Identity

During yesterday’s post on cultural appropriation a thought occurred to me which I decided to turn into a separate post. This is the relevant part:

Like most teenagers or young men, this kid doesn’t know who or what the hell he is, and he’s latched on to his parent’s culture in order to give himself some sort of identity.

It’s important in life to figure out who you are, to carve out an identity for yourself that you’re comfortable with. A large part of teenage awkwardness comes from not being who you want to be and subsequently trying to force the issue instead of waiting to see who you actually become. In my post I gave examples of foreign kids in my school adopting alternative, fantastical identities for themselves, and all teenagers do this to a degree. I have a colleague whose daughter I met when she was 13, only she was convinced she was 21. She attempted to have adult conversations and made a decent fist of it for a few minutes before coming out with something childish and you’d be reminded she was just a kid. It came across as a bit ridiculous, but at that age it didn’t matter. As a teenage boy I remember faking various quirks and character traits in the hope it would make me more interesting (it didn’t). I think everyone goes through this, trying to work out who they are and what identity they’re comfortable with. As I’ve mentioned before, the period between ages 19 and 23 were crucial for my development, having gone into it as a boy and coming out a reasonable approximation of a man (albeit still a work in progress). By the time I was 25 I had a pretty good idea who I was in most respects; I remember somebody at a corporate event telling me I should take part in some activity or other because it was “character building”. I replied that my character was already built, thanks all the same. I might be an obnoxious, opinionated, annoying troublemaker who has deep-rooted issues with authority figures, but nobody has ever said I lack character. By the time I was in my early or mid-thirties, it was locked down and I knew I’d never change. Thankfully, I was happy with who I was and still am.

The same isn’t true for everyone, though. Pretty much all men I know are married with kids and their identities are carved in stone, but I know women who are still uncertain who they are and what they want to be. These aren’t youngsters either, most are in their thirties and sometimes forties. Some have been in a succession of relationships since their early twenties, leaving them with no time to define themselves independently. I spoke to one friend recently like this, and I said she needs a period of being by herself, living independently, so she can figure out who she is and what she wants and only then finding her next boyfriend. Without knowing who you are yourself, how can you expect to find a compatible partner? I’ve noticed a lot of women think their identity will only be complete once they have a partner, happy to leave a whole chunk of themselves blank for the next guy to define. I remain unconvinced this is a route to a happy relationship.

However, one’s identity can change during a relationship, although probably not completely. Over time, a married couple will start to define one another which is very good for the stability of the relationship but can be a problem if it ends. I am good friends with a widow and she’s had to take substantial, deliberate steps to carve herself a new identity having decided, quite understandably, that she didn’t want to be defined for the rest of her life as a heroic, grieving widow. To this end she did some things which were well within her character, but would have been quite out of character were she still married. The more disapproval she got, the more content she was that she was moving on. I am happy for her.

This topic is also relevant to my recent post about single women who “go travelling” alone in middle-age. I’ve noticed this cohort often don’t seem to know who they are, which is not surprising: many have been shoved into the meat-grinder of corporate life and found themselves wondering what the hell they’re doing there. They ask their male colleagues why they’re there, and they reply “for the wife and kids, of course. What about you?” Having spent a decade establishing themselves as a corporate high-flier, it dawns on them they’d rather do something more meaningful, but what? There are no obvious answers, which is why you see them wittering on about spirituality and travelling to exotic locations, where they post pictures of the food on Instagram. It’s a last-gasp effort to build a different identity, and no less forced than a skinny white teenager inserting rap lyrics into his everyday speech.

The other mistake people make is to take shortcuts, and this is far more common than you’d think. Consider how many people on social media leap onto a bandwagon without understanding any of the underlying issues, merely to give themselves some sort of identity and purpose. The narrator in my book expressed skepticism of how deep Katya’s feminist convictions actually ran; she could spout boilerplate feminist soundbites, yet had entered into a disastrous marriage with a polyamorist in order to secure a US residency permit. Hardly the behaviour of a committed feminist, you’d think. When you scratch the surface of modern feminism and movements like MeToo, you see most are using it as a badge of identity in the absence of any other which people might find interesting. This is doubly true for any men involved.

