About the All-Important Issue of Identity: The Power of Influence

Just as our identity largely determines our values, the hierarchy of our identities has a crucial influence on the hierarchy of our values, i.e. our priorities between our different values and drivers. And because our value judgments form the basis of how we think about the world and other people, and how we act in general, it makes a crucial difference what hierarchy we set up for ourselves. Of particular importance is what lies at the very core of our identity, or, if you like, at the center of the ‘onion’.

Ideally, if we follow the hierarchy of identities discussed earlier, it should be our humanity and the fact that we are intelligent and sentient beings. Whether or not this is the case depends on two things: on our upbringing (from early childhood onwards) and on the socio-cultural influences and possible traumas that we experience as children or even later in adulthood. If our parents and educators instill a sense of humanity and empathy in us at an early age, it is likely to form a solid basis for our identity later on.

However, this is no guarantee that major changes will not occur in one’s personality over time. The influences we face can have a significant impact in this area – especially if we do not have a rock-solid identity. And although it is true that the external, less ingrained layers of identity are much easier to influence than the internal ones, the latter is also quite often the case. It is not impossible that when we are constantly bombarded with information and views that contradict or challenge our identity, it has a kind of ‘brainwashing’ effect, gradually changing the very foundations of our identity. And if we suffer a major trauma in our lives, it can upset everything in us in a single moment.

While traumas are very difficult to protect against – usually only the appropriate external assistance will help -, we can, with enough awareness, be able to ward off constant external influence. Nevertheless, that is not necessarily so simple, either – for example, if we live in a world where we have to get on top of each other in order to get our way at the expense of others, we may well find ourselves regularly confronting our core values and humanity. In addition, we are being influenced in a thousand different ways by different people and groups through the media, the internet, or even just through our everyday human interactions, constantly testing our identity.

If a less significant part of our identity changes as a result, this is not necessarily a problem, and may even be beneficial. This can happen, for example, when a new group of friends persuades you to go hiking with them, instead of spending a significant part of your free time at the card table. You may have previously described yourself as a serious gambler, but now you identify more with hiking in nature as a habitual activity. Of course, it’s not necessarily the end of the world if happens the other way round, and you go from being a nature lover to being a gambler because of the influence of others – at most, it will be more detrimental to your health and financial situation in the long run, which you will need to compensate for and keep under control somehow.

But the problem can be much greater if the basis of our identity is transformed or developed in the wrong direction as a result of some external influence. One of the most striking and blatant examples of this was the rise of Nazi Germany, when Adolf Hitler successfully promoted his anti-human racist and opportunist ideology on the pretext of making the country great again. And while not everyone was able to identify with the extremist views of the chancellor (later f├╝hrer), who was also notorious as a hypnotic orator, Nazi propaganda was able to influence many people – especially the young seeking to find themselves -, to the point where they more or less fully identified with the criminal aspirations of their leader.

So we can be manipulated by politicians and leaders to develop or change our core values in the same way that a socio-cultural system can manipulate us into believing that we must be superior to others in order to succeed in life. In general, however, social expectations can greatly influence our identities, partially or greatly suppressing the inner urges or even inhibitions that are thus unable to come to the surface. This of course has its benefits, insofar as it leads us to abide by social norms and behave in a civilized way and as part of a larger whole – yet on the other hand, it can also have the effect of preventing us from developing our abilities and fulfilling our potential.

Identity politics is therefore of dubious value, as it often equates to labeling and pigeonholing people, which can hinder not only negative but also positive change and progress for the individual. That is why we must beware not only of ideologies that are inherently extreme, such as Nazism, but also, for example, of excessive conservatism. For its representatives and advocates, while often wanting us to have a strong identity, imagine it as a way of clinging to the past and not being sufficiently open to the possibilities of the future.

However, it must be seen that it is precisely this kind of obsessive insistence and pigeonholing that leads to views and ideologies that are milder than Nazism, but also belong to the category of existential opportunism, such as nationalism. When we identify fully with a country or nation, we may even be able to give up our humanity for its real or perceived interests, which is not exactly a good thing or a guarantee of peaceful coexistence. Ultimately, then, it is also a kind of conservative extremism, in that it gives us a strong identity, but it is based on false or at least distorted ideas, as well as a misordering of priorities. Apart from being dangerous, it is also a serious problem that it is very difficult to change.

Nevertheless, like everything else, this has its own counterpart, represented by liberal extremism. Nowadays, liberal politics, which is becoming more and more exaggerated, does not spare us from views and propaganda that cannot be called consolidated or rational, either. What it basically proclaims is that it is best to form one’s own identity in a superficial way, because not to do so leads to a too rigid personality. Of course, this may be true in itself, but think what can happen if we do not have a basic identity and priorities, with a strong set of values attached. It is not difficult to see that in this case we can become overly impressionable ‘turncoats’, essentially personalities who change their values and attitudes depending on the situation, also in a rather opportunistic way.

At the same time, despite the fact that we are not encouraged to have a strong identity, in the midst of the much vaunted individual freedom and egocentric individualism, we often find that we do identify to a significant degree with something that, again, is not necessarily what is most important in life. For example, if we define ourselves primarily in terms of our sexuality, then it is no wonder that in our everyday lives our sexuality takes precedence over our humanity, which is another example of liberal extremism. Of course, every human being still has all the right to expect to be treated as such, but we should also not ignore the fact that treating sexuality too openly can easily lead to a degradation of intimacy and the rise of unbridled hedonism.

So no matter how important your sexuality or even your national identity is, your humanity must always be more important, otherwise a strong central identity does more harm than good for society and humanity as a whole. And if people don’t have a strong identity, they are easily influenced, and it does not take much to ‘prostitute’ themselves, which is not exactly a tendency towards a civilized existence, but rather the opposite. As a counterpoint to this, we can see time and again the bias due to the influence of deeply ingrained subjective views, which, as we have seen, is not necessarily alien even to people as respected as scientists and professionals. They are also, unfortunately, often influenced by their political, religious and other views, and tend to shape their scientific findings, publications and doctrines accordingly, abandoning the pursuit of objectivity. (Which is what you would expect from any serious scientist.)

The main lesson to be drawn from all this is that we very much need a basic identity – in case of which it is extremely important what it is based on -, but we also need to have looser layers of identities that are not so critical for our personality and social coexistence. This allows us to possess the common values necessary to run civilized and sustainable societies, while at the same time giving us the personal flexibility to adapt and change gradually with external conditions, allowing for long-term individual and collective self-actualization. But it probably goes without saying that finding a purpose or identity for oneself that is constantly disregarding the lives of others, or even involves committing crimes against humanity, is not good or tolerable for society.

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