Identity is not a product; it is a process, an ongoing process of negotiation between nature (our genetic disposition) and nurture (socialisation processes that are never ending).
Socialisation processes, which are attempts to temper our inherent differences, condition us to sets of norms and values that lead to the development of shared identities. (Uniforms are the most easily recognised indicators of shared identity.)
The severest form of socialisation is induction into an army where an individual must give up her/his individual identity for a group identity. S/he wears a uniform, marches in step, obeys and lives a regimented life. S/he must not think for her/himself. S/he becomes a virtual robot. It is a form of dehumanisation necessary to make it possible to kill.
Ordinary socialisation is meant to have the opposite effect: the humanising of the individual. That means learning behaviours that encourage co-operation and communication and suppressing behaviours that inhibit interaction. The individual goes through various processes of socialisation in institutions: the family, school etc. that equip her/him with common norms, values, skills, i.e. uniform beliefs and behaviours that reduce individuality and produce shared identities.
The accumulation of common norms and values is a continuous process. Each new group or institution that we join demands conformity to its ethos that makes us more alike and steers us towards the adoption of a group identity. And the individual becomes the aggregation of many identities as s/he goes through socialisation processes, e.g. African-Zulu-teacher-IFP member-mother-wife. The formation of identity, therefore, is an unending process and never devolves into a finite product.
Though socialisation processes attempt to reduce individuality in order to produce the uniformity that will lead to compatibility, individual responses to socialisation and processes are not identical because of inherent differences that determine what individuals take from these processes.
Inherent differences stem from the original being, the unprocessed self, the raw material that society works on. These natural impulses determine the ways in which we respond to socialisation processes. The natural being does not submit passively to social conditioning. We call children who don’t conform ‘naughty’. The resistance to social norms arises from perceptions of violations of our true natures. It allows us to retain something of our uniqueness and protects us from total conformity.
This interaction between natural impulses and social conditioning produces the identity: natural impulses help us retain our individuality while social conditioning enables us to form associations.
Are differences only the result of instinct or are they also socially produced? As we belong to many different groups, we go through many forms of socialisation and accumulate many different sets of norms and values. Each individual, therefore, combines a diversity of perspectives which is unique to her/himself.
So we all different from one another, not only as a result of natural predispositions, but also because of socialisation processes.
Our uniqueness, which gives us our identity, is both natural and manufactured. I do not believe that the natural and the social are separable. They work together to produce the individual.
Identity, therefore, is made up of similarities to and differences from other people. Individuals are fusions of conformities and non-conformities.
Shared Identity and Equality
The shared identity always indicates relationship to others.
Shared identities are based on generalisations or abstractions derived from a group; they often lead to stereotyping. Shared identities have a practical value in providing a quick estimate of identity, necessary in formal and official interactions. The shared identity is clearly designated in ID books, driver’s licences, passports, etc.
The shared identity is the basis for equal rights. And our demand for equality is a generalised demand: the recognition of our membership in a group.
The most important shared identity is that of citizen; it is based on basic fixed characteristics: name, date of birth, place of origin, ID number.
Citizenship, the political identity, is impersonal and simply recognises one as a member of a particular nation.
To be recognised as a citizen is essential to democracy. Citizenship guarantees equality in terms of human rights and justice and commits us to the acceptance of the rule of law.
Equality does not refer to status and resources. It refers only to equality of opportunity, i.e. no discrimination on the basis of race, colour, creed, gender, sexual orientation, disability.
As citizens we are the all same in terms of human rights and recourse to the law.
Considerations of race and ethnicity are irrelevant to citizenship and should be so in a multi-cultural democratic society. Under apartheid, which was not democratic, race was made a component of citizenship and only white people could be citizens. Consequently, many who could pass for white did so.
Where race is not configured into the requirements for citizenship, people generally identify themselves in terms of their nationality: Nigerian, Malawian, Chinese, American etc.
When racism enters the picture, we adopt terms such as African-American to highlight the failure to recognise the citizenship of a particular group.
In Apartheid South Africa, where citizenship was not shared, people were identified in terms of race or colour – as European/White, Afrikaner/White, Coloured/Brown, Indian and African/Black.
In the new South Africa, with its legacy of apartheid, some of these designations still obtain: in particular, White, Black, Afrikaner and Indian. The continued reference to race/colour/ethnicity to identify people post-1994 is an indication that we do not yet fully embrace equality and justice. To be called Indian, for example, denies a South African of Indian origin, the rights of citizenship.
In undemocratic societies, and that includes countries with corrupt governments that have been democratically elected, identification of a person as a citizen is tenuous. When corruption interferes with the human rights of a people, there is no equality in that society and it becomes divided along racial, ethnic, class and caste lines. And human effort goes into oppression rather than development.
Revolutions that take place to rectify such situations are based on demands for equality and human rights, i.e. the right to citizenship in a democratic dispensation. Only as a citizen, whose human rights are recognised, is there a guarantee of equality before the law. Among citizens, there can be no perception of people as other, i.e. of different races, creeds, colours etc. A citizen can only be a citizen, if s/he is recognised as equal to all other individuals. This sameness, this neutralisation of the individual under the law, is what guarantees democratic rights and equal justice.
The Individual Identity and Difference
In contrast to the shared identity, as individuals we are not the same; each of us is unique and race forms part of our uniqueness. As individuals we do not demand equality; we demand recognition of our uniqueness.
This dual aspect of our identities is what complicates our lives. Most romantic novels are based on this duality. Though as individuals they are besotted with one another, the heroine cannot marry the hero because their group identities do not match. She is a Capulet, he a Montague and they are plunged into a tortured process in which as individuals they try to overcome their group identities. If they succeed it usually means estrangement from the group/banishment/death.
The interplay between our shared and individual identities leads to complications in many spheres. It is what makes the administration of justice complicated. Justice, which is based on the generalised identity, is often called upon to recognise the uniqueness of the individual’s circumstances. The prosecution generally works on the basis of equality before the law; the defence on the particular circumstances of the litigant.
Criminals cast off old group identities and develop new group identities in underground groups. They, however, depend on the cohesion of their old group in order to exploit it. Criminals need the rules so they can break them. A thief for instance depends on the routine behaviours that we are socialised into, and knows he can catch us off guard.
The criminal’s actions seem to demonstrate a split between his individual identity and his social identity. But there isn’t really a split. He is still connected to others like himself and to the society he preys on because he is still dependent on it.
He makes us aware of our dependence on connection. Even if it is a negative one, it still leads to an identity, albeit a negative one.
It is not possible to isolate the two aspects of identity. The individual is part of the group, and the group is made up of individuals. “I am because we are.” Our individuality lies in our understanding of our affiliation to the group. It is indicated in the degree to which we conform to socialisation processes and in our choice of the groups to which we belong.
I come to the conclusion, therefore, that identity cannot be found in difference alone. Individual and shared identities are so interwoven that they cannot be disentangled. We are simultaneously the same and different. Our shared values make us the same. Our responses to our shared values make us different.
The problem with our shared identities is that because they are shared, they overshadow our individual identities and they lead us into conflicts and wars. Catholics vs Protestants, Palestinians vs Jews, Communists vs Capitalists, Liberals vs Conservatives, ANC vs DA.
Our humanity lies in our individual identities. But individuality is not allowed in party politics.