The Real Problem With Identity

Divide and conquer. That seems to have become the driving political strategy over the past 18 months and it continues unabated. Divide conservatives and liberals in the United States. Divide the U.S. population into starkly different sub-groups: white blue-collar workers, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, Jews, straights, gays. Divide the U.K. into factions that align with and against the EU. Divide the world into competing groups: America vs. China, Russia vs. Europe, globalists vs. nationalists.

With each division, questions of identity inevitably rise to the fore. Who are we? Who aren’t we? Who is with us and who is against us? Are you part of the problem or part of the solution? 

The notion of identity has become front page news: Whether it's gender identity (think Caitlin Jenner and other transgender individuals), ethnic identity for people whose sense of self revolves around their nationality or the color of their skin, political identity as in what it means (or doesn't mean), say, to be the Republican or Democratic party, or religious identity among those who define themselves based on being born-again Christians, Orthodox Jews, or the only “true” Muslims. In fact, in 2015, the word of the year was “identity," according to

Why has identity become such a hot topic today? Why was "identity" the word of the year in 2015? Chalk it up to the new individualism, a world where we've become keenly aware of and more vocal about what defines us, thanks to the opportunity social media has unleashed to publicly assert ourselves. (Ironically, despite its many blessings, social media has contributed to the identity problem by enabling people to create "identities" which may have nothing to do with who they really are.)

Why does personal identity matter? Because it fuels not simply a sense of who you believe you are, but as a result, the choices you make such as where to work, whom to call a friend (or enemy), and indeed which politicians get your support.

Taken together, our identity-centric lives are coalescing into potent, new communities, demarcated by beliefs both spoken and unspoken, that increasingly influence how well society functions — or doesn't — economically, socially and politically.

Here’s the problem: For all of the attention this "identity trend" is receiving, it reinforces an impression that actually diminishes rather than expands upon what it means to be fully human. Indeed, the notion of "identity politics" undermines the deeper meaning of human identity.

Is the fact that you identify as a Hasidic Jew, an African-American, a conservative, or a gay man or woman the most important definition of who you are? I don't believe so. What defines who you are goes beyond these descriptors.

The actual “problem with identity” may be a matter of meaning. As the word of the year in 2015, “identity” suggests the timeless fact that we all long to belong. We yearn to tie ourselves to a group, a tribe, a community we can call our own. But that isn't the deepest meaning of the word. 

What I've learned over more than three decades of addressing identity issues for organizations and individuals, is that your essential identity — your distinctive, value-creating characteristics — springs naturally from the core of your being. It is a place that is blind to classifications, transcending gender, ethnicity, religion, political affiliation and every other label we adopt as a way to locate ourselves in the world. You are simply you: unique and powerful in your own right. 

With this in mind, identity's 2015 "word win" may reflect the sobering fact that it was the most used, least understood term out there. 

When your definition of identity is based upon a descriptive label rather than the special contribution you're capable of making as an individual, you short-change yourself, those you care most about, and society as a whole. Why? Because, to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, you leave your music inside.

It's pretty simple. To borrow another quote from Holmes, "Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken."

Don't let the pull of labels, social media, or the heat of the moment distract you from tapping into and applying your innate identity to how you live every day. Everyone will benefit including your co-workers, your friends, your children, your spouse or partner and, most of all, you. Indeed, America will benefit.

At bottom, having a clear sense of identity is the key to shaping a life marked by authenticity and integrity — knowing what to do, what not to do, and, most important, why.

1 comment about "The Real Problem With Identity ".
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  1. Andrew Boer from MovableMedia, February 22, 2017 at 7:09 p.m.

    This year was the first time I ever felt the pull of a political identity as a "white male", and specifically around my gender.  I felt this was clearly a *bad thing*; those who identified this way overwhelmingly voted for Trump.  This identity began to emerge due to the political conversations on social media around the election-- I felt a bit on the outside of my own filter bubble. When I mentioned that I was starting to feel this way, one woman expressed her own astonishment --  that she couldn't imagine *not* feeling a political identity. She felt she lived in a society that already imposed that identity upon her, and it was essentially her duty to her "tribe" not to sublimate it.  In other words, my not feeling a political identity was part of my privilege, a luxury. She was right but so are you. Identity politics are a double edged sword. Pretty much every successful movement for social equality and justice has relied upon identity politics, and yet they also divide us and make us less full as people.

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