Others take shortcuts of a different kind, which I mentioned in this post:

There is a section of society out there which is not completely stupid (but not particularly bright either) who lack the talent, work ethic, and self-discipline to enter into professional or corporate environments and so attach themselves like parasites to the genuine arts world in order to give themselves some sort of identity.  The problem with the arts world – as opposed to say, law, engineering or music – is there is no quality control: anyone can tag along, dress up in costumes, get drunk, take some photographs, and claim they’re an “artist”.

What else is dying one’s hair a stupid colour, covering oneself in tattoos, or growing a silly beard other than a cheap attempt to convince others you have an interesting personality? Out of all the hipsters you see, how many have actually bought into the lifestyle and will stay that way, and how many have just joined in because working minimum wage in a coffee shop aged 30 is otherwise seriously uncool?

What identity you end up with is important, but not so important as ensuring it is one you arrive at naturally and are comfortable with. I’m surprised how many people are out there who either don’t know who they are, or are pretending they’re someone they’re not. You can spot them a mile off, and they don’t make for a pretty sight.

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25 thoughts on “Identity

  1. ’Consider how many people on social media leap onto a bandwagon without understanding any of the underlying issues, merely to give themselves some sort of identity and purpose.’

    I haven’t seen a better summation of the #MeToo movement yet…

  2. “I might be an obnoxious, opinionated, annoying troublemaker who has deep-rooted issues with authority figures, but nobody has ever said I lack character.”

    Why does this description remind me of Florence Foster Jenkins: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing”

  3. Pretty much all men I know are married with kids and their identities are carved in stone,

    You no longer have the luxury of wasting time on such fripperies as “identity” under such conditions. The mere presence of young kids sees to that.

    The mid-life (often identity) crisis comes later when the kids are older and gone. It’s at that stage that there’s a risk that the black leather jacket, BMW convertible or motorbike come about.

  4. In the old days women would have to do endless housework and child-wrangling, and some of them would go off the rails thinking ‘This is not the real me’.

    Now they spend even longer in the office, never seeing their kids, and some of them go off the rails thinking ‘This is not the real me’.

    (I’ve said for many years that the stupidest thing modern women ever did was convincing each other that a career was a good idea just as home life was becoming easier thanks to modern technology, and there were fewer kids to look after.)

  5. convincing each other that a career was a good idea

    Good phrasing; I don’t think they’ve convinced themselves.

  6. “What else is dying one’s hair a stupid colour, covering oneself in tattoos, or growing a silly beard other than a cheap attempt to convince others you have an interesting personality? Out of all the hipsters you see, how many have actually bought into the lifestyle and will stay that way, and how many have just joined in because working minimum wage in a coffee shop aged 30 is otherwise seriously uncool?”

    There is, I think, a general tendency to see changes in fashions or lifestyles among the young as something interesting and even important; as if the latest group of distinctive young people are somehow special. I confess I thought of hipsters like this. I’d never seen anything like it.

    My son, who is in his 20s and works in finance, said that he quickly realised that most “hipsters” were really just extremely dull and thick provincial types who had nothing interesting about them beyond moving to London and having regrettable tattoos. In terms of personality, they are the same dreary spuds they were at school. And they are doing the same dull jobs such people have always done, except that part of the fashion is now to pretend that the job is not dull. As John Lennon once said of the 1960s, it was a revolution – in hairstyles.

  7. If growing up was easy I think I’d have done it by now.

    Do you
    a) invent a persona and grow a personality into it
    or
    b) have latent characteristics which develop organically into character?

    Or a bit of both, which might go some way to explain why many people feel internal conflict.

  8. @HD

    I’ve said for many years that the stupidest thing modern women ever did was convincing each other that a career was a good idea just as home life was becoming easier thanks to modern technology, and there were fewer kids to look after.

