Questions of identity are difficult matters. Often in life, we definite ourselves more based on what we are against rather than who we are. We may have a vague and amorphous idea of who we are, or of what sort of positions we have, and it is often only in controversy that we clearly wrestle with who we are not. We see this tendency, for example, in the fissures that form different wings of political parties, or the conflicts that fill our companies and churches and other institutions. When times are good, it is somewhat easy to drift along with the flow of one’s given culture and not pay too much heed to divisive questions of definitions, because things are going well and there is no need to rock the boat. In times of crisis, though, especially where that crisis is blamed on a lack of unity, questions of identity come to the forefront.
As far as human development is concerned, questions of identity are typically considered to be the major issue of adolescence . As human beings grow up and approach adulthood with a reasonable (or unreasonable) confidence in their own abilities and intellect and a desire to be seen as their own people with some degree of autonomy approaching independence, it becomes more important to clearly define exactly who one is. This definition involves defining what people or groups of people one belongs with and that one fits in with. Likewise, at this point a young person also tends to define themselves against parents and other authority figures, at times deliberately courting danger in some fashion as a way of striking out on one’s own.
Even later in life, though, after one has mercifully survived adolescence, with presumably no particular desire to endure that suffering again, the question of identity remains an important one. The question of who one is has some implications on our lives that remain important long after our hair starts to fall or turn gray or our joints get arthritic. The characteristic struggles of young adulthood, finding one’s place in the world, largely depend on having established one’s identity successfully, so that one can find an honorable place for work, for one’s social needs, marriage, and the like. Even after we know who we are, it is not always an easy matter to know how we fit in the larger scheme of things, or how it is that we are to find the place that allows us to do what we do best for our own benefit and that of others based on our God-given talents and abilities.
This is not a matter of concern for individuals alone. Groups of people define themselves against others as well, a fact that has a lot of relevance for people. When I was in my early 20’s, for example, and went to an educational program run by my church, I did not have any particular awareness that my personality and worldview had given me a group identity, but I soon came to realize that there were plenty of people who had defined themselves against me, and several years later I came to the belated and sobering realization that having defined myself at least in part against a variety of people for a variety of reasons, I clearly had a group identity as well as a large amount of group enemies. I also found, much to my horror, that the politics of identity can get incredibly nasty, since attacks on one’s identity cut to the deepest ground of one’s legitimacy as a human being, and make it difficult to keep up the civility and graciousness that I seek to embody in all areas of life in all situations that occur.
Even in the geopolitical world, questions of identity can quickly become savage and hostile matters. Take, for instance, the former republics of Yugoslavia. When one looks at questions of ethnic origin, it is difficult to determine the distinction between Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, and Montenegrins. All come from the same Slavic and/or Iranian peoples, intermixed with whatever native populations existed in the territory when they arrived in the early Medieval period. All four peoples, moreover, speak the same basic language, even if it is written in three different alphabets and has a variety of dialects. Yet these four identities are distinct, in large part because of religion (Croats tend to be Roman Catholic, with a long history of involvement with Italian states as well as Austria and Hungary, Bosniaks tend to be Muslim, with their history as acculturated members of the Ottoman Empire, and Serbs and Montenegrins tend to be Eastern Orthodox with a long history of seeking to rebel against Ottoman domination. Serbia and Montenegro, moreover, despite their similar religious beliefs and language, had a long and separate history based on greater Montenegrin remoteness from Ottoman power and an earlier experience of de facto independence, only being joined into one state by force after World War I.
Often, however firm we may believe them, though, identities are houses built on the sand. This is especially true of organizational or political identities. In the 1850’s, for example, the collapse of the Second Party system with the demise of the Whigs and the split of the Democratic parties into Northern and Southern wings led to a baffling array of temporary political parties that eventually coalesced around another binary identity between Democrats and Republicans that has endured largely to this day (with occasional third parties of note like Populists, Progressives, and Reform parties that have unsuccessfully attempted to create room for themselves as a third option). Likewise, Thais who are supporters of the various pro-Taksin parties in Thailand have a relatively firm identity (formed, it should be noted, in opposition to oppressive military coups and the Bankock-based elites), even if their specific party identity has been rather difficult to maintain given that their parties keep on getting disallowed by envious coup leaders and reconstituted under a different name. Times of crisis in particular are hard for identities, given the fact that political entities may change name and form several times before something manages to stick (think, for example, of those whose life managed to lead them from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Free City of Trieste or Fiume to Italy to Yugoslavia to a Nazi-dominated Croatian State and then back to a Yugoslavia again, before perhaps an old age in an independent Croatia.
A world that demands flexibility also makes identity a more elusive matter. Are we to be appreciated for being consistent in terms of our character or our concern for others, or do we drift with our culture and largely seek our own interests and tenuous and temporary loyalty for others outside of our very narrow concerns? Do we see ourselves as citizens of the world and alienate ourselves from the particular roots where we come from or where we may happen to reside? Do we define ourselves in such a way that we become people without a past or anything to connect us to the vast drama of human experience, or do we define ourselves in such a way that we can deliberately place ourselves in a position of hostility to existing trends, and thus make our identity a potential area for trouble or controversy? These are choices we must face as individuals and as groups. These choices carry with them repercussions both in our lives, for future generations, and in the world to come.
Even the books I read often are filled with questions of identity. For example, yesterday I got in the mail a book about heretics , and questions of heresy are often questions of identity. By making a choice about doctrinal positions, we define ourselves with others and against others, which can lead to a lot of name-calling (as contentions over identity invariably invite) and to the difficult task of defining what is appropriate grounds for disagreement and legitimate areas of question and what is beyond the pale and matters of core concern. Knowing ourselves is a complicated matter, sometimes involving knowing our own personal choices and standards, knowing our imperfections and weaknesses and vulnerabilities, knowing our allies and our enemies, and knowing the legacy of our heritage that brought us to where we are, and that we wish to either carry on or overcome in the future. Such questions, it would seem, never lose their relevance in our lives and in our world, and so whether we like or dislike questions of identity, they remain relevant for us throughout our entire lives, whether we pay attention to them or not.
 This can be adolescence defined developmentally for individuals as well as groups. See, for example: