A simplifying fiction
At a time of continual changes in ways of acting and thinking, collective identities provide individuals with a means of simplifying reality.
This simplification works firstly by transforming the whole set of individuals composing the group (cultural minority, ethnic group, race or nation) into a uniform and distinct entity, so that the group can be represented as an obvious empirical reality. The uniformity of the group is ensured by the selection of a limited number of features both as being typical of the individuals forming the group and as being more important than other features in terms of the definition of their identity.
Whereas an objective observer analysing a given population would find an infinite number of possible criteria for describing, grouping together or distinguishing between the individuals being observed, those militating for recognition of their group’s identity arbitrarily choose a limited number of criteria, such as language, skin colour or religion, so that group members recognize themselves primarily in terms of the labels attached to the group whose existence is being asserted, “black”, “white”, “Arab”, “Muslim”, “Jewish”, “Christian”, “Hindu”, “French”, “Italian” or whatever.
The distinction between the group in question and other groups is established by simplifying the features selected. Whereas the same objective observer could see only continuous variations for each criterion, and would thus be prevented from drawing clear dividing-lines between the groups, those militating for recognition of their identity simplify each criterion by eliminating the variations they regard as secondary and are thus able to speak, for example, of a national language, of “whites” and ‘blacks”, or of the Islamic or Jewish faith.
Simplification also works by transforming groups into essences, abstractions endowed with the capacity to remain unchanged through time. The cultural minority, ethnic group, race or nation concerned is thus seen as being outside of time, while change and the effects of history are denied or underestimated. In some cases, people actually act as though the group had remained unchanged and talk, for example, about the history of the “French”, the “blacks” or the “Jewish people”, as if those entities had survived for centuries without changing, as if the “French”, the ‘blacks” or the “Jews’ of two or five or ten centuries ago were the same people as today, using the same tools and techniques and with the same ways of acting and thinking, the same desires, aspirations, anxieties and pleasures.
In other instances, although the changes wrought by history are acknowledged, the deep-rooted identity of the group is still not questioned. The group is seen metaphorically as an edifice that has been collectively shaped and built up over the centuries, or else as a living individual who is born and develops. It is when the concepts enshrined in the words “patrimony” or “heritage are looked at in the context of the metaphor of “work under construction” that they really become meaningful: objects, knowledge, beliefs, values and traditions all represent building-blocks for the collective edifice which have to be carefully stockpiled and must not be lost or destroyed. It is likewise in the context of the metaphor of the ‘individual” that the concept of the “collective memory” can be understood: cultures, ethnic groups or nations are credited with the faculty of memory and are spoken of as though they were human beings (who can be “humiliated” or “betrayed” or “avenged”). When people are forced to acknowledge the far-reaching changes that history has wrought and when they admit that the identity of the group may no longe r be what it was, the present state of the group often comes to be seen as one of “sickness”. People then start looking back on some period in the past as having been the time when the group possessed a now tarnished “purity” or a now lost “authenticity”. The past – although it was the present for the people living at the time – is regarded as an unchanging state, a baseline to be turned to – as one turns to a remedy – in order to rediscover and re-establish the truth about the group, or its essence.
Cultural, ethnic, racial or national identities are fictions that simplify social realities, and they have practical effects, two negative aspects of which I wish particularly to stress.
Firstly, they gloss over and disparage the present and contemporary history. Changes in ways of acting and thinking, contacts between peoples, the patterns of exchanges and interminglings of which both present and past are formed – all these are often discussed in such negative terms as the “contamination” of cultures, the “expansion” of modern Western culture, world-wide “uniformity” and the “disappearance” of human diversity. Some aspects of recent history show there to be an element of truth in these judgements, but to leave things at that would be to run the risk of failing to see what is being created afresh in the crucible of the present. It could be argued, moreover, that a disparaging attitude to the present day and contemporary history is tantamount to contempt for the fives, efforts, aspirations and desires of millions of men and women who are, after all, coping as best they can with the unstable, ill-assorted raw materials that history has handed down to them. Who is to say that they are on the wrong track and that their cultures are not authentic? What right or authority has anyone to say so?
Secondly, the way in which groups are individualized or personalized in the name of identity has negative effects similar to those of the individualism that is creating havoc in the industrialized societies of the West. It is individualism raised to the group level. As a result, the only legitimate principle of behaviour that such groups recognize is the satisfaction of their own self-interest, which lies in maximizing their economic and political profits and in selfishly devising schemes for development and expansion without regard for other people.
Such group individualism ends up with all groups fighting and competing against one another, and leads on to the logical consequence of all individualism, i.e. there can only be “winners” if there are also “losers” – cultural minorities, ethnic groups or nations that cannot fend for themselves, cannot have their own territories or form their own states.
Identity as a cognitive necessity
Paradoxically, however, it is precisely because identity represents a simplifying fiction, creating uniform groups out of disparates, drawing border fines across a continuum and turning groups into unchanging essences, that it is necessary and indeed essential to the agents of social change. Although it is a factor of division, it is also a factor of vision2. Like the concepts we use to put names to things and designate ideas, identity categories make it possible for us to understand and grasp reality. In a constantly changing world, they enable us to put names to ourselves and to others, form some idea of who we are and who other people are, and ascertain the place we occupy along with other people in the world and in society. Lastly, as a means of recognizing the members of a particular group (x is an X because he or she acts or thinks in such-and-such a way), identity provides the framework for interpreting, predicting or managing our behaviour or that of other people (x is bound to do this because he or she is an X).
The current upsurge in efforts to assert the identity of various groups can, in fact, be partly explained by the cognitive function performed by identity. Naturally, many of these movements can be explained in terms of a tangle of economic and political factors combining the faceless logic of the international system and the special interests of small groups and individuals who look upon cultures, ethnic groups, races or nations only as means to achieve other ends and to manipulate people.
That being said, people would not go along as they do, often in large numbers, with the propositions put to them, in spite of the sacrifices they entail, if there were not a very strong feeling of need for identity, a need to “take stock of things” and know “who we are”, “where we come from” and “where we are going”, that is accounted for in turn by the increased pace of change in today’s world.
Industrialization, the breakneck pace of technological development, the often uncontrolled globalization of the capitalist economy and of the constraints imposed by financial markets, the glaring intrusions of communications, the media and the products of the cultural industries – all these disrupt not only the everyday material and economic lives of people all over the world but also their symbolic frames of reference. Knowledge, skills, beliefs, values, traditions, rules and standards of behaviour, moral and religious principles are all constantly being called into question. Withdrawal into a world of one’s own and a search for cultural or ethnic “roots” come to be seen as attempts to put down markers and to stem the fast-moving tide of time and history.
Individuals need their identity because it makes things less complicated and unsettled, so that they can then put some order not only into their own lives but into the world around them. In this sense, identity also generates reality and contributes to the role performed by imagination or religion in a world that is itself only chaos. Like imagination or religion, identity creates order out of chaos and shapes the world by conferring meaning on it, which is why it can be regarded as a source of liberation in some circumstances.