Disclaimer: I am not a philosopher. I barely know what I’m talking about. I lie in privileged “sides” among several spectra: I’m male, cisgender, heterosexual and within my own circumstances seen as mostly white.
There’s how I see myself from the inside—the Inner Point of View.
There’s how others see me from the outside—the Outer Point of View.
Are those necessarily the same? It’s easy to see that they’re not, even about relatively trivial aspects (some people here have expressed their amazement at some of my previous code writeups, I maintain they are amateurish and barely passable).
Are those objective? Again, it’s easy to see they are not: humans might strive for objectivity—and may even achieve it some times—but in general we see things with lots of biases (conscious of them or not), assumptions, culturally-based judgments, goals… Imagine Andy getting drunk on his first weekend as a salaryman, living on his own. Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Is it expected and maybe even forgivable? Is it morally reproachable? Is it laudable? Who can even give a completely consistent answer? Certainly not me, and I’m the one who did it.
Are those complete? It’s easy to see they’re not. No one has perfect introspection, so the Inner POV will always be lacking. And since no one—or almost no one—is 100% open about everything about themselves, the Outer POV can never operate on complete information.
Here’s when I need to introduce two more actors: the avenue between me and another person (Direct Point of View), and the avenue between two—or more—other people (Indirect Point of View). I posit that these need to be discussed as well.
The Direct POV is what may inform you of things that only I know. None of you know me “In Real Life,” so your knowledge of my name, age or whether I like marmite or not depends mostly on me expressing them and you believing me.1 The Direct POV requires me to exist and depends on me and what I discuss or don’t.
The Indirect POV is what may inform each other about me, particularly about things that may be obvious or knowable from the outside but not the inside. The Indirect POV is what others speak about me. In general—and barring outstanding circumstances—people talk about “me” less than I’d think, but still may do from time to time.2
Do these four points of view—Inner, Outer, Direct, Indirect—agree in some sense? Maybe, but only partially and not necessarily about anything non-trivial. It’s possible that I may lie about this or that thing, and that alone may introduce noise to the equation. Similarly, other people may misunderstand me—intentionally or not—which also muddies the system. Any ill will between two members of this graph can also introduce imperfections and a degree of imperfect truth.
Are all of these complementary in any sense? Again, maybe. As seen before, there are truths only known to me and there may be truths known only to the others. There are reasons why some of these should stay secret and there are reasons why some of these should never stay secret. And the more one delves here, the more “special cases” are found, to the extent that there may not be any hard rules about what should and shouldn’t be “shared.”3
So, what gives? Which of any really is my identity, if any? I could say that anything I feel and think about myself is the only part that counts and that anything perceived by others that is somehow not vetted by me is invalid. That’s a powerfully attractive idea, but it has two problems.
First, it’s hardly humane to completely dismiss others, especially when talking about identity—which generally matters because there are others—and runs the risk of being self-centered and self-serving to the detriment of my fellow humans. Secondly, this idea of “my” identity being only what I say, think and feel about myself does not hold in practice. If I start yelling racial slurs left and right, it won’t be long before I’m branded as a racist, and that will color every interaction I have. Imagine that I use racial slurs in casual conversation while I insist that “I’m not racist,” would that automatically be the one and only truth about myself? That may be an extreme case, but it serves to illustrate the point that my opinions about myself cannot be the only ingredient in my identity.
The reverse is easily seen as false. If only what others say, think and feel about me counted as “my” identity, then “I” would merely be an external entity, no different from an object in a museum. Given that we humans have a conscience, we presume others have as well and that internal state should be as important to them as my internal state is important to me.
Therefore, there are aspects of one’s identity that can only be informed and determined by the very person, and there are aspects of one’s identity that can only be known from external observation. Trying to infer internal aspects of someone else from pure observation is then an exercise in guessing; and trying to infer external aspects from pure introspection will always yield an incomplete picture.
So, what gives?
