We are born with very few innate faculties. Unlike most other mammals we are unable to carry out all but the most rudimentary of actions and activity, but the first one is to engage in the pursuit of attachment and connection to our fellow human beings. Eventually, we start to think a bit more and what follows is the process of discerning who we should and who we should not associate with. In short we form a sense of who we are, an idea of the person we consider ourselves to be and from that point onwards we use this idea of ourselves to pretty much determine everything we say or do and, moreover, who we chose to carry out that activity with. This process is open to massive cultural influence. We are led to believe that so much of how we behave in some innate activity that we have little control over. And yet even the most basic ‘instincts’, I would contend, are merely cultural constructs. If we use our more aggressive impulses to fight in defence of our fellow citizens and the protection of our lands as an example, it is very easy to see how this has become our modus operandi as a result of our having fellow citizens and lands to defend and protect. No land barriers, no nation states and we suddenly have nothing to fight for. What we are told are our primal urges are no more than reinforcements of cultural values and needs that are processed and re-processed into feedback loops that feel like unavoidable human traits and characteristics. And we, as individuals, create our own feedback loops in which we use our ideas – our beliefs – to inform our actions – the way we live – as a means of announcing to the world just who we are.
But it isn’t who we are, it’s who we think we are. There is a difference. That discrepancy will determine who we will become and will force us down paths we might not wish to go down with people we would rather not be with.
How does this process work? In this book, “Who Do I Say That I Am”, I aim to explain just what happens when we do this and, more importantly, how we can break out of this circular way of thinking and learn to establish better relationships with people based on common values and interests. In doing this we open ourselves to become more vulnerable, open, honest and happier people.
We are all Individuals.
The Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson makes this claim in his recent book “12 Rules for Life”:
“Your group identity is not your cardinal feature. That’s the great discovery of the west. That’s why the west is right. And I mean that unconditionally. The west is the only place in the world that has ever figured out that the individual is sovereign. And that’s an impossible thing to figure out. It’s amazing that we managed it. And it’s the key to everything that we’ve ever done right.”
When I first read this paragraph in a newspaper review of the book I felt very strongly that Peterson was wrong. Not necessarily wrong in identifying that the west has become more and more individualistic but most certainly incorrect in attempting to establish this as its most notable achievement. And yet the more I think about it the more I move towards his way of thinking. I am writing a book about who we say we are and in 99 times out of a hundred we will use one grouping or another to describe ourselves. This will be based on an alignment of ideas and ideals or on similar patterns of activity but surely there is so much more to us that that? We are all individuals, that is the basic unit of human being. We may operate better in groups of greater than one and we may prefer to live in arrangements that comprise a number of us collected together but we cannot deny that when we break those societal groupings down in a scientific way, we end up with one lone individual.
Science has gifted the world many great discoveries. We comprehend so much of the world down to the minutest particles of matter. In many fields of science the reductionist approach – breaking complicated entities down to their constituent parts – can lead to amazing breakthroughs in our understanding of how they work. If we take a very complicated thing, an airplane for instance, we find that there are many interconnected elements working together to create the whole. Indeed, if we were to take a plane apart completely down to the last screw and bolt we can work out precisely the function of each component and thus fully understand how, when put together, they work to create a flying machine. There are some things that cannot be better understood by this reductionist approach. Breaking them down to their constituent parts offers little or no insight as to how they operate when taken as a whole. Herein lies the difference between that which is complicated and that which is complex. A complicated thing like an aeroplane will not work if one or more of the components is missing or malfunctioning whereas a complex thing, like a grouping of individuals, will merely work differently if one or more of the members are removed. The scientific field of study for this is Systems Theory.
Wikipedia defines Systems Theory in this way:
“Systems theory is the interdisciplinary study of systems. A system is a cohesive conglomeration of interrelated and interdependent parts that is either natural or man-made. Every system is delineated by its spatial and temporal boundaries, surrounded and influenced by its environment, described by its structure and purpose or nature and expressed in its functioning. In terms of its effects, a system can be more than the sum of its parts if it expresses synergy or emergent behaviour.“
So, if we accept that the west has managed to achieve some means of breaking down of societies and social grouping to the individual level then we must also accept that in doing so something has been broken.
