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Our Highest Identity

When we look at people as members of a group first, someone’s true character and passions may be overlooked. We feel like we understand when we understand very little.
Another version of this article appeared originally January 2020 on the Philosophy of Motherhood blog

In the last hundred years, we have seen a tremendous change in society. In the West, human rights and privileges have expanded and there is relative peace and prosperity.  Until recently, it looked as if Martin Luther King’s dream for his children “not to be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” was a real possibility.

But today, in academic and cultural spheres group identity is increasing in importance- whether about race, gender or other categories.  Rather than seeking to look beyond race, at the University of Minnesota, it is deemed a “microaggression” to say, “There is only one race, the human race,” because it denies that the individual is a “racial being” belonging to fundamentally different categories.  It’s not uncommon now to see little girls’ clothing bearing girl-power logos like, “The Future is Female.”

Is our culture moving backward? 

Many say these efforts are to correct imbalance and educate children about bigotry and their own “implicit bias” (depending on their race), but these attempts at achieving equity turn out to be extremely divisive.

Douglas Murray, in his recent book, The Madness of Crowds, told of a recent speech given by a professor at Boston University, a leader in the critical race theory movement, where he said, “I’d like to be less white, which means a little less oppressive, oblivious, defensive, ignorant, and arrogant.” Murray writes, “To her audience in Boston she also explained how white people who see people as individuals rather than by their skin color are in fact ‘dangerous.’” He concludes, “It took only half a century for Martin Luther King’s vision to be exactly inverted.” (This interview with Douglas Murray discusses the modern epidemic of Identity Politics). 

“Every human being is intended to have a character of his own; to be what no others are, and to do what no other can do.” ~William Henry Channing 

Supremacy of Group or Self?

I remember in high school that I loved watching the skateboarders do their tricks during lunch. I was so impressed by what they could do. I knew some of them from middle school but they were different now. I wondered why they all ended up dressing and speaking the same way—baggy pants and long hair? They all did pot behind the school. They seemed to be rebelling against the world’s expectations, but they were all rebelling in exactly the same way. They were only creating a smaller world of expectations.

The downside of placing the individual on the top of the identity ladder is that each of us has to take the responsibility and the blame for our own lives.

In our teenage years, we lack confidence; we seek a place in the world. Often, we attempt to find identity in a group. We outsource the work of discovering ourselves and instead become a cookie-cutter image of the next skateboarder. But what if one of those kids had decided, “Hey, I love skateboarding but I will remain a unique person of character and not identify myself merely as a skateboarder?” Then, of course, this person could freely choose to not smoke pot and wear whatever pants he or she wanted.  It would be tough to break off, but then they could be free of their limitations. This person would gain the power, as an individual of choice, to show a higher way to his skateboarding friends. Skateboarding would be something he enjoys, not a confining group with stifling definitions. Perhaps this increasing focus on group identity is a stage our society can grow out of, as teenagers often do.

“The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever seen before.” ~Albert Einstein

Russell Wilson, Quarterback Seattle Seahawks

My kids’ favorite football player is Russell Wilson.  He was once asked to respond to statements made by some other football players complaining that he wasn’t “black enough.”  I found his response interesting:

In terms of me, “not black enough” thing, I don’t even know what that means. I believe that I am an educated young male that is not perfect, that tries to do things right—that just tries to lead and tries to help others and tries to win games for this football team, for this franchise. And that’s all I focus on. … I think, for us, there are no distractions at all. I think it was people trying to find ways to knock us down.

He seemed confused and uncomfortable by the line of questioning. Our view of ourselves is largely determined by where we place our attention and what “identities” we give most thought and energy to developing. Some of those identities, like “skateboarder,” we may allow outsiders to define for us, while others we define for ourselves. It can be disjointing to have outside presumptions placed on these more “sacred” identities. It is obvious that in his own personal hierarchy of identity, Wilson saw himself as “Russell the individual”—with his own distinctive interests and passions near the top of the ladder. Who knows where his other identities were positioned?  Maybe he put quarterback above African American; maybe he put Christian even above Russell (he is devout). Maybe his definition of “black” didn’t match the interviewer’s. But where we place our various identities on this ladder is also where we place our value, our responsibility, our actions, and our worth.

Group Identity: Glory and Blame

The other day I was listening to a classical radio station and the male DJ said, “This was conducted by the first female conductor from Hungary. What a step for women everywhere and a sign of a progressing society!”

I found this statement very patronizing. Perhaps I was projecting, but I assumed this woman had the same personal hierarchy ladder I did—putting her individual self on top. If I were this conductor and heard women and society given the glory, and my own name mentioned as an afterthought, I would have felt cheated. She likely did have to overcome a lot because she was a woman, but she is the one who overcame it all! Yet instead of honoring her personal accomplishment, the credit went to her gender and society at large.

The downside of placing the individual on the top of the identity ladder is that each of us has to take the responsibility and the blame for our own lives. It’s tempting, then, to opt to stand on a group identity rung because responsibility can be swallowed up by the group. When fighting in a crowd, you become a nameless and faceless actor. But more importantly, you can be a victim of an entire group’s circumstances—whether or not it is an honest reality for you. I personally am only too willing to step down the ladder a few rungs and say it was not me that was at fault, but the repression brought upon me by one of my identities. I can step down to my mother-rung and complain, “Our society is not family-friendly anymore; it’s so hard to raise competent kids with all these electronics,” despite the fact that I have the capability of preventing access to electronics. But when my children succeed, I don’t give glory to mother-kind for overcoming, or praise society for supporting me. No, when my children achieve, I get to boast on my own personal Facebook page. 

