As I navigate a culture evermore consumed by identification - be it identity politics, nationalism, scientism, or religious affiliation - I consider how my own life has benefited from peeling away such identifications. Strange as it may sound, I wonder if identification has become the enemy in modernity, and disidentification a misunderstood ally. In modern day America, personal identity has emerged as a central theme, becoming firmly entrenched within our society. When viewed through the lens of the natural world, this is no surprise. After all, birds of a feather do flock together. Yet, despite their commonalities, flocking birds do not make it their goal to eliminate competing commonalities, but rather, gracefully hold their own identifications as sacred while coexisting within a diverse ecosystem of co-identifications. These days, it seems as though we could learn a few things from the birds.
In our nation, the negative aspects of identity are everywhere. In considering our country's history, we see that people's ability to put personal differences aside and unite behind a greater democratic ideal is the very thing that has allowed this political experiment to work. In a generation, the United States has transformed from a nation united by identity into one divided by it. There’s no need to delve into the current maladies afflicting our country, we all know the score, and to anyone who observes life with a sufficient measure of curiosity, our current national paralysis comes as little surprise.
Within our representative system, we elect leaders: people charged with painting a vision of the way forward - setting a national rhythm to which we march as one, roughly speaking. These leaders stopped demonstrating compromise and commonality long ago, as if these matters were of no consequence. Put another way, our elected representatives lost the ability to see past their own personal and collective identifications. Now, a generation later, the poor example of these leaders has become a national way of life.
Of course it’s not that simple, nothing ever is. There are many factors underlying the troubles which currently rage at our door, and convenient as it is to blame our leaders, their power to effect change is severely limited, just as it has always been. It’s a convenient game we humans play, tarring and feathering this person or that, creating scapegoats to serve as the singular symbol of all that is wrong at a given moment. Yet, our leaders can only wield the power we afford to them. Adolf Hitler epitomizes evil within the annals of history, but what could he have truly accomplished on his own? It took a large amount of agreement to empower the atrocities he wrought; a great deal of personal identification.
Kierkegaard said, “If you name me, you negate me”. In doing so, he illustrated that by labeling something as one thing in particular, you eliminate all the other things it could be. This is a subtle way of thinking perhaps, but within this subtlety exists tremendous opportunity, especially within the throes of our current national identity crisis.
In considering personal identification, we find that the practice has a dangerous downside: to identify with a particular aspect of reality necessitates we push out wholeness. In one sense, this is a handy trick, as it allows us to practice empathy or project ourselves into another’s shoes. However, over time one tends to become mired in their identifications, in many cases, completely losing the ability to detach from them. Instead of a helpful tool for seeing alternative perspectives, identification becomes a means of self-definition, a way of presenting oneself to the world as this, and not that. The further one travels into their personal identifications, the harder it is to step back from them and take an honest look at the big picture.
Identification is an intellectual endeavor by nature, and the rigid social structures with which we identify ourselves in turn create rigid structures within our minds. Over time, these mental constructs act as barriers to us, both individually and collectively. Whether we know it or not, our thoughts are channeled by these constructs, like a stylus on a record, and over time we lose the ability to explore beyond these mental fences, as doing so awakens fear and insecurity. Our minds do not start from zero each time we have a thought, but instead, our thoughts are born out of all the thoughts that preceded them, informed and directed by our previous assumptions and agreements. These types of mental barriers give rise to statements such as, "that's just the way it is" and "because I said so."
Disidentification, by contrast, is a strangely non-intellectual process. Rather than engaging linear thinking to rationalize personal beliefs, disidentification requires an unconditional state of mind, an openness to ideas and opinions that may seem foreign or frightening to us. By willingly engaging in disidentification we allow these "boundaries of the mind" to be overrun, opting out of the collective push and pull, if only for a moment, in an attempt to reckon clearly.
By disidentifying with our basic assumptions, we afford ourselves the opportunity of knowing something greater, of creating space for a new way of seeing the world. This can be a harrowing process, as we find great security within our identities. Doubtless, this is why we created them in the first place. Yet, given all that we see around us, what choice do we have but to turn the lens back on ourselves and consider our own role in the collective drama unfolding? After all, of what protection are our certainties, if those very certainties serve to tear at the fabric of our social structure?
To be clear, I’m not suggesting one switch political parties to see what it feels like, but rather, pointing out that the practice of releasing our cherished viewpoints for a while may be beneficial. After all, how can we ever find peace with one another if we are incapable of understanding differing points of view?
As Americans, we are now entrenched in something resembling a self-imposed national-headlock. It is a puzzle, no question. By what means do we begin to release ourselves from that which is self-imposed? I’m not sure there’s a collective answer, yet, as individuals we have the opportunity to question our personal identifications, to center our behavior in peaceful, productive conduct. Our leaders may not demonstrate this to us, but each of us exists as our own leader and, in the end, the only thing that matters is that which we demonstrate to ourselves, and thereby the rest of the world (our leaders included). Till next time!
Americana Singer Songwriter Ed Dupas’ lived-in melodies unwind with reflective lyrics that speak to the current state of the human condition. Soothing where possible, agitating where necessary, and calling for change where appropriate. Ed Dupas creates and shares well worn wide awake music.
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