“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)
So says Shakespeare. And the world would be a better place for all of us if we only heeded the old Bard’s words. What is swirling in the vortex of today’s conflicts can be traced back to this one meaningless term: identity. In the name of identity, the Israelis are waging wars against the Palestines. In the name of identity, Christians are pitted against the Muslims, the liberals against the conservatives, women against men. Americans against the rest of the world. There is no sign any of this is letting up any time soon.
What is identity, really? Why does it trouble the world so? On the surface, it’s a label attached to a person since birth. The label then becomes a badge of honor that constitutes a person’s proud heritage, unity within a group or organization. This label is inescapable. Amartya Sen in his book Identity & Violence describes how we are mindlessly drawn into this penumbra of identity and just as mindlessly, almost in a sort of an illusion, consider it our destiny. He strongly rejects the mindlessness of our association with any group or creed.
At this point, Amin Maalouf, the Lebanese French writer, cautions us to take a closer look at identity. In his book In the Name of Identity, he posits that one’s identity is at once singular and plural. One could be born, say in Indonesia of a Chinese descent, and thus be considered a minority. However, as a Chinese, one belongs to one of the world’s largest population. Then, as we examine this fact further and consider that the same person born in Indonesia of Chinese descent, writes a monthly column in Jakarta Java Kini, published three novels written in English and directed a film about a lowly clerk in the Archives department of a large bureaucratic organization, lives in Lebak Bulus, Jakarta, it becomes obvious then that there can be no other person in the world that fits the same description as the writer.
Identity is in this way both reaching out and at the same very self-defined. It becomes clear that it is impossible for us to really belong to any group at all. This is further proven by findings from the Human Genome Project that shows that our DNA is a miraculous result of millions of permutations, likened to a slot machine with hundreds, instead of four or five icons, hitting the jackpot. There is no possibility of replication of any of our DNAs! We are all singularly different and one of a kind.
While we have always believed that knowledge will prevail and one will be done away with the orthodoxy of identity with accrued knowledge, the truth is anything but. Knowledge, as Michel Foucault stresses in Hermeneutics of the Subject, accrues more knowledge. The world becomes more modernized, efficiency improved, life enhanced and prolonged, but spiritually as humans we are not the least bit helped by the advancement of science. A doctor will know how to cure his flu with the right self-prescription of medicine, but to cure his own soul he needs more than just certain knowledge. He needs a spiritual workout described by Foucault as Tehkne tou Biou, exercises for the soul. Only through spiritual, i.e. actual workout through flesh and blood experiences, shall one arrive at a metanoia, a conversion.
This is helpful to understand because we often take words such as Identity, Justice and Democracy as abstract terms, or what Alain Badiou describes as Acronyms. When we take a term such as Identity, we are immediately lost in the immensity of its abstract connotation and we forget that Identity comes from its basic meaning of making an identity of. Which suggests a concrete action. This shows to us that to reach out to the others require efforts.
Identity is established through the reflections of the Other. We are basically what the Other believes us to be. It is a paradoxical quagmire in which we find ourselves trapped for life. Unless of course we are willing, as Amartya Sen suggests, to root ourselves out of this quandary and opt for our choice. Our choice to be not pigeonholed in a particular identity, to be in a particular category or group of race, religion or people. We should learn from Badiou to examine each cause with fresh and unbiased perspectives, one case and one human being at a time. Instead of embracing an identity, we shall labor toward getting to know and understand the Other. These are all words of action.
In the Name of Identity
By Amin Maalouf
Identity & Violence
The Illusion of Destiny
By Amartya Sen