Another way of describing complex systems is emergent. What this means is that the system is deemed to be greater than the sum of its individual components and will adapt to change. It is resilient. This, in turn, makes it almost impossible to break. Any attempt to do so will force adaptation and, ultimately, survival. Unfortunately the humans that make up societies are not so resilient and adaptable and so it is the people that will, literally, breakdown. We are witnessing record levels of poor mental health, personal anxiety and depression is crippling particular groups. There might be many reasons for this – it is a complex situation after all, but we cannot afford to ignore. It is happening and needs to be addressed.
On that basis the real issue with the way in which the west has managed to reduce societies and social groupings down to the level of the individual is that we now view everything as a personal issue. Thus our way of coping with a systemic societal problem is to treat our personal symptoms. This might be as simple as a daily glass of wine but increasingly it culminates in some therapy from a mental health professional.
I suggested at the start of this chapter that one of our most primal urges in life is to make connections with others of our species. For much of our history the opportunities for such social interactions have been abundantly available. Now that doesn’t seem to be the case and we are much more willing and able to do things on our own that we would previously have done together. Indeed, it could very well be argued that we are openly encouraged to do so. There are many examples of this – look at how we access entertainment. On demand services, such as Netflix and the BBC iPlayer, have picked up the baton from the early pioneering days of the VCR and allow us to watch television in a way that was never previously possible. If we couple this with the constant pressure to be individual, to tailor all aspects of our lives to suit us and only us, then we can see how our connective tendencies are deliberately suppressed and stifled.
Primal urges are stronger than cultural norms though and they will find a way to be satisfied. If there is a lack of actual physical connections available to us in the form of relationships that challenge and develop us, we take to more virtual means of building networks. In short, we connect with beliefs, with notions, with ideas, shared ideas perhaps, but ideas nonetheless.
Plato, through his theories on forms, believed that there was no such thing as, say, beauty. There were beautiful things but nothing that was beautiful fully ‘explained’ beauty. We shall revisit this argument later and, perhaps, expose the flaws in this way of thinking, but for now we find ourselves broadly in agreement with the father of (western) philosophy. If we apply Platonic thinking to social groupings, vegetarians for instance, it would fair and true to suggest that there is no such thing as a ‘vegetarian’. There are people who eat a vegetarian diet, there are people who are broadly sympathetic to the arguments over the merits of such a diet. However, there is no way in which any single person fully explains what being a vegetarian is. This may seem pedantic but, as we shall see later, it is a very significant distinction to make.
We are all a type of something. We might substitute the Platonic notion of ‘form’ for ‘type’.I will become a certain type of vegetarian. I won’t be the archetypal vegetarian, people won’t hold me up as the very personification of vegetarianism. I will be the type of vegetarian that does the things that that type of vegetarian does. I will almost inevitably strive to the be the best vegetarian there is. That is what we are encouraged to do; believe that there is a perfect archetype of, in this instance, vegetarian and measure ourselves up against that. We all know there isn’t such a thing and that we are destined to fail in our plight, but time and again we push towards this inevitable scenario of repeated disappointment. The other side of this is that I can expect to be lumped in with all the other vegetarians. People will assume that I do all the things that all vegetarians do and think in the same way as my ‘tribe’. In short I will become a stereotype. We will see a little later that the use of symbolic language, metaphor and even stereotype, is an essential part of how we communicate with one another and how we navigate our way through the world. The one thing that stereotyping does do is to reduce (there we go again) everyone down to a dismissible type that we need waste no more of our time on. We will discuss why this is the case, why we tend never to treat people as we find them or, moreover, we might occasionally try to but we don’t try too hard in case we really find them and don’t know what to do with them. There is another ‘type’ that we all are and, without wanting to get too ‘life-coach’, it might be helpful to think of ourselves in this way. We are all prototypes. There has never been another me and there will never be one. I am unique. The development of prototypes requires a lot of work and it is not work that we can carry out ourselves. We need each other in order for us to develop our prototype into a well functioning, finished product. This book will help you do that.
