If the fabric of global society is analogous to a constantly shifting patchwork of cognitive relationships between tribes, institutions, markets and networks, then the fabric of each component of this weaving of narratives is comprised of the beliefs, opinions and views of the individuals interacting with each of these basic forms of human organization. As such, our foundational psychic identities, comprising ethnic or tribal origins and their cosmologies, are the sole authentic basis of determining who we are.
This is not to say that other, superficial identities, like race or religion, cannot exert powerful influences on our thoughts, words and deeds, but merely to point out that these identities – unlike our cultural heritage from original nations – are transitory. Much like ephemeral state boundaries arbitrarily overlaid on ancient lands and territories, coerced identities associated with modern states are transferable, even when underlying cultural characteristics remain.
Given the degree of disconnection today from our cultural and geographic roots, indeed from historical awareness, the voluntary and coerced identities we assume are largely superficial. But this doesn’t mean they are unimportant, only that they are more tenuous and vulnerable to subversion by dominant social ideologies. With few opportunities to find genuinely supportive social structures and organizations, most of us are left to fend for ourselves in creating an identity that both suits our needs and our understanding.
Absent the connectivity that defines relationships at a tribal or aboriginal level, we are faced with crafting a persona that blends and distinguishes what Manuel Castells calls the legitimizing identities of institutions, the project identities of reform, and the resistance identities of excluded peoples, depending on our view of history. Economic and political affiliations, of course, play a role in forming these views, but even they can be transcended by strong, determined individuals whose identities are supported by authentic philosophies and organized networks.
Fulfilling our various duties and responsibilities within this often frantic construct requires that we seek an identity we can live with; otherwise, when tested by the turbulence of social conflict, it will assuredly unravel.
(Jay Taber — recipient of the Defender of Democracy award — is an author, columnist, and research analyst at Public Good Project.)