    A very interesting point but counterbalanced to some extent by the kind of lifestyle that a one-earner household can manage compared to a two-earner household. An “acceptable” middle-class existence these days probably either requires both parents to work professional jobs (though unexceptional posts will be fine, and possibly one of them part-time though likely at least 0.5 or 0.6 FTE) or for one to work in such a good job that it makes up for the other staying at home. And after taxes, that almost certainly requires a job in the top 5% by earnings (a threshold which is surprisingly low in pound terms).

    Of course you could live a very comfortable life on one-worker money if you cut out the consumerism and the fancy holidays and so on, but then you wouldn’t be keeping up with the Smith-Joneses on Facebook, so what could possibly be the use of a lifestyle like that?

  9. MBE, yes, money was initially part of it, and once it got started the women got trapped because now you can’t afford a good lifestyle if you don’t have two earners. I know women who want to quit their jobs and be mums but they can’t because they’re locked in to that lifestyle now.

  10. I noticed a long time ago that a lot of young women aren’t interested in anything not social.

    Even dull boys like a sport, cars, motorbikes, music or games. Like in the boy sense of really getting into them, not just like to have around. They often work in that field too.

    Many girls have nothing but friends and family. They inflict it on themselves too, because society doesn’t.

    So come to middle age, of course they have no identity.

    Made much worse if they are the type who always goes along with everyone else. Because then they’re not even very good at making decisions.

  11. . . . leaving them with no time to define themselves independently.

    I’ve often marveled at the number of people I know who seem absolutely terrified of being alone with their own thoughts. Consequently, they fill up their time with endless busy-ness, relationships, etc. (I noticed this long before social media appeared on the scene, BTW.) I think what horrifies such people is that they realize there’s no “there” there, when they look inside themselves.

  12. “the stupidest thing modern women ever did was convincing each other that a career was a good idea just as home life was becoming easier thanks to modern technology, and there were fewer kids to look after”

    “A very interesting point but counterbalanced to some extent by the kind of lifestyle that a one-earner household can manage compared to a two-earner household. An “acceptable” middle-class existence these days probably either requires both parents to work professional jobs”

    However if women didn’t work then housing costs would be considerably lower (as a house can only cost what the buyer can pay, and if all households are single income then they’ll cost what a single income can buy, like they used to). So all women getting on the hamster wheel of work and careers has done is inflate the housing cost of living massively, meaning you now need two professional income to have a middle class lifestyle when you used to only need one. So women could have been sitting at home sipping pinot grigio all day while ‘housekeeping’, while hubby caught the 8:10 train to London and slaved away in an office, instead they both have to catch the train and slave away in offices, while they pay someone else to look after the kids, who grow up screwed up as a result of not having proper parental guidance, and everyone hates their lives.

    This is progress apparently.

    Incidentally, what do women do when they husband earns enough to keep the family in a grand manner on his own? Do they go out to work any way because it means so much to them? Do they buggery, they sit on their backsides, and be yummy mummies who lunch. Which I think is what women would like to do really, but some of their more masculine oriented sisters fucked the whole thing up for them 50 years ago by demanding the right to work like men. If women had had any sense they’d have jumped on the early feminists and buried them six feet deep for fear of messing up the nice little number women had going, where men did all the work and women got all the benefits from it.

  13. An “acceptable” middle-class existence these days probably . . . requires both parents to work professional jobs

    The word “acceptable” in that sentence is doing a lot of heavy lifting. It’s quite possible to live a middle class life with one income, provided one is doesn’t feel compelled to have what others find “acceptable.” As Jim points out above, housing is one thing, but there are so many other “necessary” implements which people feel they absolutely cannot do without, that they sacrifice what’s important for the “stuff.”

  14. You’ve got it exactly wrong. One’s identity is the identity on one’s parents and biological/cultural people. There is no other identity. The libertarian nonsense/insanity that individual humans are atoms without any cultural, historical or biological ties to anything, mere Homo economicus, is itself utterly destructive of culture, civilization, the rule of law, etc. We are not atoms. We are part of a system of relationships that goes back into deep time.