This connection to ideas and pursuit of type has resulted in too much of life today being spent in our heads. I believe this is directly attributable to the prevailing western dualistic thinking that has prevailed in virtually all the most renowned west European philosophies. The separation of mind and body, the divine from the earthly, science and nature has become the pattern if thought that we defer to. There is always a good and an evil, an up to the down.
I keep referring to philosophy and philosophers in a manner that might suggest I know what I am more well versed in these matters than is actually the case. I must present my distinct lack of credentials in this area. I must also declare that as a white, western male, the only philosophers I have made any reference towards, so far, are white men from the West. This will not necessarily be the pattern for the rest of the book except in the ways in which I attempt to debunk their theories and compare them to, say, the African Ubuntu philosophy. In contradiction to Descartes declaring ‘I think, therefore I am’ we have the Ubuntu notion that ‘I am because we are and since are, I am’.
One things we haven’t quite addressed yet is why, in the west, we behave in this way and, if it is as damaging as I am suggesting, why do we persist with it? This is the question we will be attempting to answer more fully in the next chapter but it is safe to say that our unstable state is beneficial to those with power and influence. Consumption is, invariably, the first response to the trauma we feel as a result of the isolation we are pushed into. Therefore virtually all advertising relentlessly quells our instinctive urges and forces us to literally buy into the alternative.
And so, on the one hand we have the forces of capitalism driving us to consider ourselves to be individual units of one in the way in which we behave. We easily accept that “we are worth it”, that we are deserving of whatever purchase will make us feel a bit better. Set against that is our urge to collect and to connect, one of our most primal drives from birth. How do we reconcile this basic and fundamental dichotomy in Western life? I believe the answer lies in the way in which we answer the question ‘Who do I say that I am?’. We draw on the deeply entrenched philosophical, cultural and religious dualism that has throughout our history created a mythological ideal of everything that is real. We construct a self rooted in this flawed ideology. This idea of who we are mistakenly connects with the constructs of religion and politics as a means of collecting with others and neglects the very real ways in which we are intrinsically joined in a basic and beautiful shared humanity.
How is this inversion, this perversion, allowed to persist and dominate any and all debate on identity and ideas of self? I will answer this question by breaking down (some reductionist analyses is still valid) what we do when we make claims on our identity. We will look in detail why we do it and what we have to do to satisfy any such claims and validate them. More importantly I will offer practical alternative ways to consider who we are and, more importantly determine who we are likely to become.
Culture is both the air that we breathe the water in which we swim. There is a joke about two fish swimming past one another. The first fish asks the second, “How’s the water?”. To which the other fish responds “What’s water?”. We are so embedded in our culture and it is so ingrained in our thinking that we are unable to distinguish what is fundamental to who we are and what has been constructed over time and played back to us in such a way that we take it as a natural part of life.
In the next chapter we are going to be looking at the cultural landscape and, more specifically, the way in which is has been shaped and changed throughout history. What are the key periods and events that have impacted our cultural understanding and then been recycled and presented back to us as the ‘way things are’. We will focus on specific times that I think have had the most fundamental impact on how we do things. We will also look at the increasing pace of change. This is important for two reasons. 1. Everything is in a constant state of change so we need to work out how that impacts us. 2. In general terms humans are not renowned for their love of change and therefore a certain scrutiny of our responses can only help our understanding. One of the main ways in which we try to cope and exert some control is in declarations of identity – markers by which we can measure the change around us and our resistance (or acceptance) thereof.
It is my contention that in order to fully make any such identity claim there are 3 basic criteria that must be met:
- We must share a belief in something
- We must state that we hold that belief.
- We must live in such a way that attests to the belief.
