Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Utility of Identity, part 1

Four words: Identity, Honor, Ego, Being.

Identity is a set of characteristics, a historical pattern of behavior, the way I look at myself and the world, an abbreviation of my traits.

"He is an asshole."

"He is such a jerk."

"He is a nice man."

"She is forgiving."

And from these adjectives, to: "I like/dislike him/her."

In daily life, split-second decisions have to be made about how much to trust the other person. If people behaved whimsically/randomly on their own, it would be impossible to live without violence/force. Nobody would be able to marry, have kids, put their money in the bank, vote, etc.

A conditioned person, however, is not whimsical. He behaves within bounds (most of the time, at least). The less "free" a person is, the more secure/comfortable is associating/relating with such a person, because you have some idea of how he/she is going to be in the future. Of course, spontaneity about superficial matters (not matters of morality, convictions, etc.) can still exist and can add spice to the relationship.

A "free" person who is being true to himself (i.e. to whatever hormonal/chemical combination his mind/body is having at the moment) without any commitment to longer-term consistency can be quite a pain-in-the-ass to live with. "Yesterday he made plans of going out with me, today he just wants to look at the wall." "Last month he liked this city, now he wants to move out."

When we evaluate or identify a person's character or traits, we create an image in our mind about him. When we meet someone for the first time, we don't expect much. We are cautious, our guard is up, we know that it is possible that he may say/do something surprising/shocking. In a relationship, the sense of comfort is derived by our knowledge/familiarity with the other person. We know that he is likely to snore in the early hours, we know that he takes half an hour in the toilet, we know that he is unlikely to want to go to a nude bar, etc.

This image-making, of course, also happens about ourselves. We know the kind of person we are. Even though, sometimes, we may want to project a different image because what we really are may not be regarded that well in society. For example, a man who is lazy knows that this trait is considered objectionable at the workplace, so he will project an image of being industrious at the interview. This goes on in many other spheres too, of course.

This image-making, or categorization, or a feeling for "what kind of a person he/she is" is essential if we are to navigate life. A person who makes bad relationship or business decisions suffers. A person who makes good decisions prospers. And most of the time, the decisions are about human beings. And human beings don't usually change much through the course of their lives. And even if they do, if they blew their chances in the first few interactions, too bad. It's just too much effort to constantly re-evaluate one's counter-parties, in life, for solvency.

So, this is identity. My traits.

My "honor" is a positive valuation of my identity - by myself as well as by others - and an estimate of how steadfast my identity is. An "honorable" person is one whose identity is consistent with social virtues and ideals, and who can be relied upon to hold on to his identity even in the face of grave temptation or provocation.

A man who is not easily given to drunkenness, angry outbursts, or to debauchery, is trusted more than a man who is an addict, spendthrift, and who beats up his wife. The former man may possibly have all the instincts, he also may get aroused at seeing a half-clad woman, but he fights it out, and wins. "Honor", in Freudian terms, is the history of super-ego's battles with the id.

"Identity" and "Honor" are therefore evaluative constructs which provide for better decision making in human societies. The more communal a society, the more are these constructs useful and important (hence the stress of "what will people say?" in such societies). In institutionalized societies, say Manhattan, what matters is not honor but your immigration record, police record, tax filing status, history of driving violations, employment record, credit score, and so on and so forth.

Needless to say, having "honor" capital, whether institutional or social, is very valuable in human societies. In traditional societies, "honor" is also determined by one's family background, caste or clan, and can also include superstitious markers such as one's "horoscope" or one's physical traits. To have a highly valued identity, i.e. an honorable identity, opens a world of opportunity which a lesser identity can only dream about.

Valid decision making about honor and identity is obviously linked to the amount of experience one has had in life. If an 18-year old daughter of a landlord wants to marry the milkman because she thinks his physical traits are so cute, perhaps her father would want to intervene, as they generally do (and very violently, at times). Her father would justifiably consider her choice of the milk-man as a long term partner as deeply flawed. He knows the tricks men pull, and he is enraged that the milk-man is trying to derive an unfair and undeserved advantage in society by seducing his ignorant daughter. The ignorant daughter is not coolly evaluating the identity of the milk-man, but is lost in the dreams and feelings of affection and love.

(to be continued)


Alok J said...

Harmanjit, thanks for taking time to give me info on 'captain gapodshankh'. It remains one of my favorites till date. I wish I could get to read the hindi version again. I will also checkout the movie clips.

While searching on web, I noticed that this character is still very much alive and is being read by school kids to date.

Your blog is quite interesting. I will stop by again to read your thoughts.

srid said...

May I suggest "Identity theory" by Peter Burke?

Particular read about what he has to say about identity-verication. From my comment in sunson's blog:

when we perceive meanings from the environment that are in discord with our own identity-standard (which is who I think/feel I am), we automatically experience stress and adjust our behavior in order to "change" the very perception until it comes in accord with the identity-standard. This should remind you of cybernetics. Example: Alice thinks/feels of "her" to be very assertive. When she happens to perceive of a situation in which she is appraised (by others) as less assertive, then that discord causes her to provisionally alter her behavior, say, by talking/acting more assertive. If, on the other hand, she perceives other's appraisal of her being more assertive, her behavior would be altered to show less assertiveness until it matches her identity-standard.

Burke has done several empirical studies to confirm identity theory, but I can also relate to it from my personal experience. Alice's is a naive example; complex one's include various instances of personal anxieties.

Suppose you experience anxiety (and spread the vibes to others) when your identity is not verified. What will be your response to it?

Anonymous said...

After reading your views, this article is what comes to mind.

Harmanjit Singh said...

@anonymous: The article that you quote is about writing which is deeply personal, and doesn't relate to common concerns, and which is almost incomprehensible to others, as a form of narcissism. The writer has a point. I have seen far too many writers who pay to publish their own books and almost beg people to read them. They feel validated if people appreciate their writings.

You could be quite justified to accuse me of the same. Who knows?

The good thing about the internet is that the incremental cost of another blog is almost nil, and nobody is forced to read anything unless he/she is interested.

So my advice to you would be, if you find my blog "estranging" and indecipherable, don't push yourself. By exposing that an erudite person like you reads my blog, I, being narcissism personified, am inordinately chuffed. :-)

Haha. Have a good day.