Friday, 5 September 2014

4. Identity and crisis

Identity is a space

It's quite interesting how hugely complex the subject of identity is. Who are we? Who am I?
How do I define it? How do I perceive it?

Name, age, where I come from, my job. For some, it could even involve which car I own or which shoes I wear.

But descriptors fall short of explaining identity. Identity is rather like a geometry, a space. In this sense, we are not only defined by the space we occupy, but also by the limits of that space, and even more the history of the space and its limits. It's a group of yes and no (positives and negatives, female and male forces, creation and castration).
Our identity cannot be scripted and cannot simply be described. It is only discovered through exploration of life. What-I-am and what-I-am-not. We could describe ourselves as "I am intelligent" but if we added "I am not intellectual", we have a much better understanding, a clearer picture of what's the space occupied.
The exploration of the positive, what we are, happens through our actions and achievements. Through the transformation of fear into desire and action. Here the exploration becomes tricky when we try to fully understand which desire is truly ours and which is the desire of a mother/father figure we have identified and delegated power to. But the discovery of ourselves will also involve the exploration of the negative, the shadow, the space we don't occupy and the spaces we are not aware we occupy, the one we don't recognise as ours. Here when I say negative, it does not mean that it is a negative trait. Quite often we do not see talents that for any reason we don't approve of (or our parents did not approve of). We could explore the negative through mirrors (what we "see" in others is normally what we "don't see" in ourselves) but also in testing our limits. This exploration will only truly happen in the moments of making decisions and taking things to action, the moments when we are using our power.
With these two elements we build a narrative and paint a picture of ourselves.

Crisis help us question our map

In crisis, however, we question our own map and we feel forced to revisit the history of it. We find ourselves wondering who we are in reality and digging deeper into understanding if the image we had in our minds is real and where it comes from.
A crisis will happen every time that our habits change, for internal or external reasons. It can be as subtle as realising that a belief we held is untrue (and our ego structure collapses) or as real as losing our job or someone we love and we get in touch with our vulnerable side. When habits change, we inevitably formulate new questions and have to make new decisions. Therefore we have to re-test our limits, find a "truer" centre and re-define the space we occupy whilst feeling quite naked - with all the anxiety this triggers. In every crisis, we have to rediscover our power. Crisis are moments of rediscovery of our own identity.

Economical crisis trigger national identity crisis

At a collective level, this process is lived in the same way. We can all recognise that every economical crisis is followed almost immediately by an national identity crisis. With the economical crisis of 2008, there were many economical and political beliefs that were discovered to be untrue and almost every country entered into the exercise of revisiting who they were (and are, as it has not finished yet) and what do they believe in.Traditions, flags, a surge of nationalist sentiment appeared everywhere. But also the explorations of the "noes": the what-we-are-not, rejection of immigration, regional separatism, and mistrust of anything foreign. Every time we see an advertisement with a flag or somehow exploiting the national codes, we should be thinking "oh-oh: we have a problem".
Crisis are moments of change, which in turn switches on our fears and we may be tempted to go back instead of going forwards. We attach ourselves to our old view of the "mother" nation, and our old way of doing things, which will be -almost inevitably- obsolete.

The idea of nations, even if we have all been born in this as a functioning reality, is quite recent in historical terms and is evolving quite rapidly as well. National identity (through cultural rituals) establishes the familiar, enabling trust and therefore collaboration. Its borders are the borders of our fears, the bigger our fears, the more the walls will take a physical form. Inside I feel secured, I feel at home. Everything foreign deserves a level of mistrust.

I worked for many years in many different foreign countries. I had to learn many languages. But if I met someone with whom I could speak in my language, we would immediately switch to our mother tongue as something very natural. More than once, however, I received complaints from colleagues about this.

In the UK: 

-I don't understand what bothers you. It is a private conversation, why do we have to speak in English- I would investigate.

But I like to overhear your conversation and I cannot understand what you are saying, you could be saying bad things about me. - was the response, to my surprise. 
In Italy, another one said (this conversation occurred in Italian):
If you are in this country, you have to speak Italian, always.

and I asked

-What would you do, if you met another Italian in a foreign country? really?

I would speak Italian - was the unsurprising response as every country that received Italian immigrants would know.

The rise of UKIP in the UK, the extreme right in France, the separatist movements, etc are voicing (and exploiting) these fears, a kind of populism from the right. The political parties of the right (who are closer to the masculine thinking and therefore to the what-we-are-not, the limits and the noes) are the ones normally leading this side of the debate and capturing votes in the way. While the left shies away from the exploration of the national identity from the positive, first of all because it is a taboo. All debate about nationalism is bad, we have all learned that history has proven that nationalism comes with a superiority claim. It was quite interesting to see how in the UK all the Scottish sentiment had to be somehow branded as "civic nationalism" to make the debate acceptable and palatable. Secondly, because it is a much more complex process, more intuitive than conscious. It'd be the exploration of our desire. What we want to be. What's our projectBut that would imply rethinking the state, which under neoliberal doctrine was also a taboo. However -in my opinion- that's what they should be doing instead of trying to catch up with policies that are not theirs.

Opening Pandora's box

Opening the Pandora's box will always feel like a step into the abyss, into darkness. Even if the position of most newspapers would say otherwise, and France is "shocked" about the advanced of the far right. I would argue that at some level it is a healthy exercise as, in opening up to a new world, we can easily get lost in adaptation. As an immigrant, I don't find their arguments positive and I deeply disagree with them. However, I rescue the fact that they are articulating these fears which may help to better resolve them politically, as long as they use this voice in a pluralistic debate and don't raise to power to shut up everyone else. It would be much worse -in my opinion- denying their existence as they would imply a complete disconnection of the people and the political class. It is scaring in moments of crisis, looking at the mirror. But ballots and public debate are always better than wars or street crashes to express these feelings, and these feelings will always find a way to express themselves. All debates about national identity are worth having, even if clumsy, even if we touch the politically incorrect, with all voices speaking and all tensions shown. But for the debate to be complete, the reasons why the (economic) crisis happened in the first place have to be truly revisited and all the "other" voices have to be heard too. Otherwise, the other will never come alive as an equal, someone able to respond, to question and tell their side of the story. 
A story that is kept untold becomes toxic.

Even if many intellectuals and politicians would prefer that national sentiment did not exist: in an era where we haven't yet resolved the separation with our mother/motherland (or any space in which our mother tongue creates an exo-uterus), they do. They are attachments that exist and cannot be dissolved but rather resolved by the people who sustain them. Catalunya, Scotland, the European Union, what it means to be German or Italian. Opening this Pandora's box might not be about spreading evil, but rather to shed light over what's kept hidden and secret in order to resolve it, to heal itEventually, the worst arguments will start to collapse by the weight of their own irrelevance. I'd prefer people to explore these subjects through debate and rather than with violence. From the negative (fears) and even more importantly, from the missing positive. What we can create, what makes us similar rather than different, what we can share, what we can contribute, our common hopes.

The "shock", "the earthquake" -as it was described- that France or UK might be going through these days after the victory of UKIP and the far right in European elections is not so much because these countries are realising they have far right tendencies... it is the realisation that they are vulnerable and afraid. "Rational France afraid?" "Mighty United Kingdom vulnerable?". We all are, in moments of crisis. Not so shocking, in fact.

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