As an example I will be using vegetarianism to explore this thesis more fully. So, if we apply the 3 rules above, to be a vegetarian I will have to be sympathetic to the values a vegetarian holds, I must live life as a vegetarian and, finally, I have to tell people that I am a vegetarian. Failure to comply with any of them will invalidate my claim. For instance, lets say that I don’t like meat and prefer not to eat it. I have no interest in the welfare of animals and I don’t think that a vegetable based diet might save the planet anytime soon. Does that make me a vegetarian? I say not, I just happen to not eat meat in the same way that vegetarian does not eat meat.
This is a diagrammatic depiction of the idea. The outer circle represents our being, who we are, and within that we have the three elements represented by the words Belief, Announce and Conviction. The arrows between these circles detail the interplay between the three.
The three elements are linked. The link between Belief and Announce is ‘knowledge’. Our beliefs inform the way in which we portray ourselves. This is shown here as a double headed arrow, as are all the other links, implying that the reaction to our claims might just as easily inform our beliefs. I don’t think this happens a great deal and, with firmly held beliefs, almost never. The connection between the identity declarations and the way in which we live our lives, conviction, is ‘validation’. We can validly claim something about ourselves that might not have manifest itself in the way we live. These are our hopes and our dreams and the validation, I see, as coming from those around us. This process can make the difference between our fulfilling our ideals and falling short. It is not always important that we complete this part, what is important is we realise that this is an activity we are all engaged in and we should offer one another all the support we can in the endeavour. A good example of this is a resolution to give up an activity that is harmful to us, excessive drinking or smoking perhaps. We might ‘fall off the wagon’ from time to time but with the aid of friends and family we can climb back on and try again.
Between belief and conviction, the gap between how we think things should be and how they are, we have ‘authenticity’. This is where we encounter phrases like ‘being true to yourself’ and this is perhaps the most contentious section of the diagram. Our beliefs are essentially personal and known only to us. We might share some of them with others, particularly if we adopt a specific belief system (religion), but at the point we adopt them they are ours and ours alone. Once we state that we hold the belief then the scrutiny between those beliefs and the lives we live begins. A lack of authenticity can be both damning and damaging. We laud those in society who we feel are living an authentic life, true to the beliefs they hold. We will examine this more closely in subsequent chapters, suffice it to say that the demand to ‘keep it real’ leads to anxiety and fear and stunts our growth and development, it prevents us becoming the person we might be. In truth, there are few people who deserve the level of scrutiny we put ourselves through. Political leaders are one such group, the rest of us should feel free to dream our dreams. I will be returning to this diagrammatical structure later to demonstrate that, with a few tweaks, we could approach things differently.
There will be a chapter on each of the larger circles, where we look in a bit more detail and explain what I mean by them. It is important to point our here that the order not significant. If I eventually become a vegetarian after a period of not eating meat and choose to look into vegetarianism as a lifestyle choice, that is not better or worse than to do so the other way round. Equally I can declare myself a vegetarian before I have actually bought into all the ideas around it and made the change to my diet. You get the idea.
Inevitably, the moment I stake my identity claim and plant my flag firmly in one camp or other I will come into conflict with someone from ‘the other side’. Not all conflict is inherently bad, we need to have our position challenged in order for us to understand our viewpoint more clearly. But, clearly, this can escalate fairly quickly if we refuse to bend our will and we entrench ourselves. A modicum of resistance to someone else’s views coupled with a willingness to engage in a level of constructive debate is the bedrock of any healthy relationship. So much of the discourse in western society today is between belligerent, unmoving and just plain pig-headed bigots from all sides of any ‘debate’. Can we avoid this or is it an inevitable consequence of ‘modern life’? I am firmly of the view that it is possible and the final chapter of the book looks at ways in which we might bring this about.
In so many ways, modern life looks and feels grim and, what’s more, the future offers little prospect of improvement. Just how did we let ourselves get into this parlous state? As with so many good stories, we have to begin our tale a long, long time ago in a land not so far away….