  15. One’s identity is the identity on one’s parents and biological/cultural people. There is no other identity.

    So there’s no variation within people of the same culture? Nobody can be a hippy or a nerd?

  16. “I think what horrifies such people is that they realize there’s no “there” there, when they look inside themselves.”

    This. I remember a woman in her mid ’30s giving a presentation at a postgrad seminar and doing exactly that as she spoke. She was in the architecture dept and her thesis was on “experiential” something or other. I squirmed in my chair the whole time as she kept losing her train of thought and the frustration began to wobble her voice. I remember praying for the profs to put a stop to it somehow. It was torture for me to sit through for an hour, but god knows what it was like for her to actually give the presentation. She would have been far better off with something very simple and well defined, but she had been given free range to “explore” and had ended up stuck inside herself. After that episode I lost nearly all respect for the academic staff who had been present, and I quickly realized there was no way I could possibly hang around as an RA after graduating.

  17. There’s a big confidence thing here too. I’m a highly paid married man with kids and I’ve lived in some rough countries. So I’m grounded. Others get grounded in different ways. And grounded folks really don’t give a shit so much if they have thoughts / plans / politics / opinions / habits that aren’t ‘in’. I hated Obama and think Trump’s an OK dude and a good president, for example. You think he’s Hitler? Fine. Fuck off then, I don’t care.

    The women about whom Tim writes from time to time are utterly ungrounded. They care deeply what others think of them. They are not self-validating. And so they tend strongly towards the public validation space of identity politics and leftyism. None of these lost souls in the USA are packing heat or going to church (another space in which to lose the need for validation from others). Politically right wing women are MUCH more likely to be happy than their SJW counterparts. (And that also freaks the lost souls out.)

  18. The women about whom Tim writes from time to time are utterly ungrounded. They care deeply what others think of them.

    Yes. Much of their lives is pure theatre.

  19. One’s identity is the identity on one’s parents and biological/cultural people. There is no other identity.

    While it’s certainly true that one’s family history has an effect on the individual–however tenuous–on the individual, it seems one’s identity is more than simply being a cog in some self-replicating, historical-cultural machine. It seems to me, however, denying individual agency–despite one’s biological/cultural/historical “identity”–is more injurious to civilization, Western civilization at least, than otherwise.

  20. Politically right wing women are MUCH more likely to be happy than their SJW counterparts.

    Mmm, probably. But I think that SJWs of all 67 genders and both sexes often gain a deep inner satisfaction from their constant outrage, posturing and hysteria.

    Also, I find that most people don’t know or care about politics. However they express vaguely lefty views because that what they think they ought to do. They follow the establishment line and are easily bemused and annoyed by people arguing against them using facts or simply expressing different views, ZFG.

  21. @ RS

    “The word “acceptable” in that sentence is doing a lot of heavy lifting. It’s quite possible to live a middle class life with one income, provided one is doesn’t feel compelled to have what others find “acceptable.””

    Yes hence the quotes – was using it ironically. The key is to quit caring about how others view you and your lifestyle and focus on what is desirable to you (and your family) and what trade-offs are personally “acceptable”. Unfortunately plenty of people do seem to care a lot what other people think and so life and lifestyle can end up revolving around it.

    @Jim

    I do find it hard to believe that house prices would be so high if single-earner households were the norm and I also think far fewer obviously-a-waste-of-money-but-somehow-you-feel-obliged-anyway fripperies would have become normalised.

  22. >However if women didn’t work then housing costs would be considerably lower (as a house can only cost what the buyer can pay, and if all households are single income then they’ll cost what a single income can buy, like they used to). So all women getting on the hamster wheel of work and careers has done is inflate the housing cost of living massively, meaning you now need two professional income to have a middle class lifestyle when you used to only need one.

    Yes. But unless they all get off the wheel at once career women are stuck with the situation now.

  23. Yeah, Bob Sykes is right. No-one gets to escape the group they are born into.

    Born a Jew or a Kulak, always a Jew or Kulak.

    Hard to tell if Poe’s Law is applying here. I really hope so.

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