For a long time I have pondered the way that nations choose their names. Over and over again, if one looks around the world, one sees that the names that nations choose are not a reflection of reality but a reflection of hope and aspiration. A great many nations have United or Union in their names, be it the United States or the Union of Myanmar or the United Kingdom, and none of those states is or has been particularly united through their histories. Similarly, one will search in vain for republics or people’s republics or democratic republics when you see nations with those titles. Indeed, the more adjectives one sees in front of a nation, the more of a basketcase that nation is likely to be. The fact that the self-description of a nation often does not only not prove itself to fit reality when subject to scrutiny, but is usually a sign that the exact opposite of the name chosen is in fact the reality, demonstrates the limited value of self-description when it comes to matching reality when it comes to nations.
This is also true with individuals as well. We live in an age that is obsessed with taking seriously what people say about themselves and how people identify themselves. Yet our self-identification does not necessarily match with any sort of objective external reality, and at times people deliberately rebel against anything that seeks to connect them to what can in fact be objectively known about them from the outside. Solipsism is the refuge of the contemporary Westerner, and that is a great shame, as what is inside the mind does not need to bear any close relation at all with what is in fact true. What is objective is, by virtue of it being objective and not subject to debate, somewhat coercive, and while most of us are at least somewhat in fond of coercing some (other) people some of the time, most of us highly resent the coercive nature of objectivity when it comes to identifying and labeling us. And, it should be noted, those who are the most fierce about demanding their right to identify themselves as they wish are the least careful when it comes to labeling others as others would not wish.
Perhaps we would best think of the worth of self-identification for people in the same way that we think of self-identification when it comes to nations or groups. All kinds of groups and institutions have mission statements and vision statements and goal statements. These statements, whether made by people or by churches or businesses or nations do not reflect the way that these people or institutions or societies are, but how they see themselves and how they would like to be and what they aim towards. There is worth in knowing what someone thinks of themselves even when it is mistaken, because it points to the gap between the self-deceived perspective and the objective reality. Similarly, there is worth in knowing where someone envisions themselves in the future, because it points to where they are going, even if they are far from that place at present.
There are even times where people would identify us in ways that we would hesitate to identify ourselves. For example, as I was having dinner today I had a book with me that I was reading, and the people at the restaurant where I ate were particularly interested to know what I am reading, because that is an interesting question to others, I suppose. I showed them a book on wit that I was reading and another book that dealt with black perspectives on the Bible. It was the second book that prompted people to comment that I was supposedly quite progressive for reading such a book, but this did not strike me as being something I would wish for anyone to call me, personally. Interestingly enough, I have read a great deal of commentary about how it is that people who might be thought of as being a feminist recoil from the term because of its negative meanings in the eyes of some. While being a first-wave feminist, for example, does not require anything that would be considered remotely unusual in our day and age, a great many people think of the term as implying, if not directly containing, some degree of misandry, which I find totally unacceptable. Similarly, in times like these I find even a label like conservative not nearly descriptive enough of what I believe is best for the present state of society, since it implies that one wishes to preserve and maintain what is, and that is not really an accurate state of my complex feelings. I suspect that is the case often. Identities are not simple matters, and people mean a lot of different things by the same words, and shy away from words that imply something that they do not wish in any way to affirm.
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