Confusion of Shifting Identities

Rather than giving ourselves strict identities, I’ve noticed we usually end up moving up and down the ladder whenever it suits us, taking credit individually and then abdicating it to a sub-identity when things get tough.  This is not to say that some of our identities do not cause hardships—they do. However, if we step up to the rung, unique person of character—then the buck stops with us, and we will be more properly oriented toward the world. But in my view, we have to stay there, in good times and bad. This is where we gain the strength to face the hardships lower down. This is where choice happens, where progress is made, and where love is given and received. We accept that the identities below us will influence us for good or bad—but they are secondary to us—as an individual of free will. 

This “fullness” of self can keep us from being open to the truth God pours into us day by day.

When society starts placing group identity higher than individual identity, it creates a world that doesn’t know where to hand out blame or glory. Rather than Russell Wilson being a unique person of character, he was given a new identity by his interviewer: black man. Well, that seems fine, there is certainly nothing wrong with being black—but what if the first part of this new identity (black man) is questioned by other members of that group? Is he really black enough? If that identity is given precedence, then failing there is more important than failing at character. Being honest and hardworking matters less now, compared with being good at being black.

We all want to see the end of racism, sexism, and bigotry.  But how do we do that? Bigotry is one thing only: refusing to see the individual. Let’s not go back to labels. Let’s not assume a person’s views or judge them for not holding to the expectations of a group. Let them show themselves to us.  

“Once you label me you negate me.” ~Søren Kierkegaard

The Rung of Character

When we stand as an individual, we expect to be treated as an individual. We know we will get the blame but we also know we will get the credit. We know that the choices we make are made by us and that we are not victims of the choices of other members of a group. We do not have to fall in line with the expectations of a group or make the mistakes groups often make. We will certainly experience difficulty because of identities below us on the ladder.  Racism, sexism, and bigotry are real things. But if we stand as an individual of character, we find the strength to face the battles below us on the ladder, and we gain the confidence to let struggles below us not define us.

“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”~Rudyard Kipling

If we start to see our child conforming to a group by dressing, speaking, or acting in line with the expectations of friends or online discussion groups, a good parent will often remind that child where confidence is built—as an individual. When they give up their individuality, they give up freedom. We must be examples of free will, unswayed by others’ expectations, unashamed to live life independently, and obeying our own conscience. We can show our children examples like Wilson and those willing to cast aside the definitions of outsiders and live by their internal values. This will require more sacrifice and responsibility than those that opt to be defined by the group. In this way, our children’s self-worth will grow as they see that their choices can improve their lives and that they can live one rung above the childish fray of cliques and “in-groups.”

Transcendent Identity

“To see God is to stand at the highest point of created being.” ~George MacDonald

At the risk of undermining all my above assertions regarding the advantage of identifying as an “individual” rather than by a group, the fact is this—as Christians, our very emphasis on “identity” should be disconcerting.  Christ makes it clear, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”  

Our modern insistence that we “identify” turns us from the promise we make as Christians to deny ourselves.  God wants an empty vessel into which to pour His spirit, His inspiration.  But as the world increasingly demands we label ourselves, this “fullness” of self can keep us from being open to the truth God pours into us day by day. 

“I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most glorious creature that I could think of; for to have been thought about, born in God’s thought, and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest and most precious thing in all thinking.” ~George MacDonald

 However, since we live in a world of “identity” and others view us and the world through that lens, it is crucial that we examine the pitfalls of such thinking.  So how should Christians view identity?  (This is a great piece on how following the wrong identity can lead to horrific tragedies —such as WWI: 1917 and Remembering Who We Are, Bishop Robert Barron.) 

Ladder of Divine Ascent, 12th Century Icon

The limitation of placing group identity on top of our ladder is we then must get our worth and judgment from the group. But despite its advantages, that rung “individual of character” also has a weakness. If we put all our value on ourselves, all our worth and judgment also emanate from ourselves. Pride or despair is likely to follow. As individuals of character, we now say, “I don’t care what other people think.” This is likely an upgrade from depending on our fellow skateboarders for our sense of worth, but we are missing a key qualifier. If we seek validation from the world’s standards of a “good individual,” we will only be valuable according to earth-bound measurements—beauty, intelligence, wealth, performance, etc. These terrestrial measurements are shaky; they don’t take our internal world into account. Much more important is our soul—the world only God can know.  When we let go of group identity and are firmly standing as individuals, we have to step up another rung. 

As a Christian God tells us there is a rung of the ladder above “individual of character,” and that is the rung, Child of God

 “And I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:18).

This is where we stand and say, “I don’t care what others think; I don’t even care what I think; I only care what God thinks.” A Child of God does not get his/her worth from individual accomplishment, or group accomplishments—but from God Himself. This rung is safe and stable in its height, and it has a strong Hand steadying it. We don’t need to “care” because Another does better than we ever could.  He can replace our ignorant cares with Godly love. The worth and value gained from this identity do not change with worldly praise or disdain.  God looks at us as His children, who are forever learning, having successes and failures, but secure in His love. Faith and obedience are required to stay on this rung but the peace and joy we gain surpasss any glories the world can provide.

“Aim at Heaven and you will get Earth ‘thrown in’: aim at Earth and you will get neither.” ~C.S. Lewis, The Joyful Christian

I think this song “You Say,” by Lauren Daigle, should be a soundtrack playing in every young and grown woman’s heart. I listen to it when I need to be reminded to move up to the Child of God rung, to accept the value given me by God, not the condemnation often given by the world. “In You I find my worth, in You I find my identity”…

About the author

Allyson Flake Matsoso

Allyson Flake Matsoso has a degree in Environmental/African Studies and has published research in Social Work. She runs the celebrated "Philosophy of Motherhood" blog.
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