To what extent do our self-identifications matter? There is a great deal of discourse today about identity, and most of the time this question of identity relates to the struggle between what we say about ourselves and how we identify and what other people say about us. In-group and out-group identities have always been an issue in humanity, as we have always tended to label ourselves in ways that are positive while labeling other people with rather harsh and derogatory labels. Notably, for example, a great deal of groups within humanity have group names for themselves that are based on some form of the word for “human” or “real person,” implying that a great many groups do not consider outsiders to be genuinely or fully human. Similarly, a great many words that we use for groups are in fact terms that were created by enemies of groups and so they have a nasty or derogatory meaning that those inside those groups resist, for obvious reason. None of us as human beings want to be labeled by our enemies, because those enemies will call us names that are not meant to respect or to honor us.
How then do identities form? Essentially either we choose these identities for ourselves or those identities are chosen for us by others. Both of these identities are genuine identities, but our responses to them are different. If we have chosen people to associate with for one reason or another, there is usually some sort of positive association that we have with those people. Admittedly as I discussed yesterday in my discussion of Ukrainian identity and its formation, we can choose identity for negative reasons, as a way of distinguishing ourselves from enemies and oppressors and the like, but even here the choice is made by us and there are positive feelings about those who have made that same choice to adopt a given identity. To the extent that we have chosen to associate with people and there is a mutual acceptance of each other within that group, there are positive feelings about those people who are part of the in-group. This is true whatever it is that has served as the reason why that group has formed in the first place. The choice to join up and to collaborate with others and to share time and common interests and pursue common goals brings with it a high degree of cohesion because of that shared nature of one’s activities or struggles.
This sense of cohesion is missing when we are part of a group whose identity is foisted upon us by others. There is, for example, famously a great deal of trouble with the identity of singles, because included in that group are people of all ages and all circumstances, including those who have never married, those who are divorced or have been in long-term relationships (frequently with offspring), as well as those who have been widowed. These three groups of people may find reasons to cohere among themselves with shared experiences of the world, but these three groups may have less reason to cohere with each other because simply being single is not a very unifying identity. Class identity often falls into this rank as well, because there may be a variety of reasons why someone may be viewed as low class–ethno-religious background, occupation, education, and the like, and people who share being thought of as being of low status may have that identity for different reasons and have no reason to cohere among each other. Often, for very self-interested reasons, differential treating of some low-class people may tend to pit these groups of people against each other, thus preventing the formation of a larger identity that may be threatening to ruling elites, who may find it easier to deal with a large and fragmented lower class than one whose shared experience of privation leads to threatening degrees of cohesion and ability to cooperate for shared interests.
It is not simply that the identities we choose for ourselves are legitimate and those that are foisted upon us are not. There may be good reasons why we are lumped together with people we would not necessarily associate with by the people who give us a particular identity. Simply because a given label is unwelcome to us does not mean that it is not well-deserved, and simply because we give other people a label that they do not want does not mean we are wrong in so doing. The facts of each individual case must be examined separately. It is important to recognize, though, that when we label other people or when other people foist an identity upon us as an out-group, we do so and they do so for particular reasons and interests that are not shared by the people we identify. It may be worthwhile to ponder what it is that leads others to lump us together with others in a particular fashion, but it is seldom worthwhile to argue the point. Again, other people have their reasons for identifying outsiders in particular reasons, and we do the same thing. It does not stand to reason that these reasons that we or other people choose are necessarily good or bad, but we feel differently based on whether we have chosen to associate with others or whether we are all alike considered to be castoffs but have no other positive association with them. It is worthwhile to know why it is that people make the connections and labels that they do, but we cannot expect any great degree of congruence between how we see ourselves and how others see us. Neither may necessarily be very close to the truth, as it happens.