"Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers." - VoltairE

Identity 1 - Identity in society and culture

Posted by Anne Witton on Thursday, June 8, 2023 Under: Resources

In this 3-part blog series on identity, I’m going to be exploring:

  1. Identity in society and culture
  2. God’s identity revealed to us
  3. Our Christian identity
How do we introduce ourselves?

I might say something like, “My name’s Anne and I work with Living Out and the local church. I’m from Manchester originally but have lived in the North East for 23 years.”

Notice how I just introduced myself with my name and what I do. Instead I could have told you that I’ve got an irrational fear of buttons, I like trains and I once ate porridge for every meal for two weeks.

Those are also facts about who I am, but they’re not the socially-accepted conventions for introductions. 

Pause to think:

  • How do we tend to introduce ourselves when we meet new people?
  • What information about ourselves do we share?
  • What do we ask them?
  • Does the context make a difference? (Church, party, work…)
We tend to introduce ourselves to people with our name, job we do or stuff we spend our time on, and perhaps hometown. But identity goes much deeper than that.

Who are we?

So how do we answer the question Who are we? Oscar Wilde once said “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”. But what does ‘being yourself’ mean?

(i) What makes up and shapes our identity?

On the one hand, there’s our official identity - the facts about us that appear on our passport or that we’re required to fill in on forms. That might include age, gender (that’s not straightforward for many people now), religion and ethnicity which we might feel are important aspects of who we are.

But there are other things that we may feel shape our identity such as our family background, relationships and marital status, what we do, what we own, how much we earn, what we’ve achieved, where we live, our sexual identity or even what football team we support, what bands we like and our hobbies.

Our nationality and culture can play a big part. There’s a contrast between individualistic cultures like ours and communal cultures like some Indian communities and African tribes. We tend to think of our identity very much as ‘I am’, whereas for more community-focused cultures, they would see their identity more collectively - ‘we are’.

Family relationships are often hugely formative. In honour and shame cultures, people risk being ostracised and even persecuted by family members if they make choices that the family group disapprove of which bring shame on the community.

(ii) How do we project our identity?

We all have things that matter to us and that we’d like to project to the world. It’s interesting to see how people use social media profiles to present a public version of themselves. There’s a very real sense in which we can choose how we want to portray ourselves to the world. In a sense, we are doing this all the time  - through the clothes we choose to wear, the things we display in our homes, the car we drive, the things we reveal about ourselves in our conversations, and (at this time of the year) Christmas newsletters! It’s perhaps particularly noticeable on online social networks.

It’s also interesting to see how keen people are to explore their personalities and preferences with online quizzes. I confess to getting distracted with online quizzes sometimes. These are all genuine examples that I’ve seen on Facebook:

  • Which cartoon dinosaur are you?
  • Which musical decade are you?
  • Which Disney princess are you based on the snacks you pick?
We can laugh at these, but they do show us something about people’s desire to explore their identity - to know who they are and to be known for who they are.

Who are we told to be?

The advertising industry is quick to tap into our exploration of who we are. Gone are the days when they could just tell you that a product worked and was reasonably priced. Now clever marketing will try and get us to align our identity with a particular product or brand and adopt the brand’s values as our own. I don’t know if anyone remembers the Nikon adverts with  series of aspirational ‘I am’ statements like ‘I am creative’ ending in ‘I am a Nikon’.

The media are subtly shaping our values and aspirations. We’re being discipled by our TVs, radio, the internet, films and magazines. None of us are immune.

I came across this interesting phrase which stuck with me - “The consumer is the centre of a commodified universe” - it’s all about you.

Questions for discussion:

  • Can you think of subtle (or not so subtle) messages that we are given about ourselves and our identity?
  • (“Because I’m worth it”, British Gas - “Your home is your world”, Burger King - “Have it your way”.)
  • What do you think the effect of these are on the way we view ourselves and the way our society is shaped?
Who are we in private?

But whilst we have a ‘public identity’ that we may be happy to explore openly, there’s also our private identities. These are often the things which get to the very core of who we are. In a sense, I think that working this out is a life-long process and we’ll all be at different stages. Different life stages present us with different challenges and prompts to to ask the big questions and try and work out what we think.

There may well be aspects of our identity - whether it’s concerning our relationships, spiritual life, background or experiences - that we’ve never shared with anyone else, perhaps because we’re afraid of being rejected. There’s a real risk in being vulnerable with others and allowing them to see the ‘real us’, as we explored in our sessions on community. But I think most of us have an underlying longing to be known and be accepted for who we are.

Pause to think:

  • Is there anything about me that I would like to share, but I haven’t because of fear? How can I take steps to be more open and with whom?
  • Does our identity change?
It seems that there are lots of things that make us who we are, some of which are unchanging and some of which are more fluid depending on circumstances.

One of the big questions is what happens when the things that we see as an important part of our identity are taken away?

I was very inspired by the story of Martine Wright who lost both legs in 2005 London bombings. This is how one of the newspapers reported her story:

“Her journey that day caused her to lose not only both legs and 80% of her blood but her life as she knew it. After the physical and mental agony of rehabilitation and learning to walk on prosthetics, she quit her job, fought for a public inquiry into 7/7, earned her pilot's licence in South Africa, married her husband, Nick, and gave birth.
Then she became a Paralympian.”

Not everyone responds like that when their world is shattered and the things that they’ve found their identity in are taken away. You may have struggled to find your identity after being made redundant, or after a relationship has broken down. Or you may be wrestling with finding your place in an unfamiliar culture, or in new friendship groups and with new and different expectations. It can be unsettling and scary to work out who you are when much of the familiar structure of your life is stripped away. Young people often face big questions about what to do after university as the future stretches out before them and there are so many possibilities for who they might become.

So is there something that is uniquely ‘us’ that we can hold onto in spite of changing circumstances? Are we defined by our past or by things that have happened to us? Is our life the sum total of our preferences, achievements and experiences or are we more than that?

Here’s a quote to think about from the novel Fight Club:

“You are not your job, you're not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet.”

Questions for discussion:

  • In what way do you think your identity is shaped by your family / cultural background / relationships with others?
  • Have you ever misjudged someone based on how they dress / their accent / their mannerisms etc? Or has that happened to you?
  • Does our identity change over time? In what way?
Christian identity

Of course, as Christians we have a profoundly different identity and we’ll be exploring this in more detail in the third post.

Something to do:

As you go around this week, try and notice all the messaging that’s around us and how that influences our ideas about ourselves. You might also like to notice how people introduce themselves and what they share about themselves on social media. Start to think about how that contrasts with the biblical story about humanity - who God says we are.

In the next part we'll be looking at God's identity revealed to us.

In : Resources 

Tags: identity 


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