Perceptions Of "Identity"

Dudley Weeks, PhD

I, you, they, we,
each is a weaving
of so many threads,
wondrous art
springing to life
in the same space
and the same time,
searching for how
to be seen as unique
while blending together
so all can survive
and be secure
in who we are
and can become.

Who am I? Who are you? Who are they? What are my perceptions of myself and others, and what are the sources of those perceptions? If I want and need to change those perceptions of 'identity' what attitudes and skills are essential?

How we live our answers to these critical questions influences everything we do as individuals and as members of society. I suggest there are several predominant patterns that are obstructing the development of our positive potential and leading toward dangerous consequences in the present and future. I will focus on four of these patterns.

1. The “Borrowed Self”
Each person is unique and has the capacity and power to determine her or his own values, ethics, priorities, and perceptions of the Self and Others. Yet many people relinquish the power to determine their own self-identity, and allow family, or cultural traditions, or national priorities, or the belief systems taught as “truth" to determine the Self. They become a “borrowed” Self.

In my work in conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and human development, I constantly encounter people who have never questioned whether or not they actually believe in the attitudes, priorities, and behavior the dominant society has taught and pressured them to accept. Those people rarely demonstrate a secure sense of Self. Deep down inside, they know wisdom and self-respect require an objective questioning of whether or not the borrowed Self is who they really are and want to be. Then why is the Borrowed Self pattern so prevalent?

One, it is easier to let others tell us who we are and should be, what values to support, how to perceive others, and what priorities in society to promote. Life is complex, and developing one’s own Self is a lot of work. Many people want easy and convenient ways of lessening the complexity and the work. Simplistic answers, brief sound-bites about important issues, blindly accepting leaders at their word, narrowly defining others to make us feel superior…all are lazy yet appealing reasons for perpetuating the Borrowed Self pattern.

A second reason the Borrowed Self pattern is chosen and perpetuated is that people are rewarded for doing so. The dominant society wants conforming citizens. Indeed, formal education systems have as a major goal the production of compliant citizens. We do not teach our youth the attitudes or skills to question dominant patterns, and to be effective change agents when change is needed.

Regardless of why the Borrowed Self pattern exists and is perpetuated, at least two damaging consequences are clear. (1.) The individual’s sense of a unique, secure, self-determined person is weakened. (2.) Society stagnates rather than evolves as the dominant ways of thinking, perceiving, behaving, and structuring society go unquestioned and unchanged.

2. Ignoring the Total Self and the Total Other
Every person and every group is more than just one aspect of identity. Similarly, one extremist in a group does not define the entire group. A person’s gender, or race, or ethnicity, or religion, or nationality, or political
party, or stand on a singe issue, or behavior in a conflict…all are single aspects of identity that combine to make the “total” person.

I think most people know this truth, yet many ignore it. They define the Self and Others by only one or a few aspects of identity. The more narrowly we define the Self, the more narrowly we define others. If, for example, a person (I’ll call him Bob) defies himself primarily by his religion, he will look at the religion of others as being the most important or only aspect of
who that person is. So let’s say Ahmed is a different religion. If both Bob and Ahmed follow this pattern, they define the Self and each other only by religion and ignore the “total” person. One of the results is that neither person will look for positive “connectors” that exist in the midst of their differences concerning religion. Mutually beneficial cooperation on anything
becomes less likely.

When we limit our perceptions and treatment of others to any one aspect of their identity, we not only ignore reality, we deny them the expression of who they are and might become. We need to focus and act upon the total identity in ourselves and others. Not only is that the reality of who people are, it is also the best way to find those critical and potentially positive “connectors”.

3. Ignoring “Connectors”
Another identity pattern that obstructs our positive development is Ignoring Connectors. This henomenon occurs with alarming frequency, especially in situations where there are differences among people, some scalating into conflict. “Connectors” serve as important building blocks for mutual benefit cooperation, something we desperately need more of in today’s world. Anything that connects people constructively, or connects them to something they both need or care about, is a “Connector”. One of the most crying needs is to focus first on what connects people positively, and not just fixate on what divides. Let’s look at two simple examples from among many.
“Shared Need/Goal” Connectors.

I recently worked in a town ravaged by a devastating flood, a town in which racial separation has always been one of the pervasive characteristics. Two youth basketball teams, one all black, one all white, both suffered from the flood. They gym where the black team played was completely destroyed, and the storage facility where the white team kept all its equipment was likewise destroyed. The two teams had always perceived each other solely by race, and had never interacted. They had never focused on potential connectors. But now, the “connector” of being basketball players, regardless of race, and “shared need “ of continuing to play basketball brought them together. Two players from each team finally focused on these “shared need connectors”. Working together, they developed a plan in which both teams shared the gym and equipment that had survived the flood.

Another example comes from my work in a country emerging from a bloody ethnic war. Both ethnic groups killed and were killed in horrific numbers during the war. Two villages, one composed solely of ethnic group A, the other solely of ethnic group B, sat on opposite sides of a river that for decades had been valuable for the commerce of both villages. During the war, a large bridge had been destroyed. The massive chunks of debris fell into the river, diverting the flow so that it ran amok through both villages. Both villages had the “shared need” to remove the blockage, and neither village could do the job alone. They overcame their division based on ethnicity, and worked together to remove the blockage and restore the viability of the river.

Identity Connectors
I was conducting training workshops in another war-torn society where religion ws one of the ingredients of the conflict. One of the trainees took special interest inmy comments on the Connectors based on identity. We discussed how she could apply the concept to the conflicts in her society. Her decision was to connect on the identity connector of “motherhood”. As a mother herself, she met in secret with mothers of the other religious group. They moved beyond the division based on religion, connected as mothers, and formed an organization that played a major role in the eventual development of a peace process.

Another example involves two small businesses in the same town, both producing basically the same product. For the past decade, the two had been fierce competitors. Each had become increasingly unethical in a futile attempt to weaken the other…but what was actually weakened was the trust of the consumers in small businesses as an essential economic entity in the community. A large corporation smelled blood, and eagerly attempted to force its way in and force small businesses out. The managers of the two small businesses finally realized they needed to focus on their “identity connector” as competitors. They formed a partnership of their two businesses, regained the trust of the town’s consumers, and enriched the viability of small businesses in the community. The large corporation went elsewhere.

4. The “Us and Them” Mentality
Secure people rarely feel threatened by diversity. They find connectors with people who hold views other than their own. Insecure people, on the other hand, often look for the “lesser” in others, for characteristics that can be alleged as “negative”. This is done in a misguided attempt to feel good about the Self because others are bad, or “evil”, or “lesser”. The result is a continuing “Us and Them” mentality that sees enemies everywhere and almost requires a “them” to feel one’s own worth, beliefs, and policies are justified. When a sense of entitlement to do as one pleases is added to the mix, and when a misguided notion of being “chosen” to manipulate others is also added, disaster awaits. This damaging pattern has intensified during the first decade of the 21st Century.

As long as the “Us and Them” Mentality pervades so much of our interactions and world views, human society moves ever closer to its own demise. Developing a “we” mentality, rather than an “us or them,” is essential for the ultimate survival and positive development of human society.
Developing a secure Self, helping others feel secure in their relationships with us, seeing the Self and others in total identity, finding connectors…all are necessary if we are to move beyond the “us and them” pattern.

July 26, 2006

(Excerpted from a forthcoming book by Dudley Weeks.)
(Copyright 2006: Domestic and international law prohibits the public use of this article without the written permission of the author. Any reprint must bear the author’s name and notice of legal restrictions.}