in adolescence, it often lasts for the rest of our lives due to the constant influences we are exposed to. Our upbringing, relationships and socio-cultural environment all play a crucial role in shaping our identity. As we, humans, are social beings, it is only natural that we want to belong to others, to communities of people, which plays a very important role in shaping our identity, in so far as we adapt it more or less to that of others.

In fact, we all identify with several different groups at the same time, depending on our characteristics, traits and current life situation (age, occupation, income, place of residence, hobbies, etc.), so our identity is actually a multi-layered or multi-level thing, usually consisting of more than one component. And, of course, there are other traits that we are born with or that define our personality in other ways, but also at an early age. These include whether you are a woman or a man, your origin or nationality, country, religion, language and culture. In addition, over time, one may develop a sense of identification with a role, if you find something that you see as a personal creed or even a life calling (e.g. helping the needy, teaching future generations, or even discovering a cure for cancer).

And while each of these factors influences one’s personality and multi-part identity to a greater or lesser extent, it must be seen that there is some kind of a hierarchy of subordination and superiority between them. That is due to the fact that we all have certain biological, physical, mental and spiritual endowments and universal characteristics, and therefore common values, which we cannot overlook even if we identify with completely different things and roles. Thus, the fact that we are human beings overrides the fact that we are male or female, while our gender is arguably more important and more determinant than, say, what country we live in or what language we speak. (After all, a woman can give birth to children in any country just as well as a man can do so in none.)

So while there are certain objective factors that we cannot control, we can shape other aspects of ourselves – consciously or even unconsciously – throughout our lives. And although it really does fundamentally determine your early personality, where, in what country, family and culture you were born, you can change your nationality, language, habits and goals (if you are lucky) at any time, just as, for example, you can freely decide whether you will become a parent or not. But while these are basic human rights that every civilized society (or at least those that aspire to be such) must recognize, they can never be more important than the fact that we are all men or women, or, first and foremost, representatives of the human race. (So yes, ultimately, just like skin color, for example, gender and sexual identity is overridden by the fact that we all belong to humanity.)

Based on all of that, we may consider ourselves Japanese, Californian or Parisian, grandmother or family man, Buddhist or Christian, athlete, artist or soldier, middle class or classless, black or white, heterosexual or homosexual, we are all men or women, and more than that, we are all human beings, with the characteristics, flaws and limitations, weaknesses and strengths, fears and hopes, of our gender and race. At the same time, the fact that we are sentient beings must override even our humanity, regardless of whether there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

This explains, for example, why the majority of viewers identify more with the protagonist defending the alien race in the Avatar films than with the people who oppose him. And if there are those who do not do so, or are not able to see the truth of it, they have problems with their identity and their values. (Unless it’s because they don’t get the message for other reasons, which could be due to the imperfections of the film.) All in all, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the majority of people, or at least a significant proportion of the populace, have problems in this area. Either because they create an identity for themselves that is not in line with the hierarchy of identities, or because they are not really able to define themselves in the information chaos that surrounds them. When the social role you take on is not the same as the one you can really identify with, then we can also talk about a kind of identity crisis.

So your own identity is one thing, and the identity that others associate with your person is another, because the two are far from always the same. Generally speaking, perhaps the most important aspect of building our core identity is to make it as resistant as possible to the influences of various external factors, circumstances and people, so that it provides us with a kind of rock-solid identity and moral foundation on which we can rely in all kinds of situations. An identity, however complex or multi-layered (similarly to an onion), is most ideal when there is virtually nothing to challenge its foundations, but at the same time it allows us to live together and alongside each other in peace and prosperity as much as possible. And in a best-case scenario, it should not be destroyed – albeit it may temporarily be shaken – even by, say, an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization making contact with us overnight, nor should it be drastically affected by the transformation of nations or their disappearance as we know them.

As for the latter, we have to see that nation states have only existed for a few hundred years, and like everything else in the world, they are constantly changing. This is, however, something that we need to consider as completely natural, and since change is a constant feature of the universe and of life, we have to take it into account, just as we need to be aware of ourselves changing. So whatever we do in the present, there is no guarantee that our country will survive very long into the future, and it is quite certain that it will not last forever, simply because nothing does. From this point of view, basically two things can happen to nation states: either they transform over time into something else that is more suited to the spirit of the times and more functional, or they simply disintegrate through unsustainability – wars, crises, epidemics and the like – to be replaced by a more primitive, possibly oppressive culture, or even total chaos.

That is why we need to focus on what is really important and what we can do a lot about. And that is the livability of society and the world around us, to be as civilized and humane as possible, to avoid wars and constant insecurity, unnecessary suffering and death, and to exist in balance with the natural environment. But to do this, it is essential that while we build on our past, we evolve with it, and let the future define us. Yet if you don’t have your own vision of the future, it is usually the past or the vision of others that will determine you, as well. Moreover, if you don’t have a relatively concrete vision of the future, your life can easily become purposeless and self-serving, which is usually not a characteristic of a sustainable and progressive way of life.

So, while we all share a kind of common identity, we must also consider our differences in aptitude and personality as equally important. Because, after all, it is these differences that ensure that our societies, and human civilization as a whole, are a colorful and diverse collection of various personalities that complement, inspire and constantly push each other forward. Without this, our societies may, over time, become too uniform, stagnant, unable to evolve and ultimately even unviable, which are again not the characteristics of a progressive social order that is sustainable in the long run.

Therefore, in addition to having a common ground, it is very important to show sufficient tolerance for others in relation to identity, as its absence can lead to extreme social phenomena such as various forms of chauvinism. These include the renewed rise of nationalism today, which creates barriers between people rather than empowering them to live and work together peacefully. In this regard, it is important to understand that there is nothing wrong with (non-extreme) patriotism per se, nor with the cultivation and preservation of one’s language and culture. The problem is when we put the interests of our own nation before the interests of other nations, as if we are better or more deserving than them, and seek to get on top of each other.

In order to avoid this, when defining our core identity, we must start from the fact that depending on where, in which country, neighborhood or family we are born into, completely different influences will affect us, which decisively determine the development of our personality. In other words, the language, culture, religion and so on that we adopt early in life is basically due to chance. To understand this, however, we need to use not only our emotions but also our empathy and rationality to shape our identity, which requires both being well informed and being able to make our own decisions rather than having others make them for us.

That is why our children should be given the opportunity to find and develop their own identity over time, rather than having anything imposed on them. Rather, our task is to provide them with the necessary help and support, and with a basic set of values that we ourselves must follow in order for it to be authentic. At the heart of this is that we should never lose our humanity and that we should always strive to behave in a civilized manner towards each other, instead of constantly trying to get the better of each other, as dictated by the laws of existential opportunism.

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