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The Identity Imperative
by Serge Kahili King

(Note: this article was inspired by a question from Alakai Stewart Blackburn)

As we listen to and look at national and world news reports we see evidence of enormous conflicts between people who have identified themselves with very different ways of thinking and feeling and behaving. People who identify with different religions are at war with each other; people of the same religion who identify with different interpretations of it are at war with each other; people who identify with different political systems are at war with each other; people who identify with different interpretations of the same political system are at war with each other.

On a more local level, people who identify with different athletic teams in the same sport seem to be getting into sometimes serious fights with each other more frequently; people who identify with specific groups called gangs often have serious fights with each other, as well as with non-gang members of the society around them; and identity conflicts of a serious nature often arise between families or even individual strangers.

Two important questions that come out of this observation are: "Is there a fundamental urge to identify with something - an 'identity imperative,' so to speak - that is more powerful than other urges?" and "why does such identification so often lead to conflict?"

To answer the first question, the urge to identify with something - an idea, a belief, a philosopy, a religion, a way of life, a political system, a group of some kind, a territory, or even another person - is no more nor no less than a combination of the two fundamental urges to connect and to be effective (see my article Love and Power).

We have an initial urge to connect because feeling connected, feeling ourselves to be part of something else, is a source of pleasure. By itself this leads to pleasurable relationships with people, animals, plants, and other aspects of the world around us. When the thing we connect to also helps us to feel more effective or powerful, another source of pleasure, then we have a strong tendency to identify ourselves with that thing, to consider it and us to be virtually identical. That's why so many people proudly declare that they are "members" of something or other (the word "member" means a "limb" or an integral part of something). It's also why people like to wear clothing, costumes, badges, pins, and tatoos that help them feel more connected and powerful.

The answer to the second question above is that the more insecure we feel about our connection and our effectivenes, the more fearful we become about their loss, which leads to painful feelings of isolation and helplessness. When this insecurity and its related fear become intense enough there may be a very strong suppression reaction. A common effect of this reaction is to perceive contrasting or opposing forms of identity as a threat to one's very existence. So a losing sports team, or its fans, may feel compelled to fight the winners, or their fans, and even destroy anything associated with them. Do something that an insecure identifier interprets as an insult to his or her source of identity and you may receive a death threat, or worse. In some cases people become willing to sacrifice their lives to maintain their own identity as well as the "life" of what they identify with. That will not happen, however, unless such people have decided that their own lives have no worth in any other context. Self sacrifice with the intention to harm members of another identity is therefore a desperate attempt on the part of extremely insecure people to maintain a sense of belonging and personal power.

The more secure you feel about your identifications, the more tolerant you naturally are of other identifications. If you have no doubts about the goodness or rightness of your ideas, beliefs, or behaviors, then you tend not to care about the ideas, beliefs, and behaviors of others (as long as they don't physically threaten you, of course). On the other hand, the more insecure you feel about your identifications, the more you will react with fear and anger and the desire to destroy anything and and anyone that doesn't agree with your way of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Unfortunately, although this is essentially a position of weakness, it can cause great damage among those who are basically more tolerant, but not yet secure enough or wise enough to realize that tolerance is not the same as unbounded permissiveness.

Nevertheless,

Ma'alahi ka ha'ina, pu'ika'ika hana
"Simple the explanation, difficult the execution

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