By this point one can see that “my identity,” while being real, is also a thing with nebulous edges. It has parts of the private and public persona in who knows what mixture. But being ill defined doesn’t mean it’s not important.
Any person’s identity is important—as mentioned—because there are others. A human identity exists—among other things—to mark oneself as an individual in a group, as part of some groups and in contrast to others. “My” identity would be meaningless if I were the only human in this planet.4
And so, an identity is formed partly by others and partly because of the others. “Identity” as a whole does not exist from a single person, but parts of it do.
It is not to me to say which parts of “my identity” matter and which don’t in an absolute way, for this is a tool for others as it is a part of me. The tribe I arrive to may not be interested in my name, but may find my tendency to eat only berries as important.
This hints at yet another edge to this discussion: exactly who and which “others” are in play. Cruel as it may sound, my boss might not care if I sleep with this or that person as long I do my keyboard-mashing job. Similarly, the other people at the orgy might not really care if I’m an accountant or an engineer. Or they might: again, I cannot determine what is important to others.
So the question “Do I Require an Identity?” is for me not the complete picture. I may not require it for many, many things. But an Identity associated with me might—and most likely will—exist any time I have to deal with other humans. I can declare that I have no strong opinion on soccer, but that doesn’t mean that the “Andy identity” that exists in other people’s heads don’t include an entry on “Soccer: affiliated team.” The next time they want to go out for drinks, they might determine that, since “Andy’s identity” does not match theirs, it’s not necessary to invite him. Isn’t that also part of me?
And here is a tragedy of human life: one’s own identity exists, whether one wants it or not, and some parts of it will be “filled” by others. My identity exists and its parts matter differently in different contexts. Some of those parts I hold very close to me and I find them integral to my “Self”5 while others I care little about.
I may know which parts of my identity are really worthy and integral to my self and which parts are trivial, but this doesn’t necessarily mean others know it as well. And even if I expressed them out loud, there’s always the possibility of misunderstanding. My not caring about soccer can be—and has been—misunderstood as me “hating” soccer and all that surrounds it. To them, the spectrum of liking a sport could only be expressed in one of two ways; to me there’s a lot of ‘meh’ area. How easy it is then to misunderstand another in more pressing matters.
So let’s remember this: “my identity” is not just mine and it’s not just for me and it’s not just dictated by me for others to adjust to me. But it starts with me and large parts of it can only be determined by me.
The same is true for “your” identity.
It’s not to me to say who you are. And even though I may create an image of you in my head doesn’t mean that image is 100% accurate. Or kind.
The same is true for “you” about me.
Far from advocating against this or that set of pronouns, I wish to advocate for more human understanding on how an identity exists between two entities. My asking to be called this or that pronoun is important. But it exists in a relation with other people and merely demanding from others to accommodate me without consideration for the mental, mnemonic and maybe even cultural toll on them is selfish. This is a large portion of why many people who wish to use “special” pronouns are seen sometimes as self-centered.
“My Identity” exists, whether I want to or not. But not all of it is required here or anywhere else, for it would be tiresome for any one of us to be conscious of all of that Identity, at all times, in all contexts. It’s not so much that I require an identity, but I have one regardless of my wishes. It’s my duty to form and inform it, so that it may serve me as well as others as a bridge between conscious beings. I say it’s also my duty to be kind to others’ identities as much as I want them to be kind to mine.
Corollary: I’ve never tasted it, so if you really want to know for some reason, please send marmite my way.
Lesson to my younger self: people really are more worried about themselves than about me. “They” don’t talk about me as much as you think they do. You shouldn’t worry about what “they” say as much as you do.
If there are more exceptions than objects that fit a rule, it’s a rubbish rule.
The stronger assertion would be that “My” identity would be meaningless if I were the only consciousness in the universe, but that seems to be a leap in many assumptions that I’m not prepared to make. For now, let’s establish the above phrase as rhetorical point. You get the idea.
Are “Self” and “Identity” one and the same thing? I suspect not.