Conflating Cause and Identity

When we care enough about a particular issue (be it social, political, religious, cultural, or recreational) enough to devote a noteworthy amount of our time and energy into addressing it, we naturally start to relate with said issue on a deeper level than mere interest; in short, it becomes a cause for us to identify with.  And, in and of itself, this is not a point at which I would raise objections.  People looking to find and promote remedies to a problem they feel is serious enough that it needs to be addressed, and are willing to invest themselves into finding reasonable solutions to address it, can all be very praiseworthy (depending on the issue and the sort of solutions being proposed, of course).  The concern for me is when the adoption of an issue (the promotion of a particular cause) starts to take on an omnipresent tone in a person’s life.

When someone stops being “John, who happens to be an environmentalist” and starts being “The Environmentalist John”; or going from “Jane, who cares about tax reforms” [either conservative or progressive, it makes no difference in this scenario] and becomes “The Tax Reformer Jane.”  When the issue being discussed takes precedent over the individual/s promoting it, that’s where I believe people’s judgments are liable to being skewed and easily misled due to an emotional investments in their favored cause.  (Even if the cause itself remains a laudable effort.)

One can look to the revolutionaries of the 19th and 20th Centuries, and deduce how the majority of average persons who made up the ranks of these movements were people who truly, genuinely, cared about promoting an issue, whose benignity they wholeheartedly believed in.  Even the precursors to what would eventually become the Bolshevik faction did not begin under the assumption that it would institute a repressive regime as its end goal.  It began as a movement looking to (in their eyes) elevate the dignity and ensure equal prosperity for the hitherto oppressed segments of society in Imperial Russia.  However, somewhere along the way, for the people driving and participating in the cause, it seized being about addressing the legitimate issues of the cause, and more about upholding the perceived righteousness of the movement inspired by the cause.  This happens when the advocacy of a particular topic stops being just one attribute (amongst many) of a person, and becomes an extension of the individual her/himself–the individual identity gets sacrificed for the benefit of a greater Identity Movement, where identifying with a cause serves as the primary function of the cause itself.

The severity of this depends largely on the scope and power of the Identity Movement in question, but regardless of its impact on the population-at-large, its affect on the perception of the persons who partake and become engrossed with the prospect of having a message with which they can empathize–moreover, with which they can identify–works to create a false impression of the issue which they were originally seeking to address/remedy, as it causes the participants to internalize what is essentially an external problem.  Making the likelihood of ever achieving a solution to the initial issue unfeasible as a development that will be noticed by participants in the cause, because by this point their interests have already (unbeknownst to them) shifted from promoting answers to a cause, to just simply having a cause.  And having their individual identities defined by it.

To avoid charges of plagiarism (and indulge in shameless narcissism), I’ll summarize my own interests in this topic by quote myself from a previous post  when I first wrote my thoughts on “The Sacrifice of Identity”:

Perhaps, this trend is not widespread enough to cause alarm for most people, but I shutter to think about the great minds the world may have lost to such misguided reasoning.

Not to mention, those that it may still end up losing.

The Sacrifice of Identity

Identity is a flimsy concept.  Most people encompass a wide variety of viewpoints, which hardly fit into one concise narrative or another.  However, many people also seem to go out of their way to adopt (at least externally) specific traits for the sake of living up to ideals of a particular identity.

It starts with a cause and/or message that appeals to a person.  Subsequently, this will lead to a desire to seek out like-minded individuals who are equally enthusiastic about the topic at hand.  The next step is direct involvement; an active participation in the interests of the cause/message.  At this point, it is safe to deduce that you’re involved in an Identity Movement.  The nature of Identity Movements range from hobbies, to cultural and political pursuits, but they all share the characteristics of forging a sought after niche for the individuals who wish to partake in its subcultural communities.

Something that is unavoidable in Identity Movements is the emergence of groupthink.  A clear example of this can be witnessed by looking up any piece of music that has been uploaded to YouTube (in particular the lyrics videos), and read the cohesiveness of the comments that follow.  The vast majority of them will follow along a similar tone of, “This is what real music sounds like, not that other shit that most people listen to.”  What has made these individuals the arbitrators of “real music” is their identification with one particular genre or another, and nothing else.

Often adopting a particular identity can lead to the adoption of other interests that one would personally enjoy, and this seems perfectly reasonable, in and of itself.  But, I can’t help wondering how many are truly adopting interests and attitudes that suit them, and not just adapting to the interests and attitudes that surround them.  In other words, are they taking on an identity simply because they feel they need to, in order to be part of a greater movement/cause/culture?

The problem I see with all of this is the potential it creates in individuals (especially adolescence) to habitually sacrifice certain aspects of their personalities that do not fit in with the narrative of the Identity Movement they wish to uphold–a form of self-conditioning for the sake of representing a pure ideal (an ideal, which, of course, does not exist outside the Identity narrative being adopted).  This becomes most worrisome in Identity Movements that encompass a cultural or political message, because it works to counteract the original desires that led up to the need to create the identity; the goal of achieving normalcy within popular opinion.  However, the more of a subculture an Identity Movement becomes, the more antagonistic it gets towards mainstream opinion.  And without the strive for recognition and acceptance in greater society, Identity Movements become insulated in their own narratives, with little divergence of thinking allowed.  At this point, the individual has been sacrificed for the sake of an identity.  Perhaps, this trend is not widespread enough to cause alarm for most people, but I shutter to think about the great minds the world may have lost to such misguided reasoning.