On Identity

On Identity

October 25, 2019

When travelling internationally, many of us have had the experience inflight of being handed an arrival card before landing in a foreign country. These forms typically ask passengers to provide some basic information to confirm the identity of the traveler. We are asked to identify ourselves in just a few short words: name (surname and given names), date of birth, nationality, passport number (along with its date and place of issue), purpose of visit, length of visit, and our address during the visit. The complexities of ‘self’ are thus reduced to a few words.

 

form

 

I must confess that I find this administrative exercise to be confusingly, even dismissively simplistic; it ignores the complex nature of identity and particularly the potential for ambiguity, or even multiple responses. Even questions that used to be reassuringly binary, such as ‘gender’ or ‘sex’, have become contested territory in the battle to redefine the nuances of individual identity in the modern era. Perplexingly, some of these questions cannot be answered with a single, simple response; some are multi-dimensional; some may seek in vain for a static response from a fluid state in our present circumstances. Ironically, all of this information is already well known to the immigration authorities at your destination, courtesy of the data collection conducted by the airline or transport carrier. ‘Big data’ is global.

A modern trend, facilitated by technological advances, has increasingly seen countries capturing biometric data electronically, to eliminate potential ambiguity or inaccuracy in the information provided by passengers. Our fingerprints or faces are machine-scanned in much the same way as our mobile phones recognize us now. But does this process really serve to define with any accuracy our true identity? To use a publishing analogy, external biometrics offer judgement based on the cover, rather than the contents. We might change the cover, but the contents remain undisturbed.

A key part of a complete education on the journey from childhood to adulthood is the formation of self. Self-discovery is seen as a legitimate goal of learning. But what of that ‘self’ that we seek to discover: what can we say of our increasingly complex and at times contested identities? Who is the real ‘me’? With whom do I identify? To whom do I owe my allegiances? And what roles do I perform within my family or the wider community that may serve to define my existence?

There are complexities to life in the 21st century that defy simple categorization. That assured sense of ‘self’ is elusive for many. Yet reductionism and disambiguation seem to be ever-present in all aspects of our existence. Faced with a forced choice, we are asked to be one thing or the other, but not both at the same time. Once labelled and boxed, we are expected to remain fixed in time and space.

There is an absence of nuance in these mechanisms and choices. They ignore the dynamic forces that shape us and the constant fluidity of life and its attendant changes. The search for certainty also ignores the complexity in the natural world around us. There are fascinating natural phenomena that allow things to exist in multiple, apparently contradictory states, at the same time. Light has an inherent duality that permits it to exist as a particle and a wave at the same time, at times behaving in apparently mutually contradictory ways. The superposition principle in quantum mechanics permits atomic particles to exist in multiple states simultaneously. Interestingly, any attempt to measure or observe this phenomenon causes it to collapse to a single state. Humans too can be simultaneously multi-dimensional: we can be part of groups and collectives, or just be ourselves; we can act alone or in concert. Some states of matter can only exist for the briefest moments, the fleeting product of extraordinary physical forces, before blinking out of existence. We too can adopt identities that shine brightly for a brief moment, the product of exceptional circumstances, before reverting to an earlier state or evolving into something else entirely.

Our identities are complex, multi-dimensional constructs that reflect a range of choices, predispositions, accidents of birth and parentage, and multiple external forces that shape us, constrain us, and guide us. While we should never seek to be all things to all people at all times, we need to be true to self, no matter how uncertain or fluid that ‘self’ might be. Crude categorization is incompatible with our personal ‘quantum’ states; forced ‘choice’ is no choice at all.

When troubled by this pressure towards fixed, simplistic certainty, we should encourage each other and our children that this most important and precious enterprise – learning – is change – inherently and quintessentially. Our identity, in its natural state and unconstrained by labels, is unceasingly dynamic, deeply complex, confusingly multi-faceted, and maddeningly contradictory. On our ever-changing identities, the only question we must ask is: “Are we masters of change or victims?”

I must confess that I find this administrative exercise to be confusingly, even dismissively simplistic; it ignores the complex nature of identity and particularly the potential for ambiguity, or even multiple responses. Even questions that used to be reassuringly binary, such as ‘gender’ or ‘sex’, have become contested territory in the battle to redefine the nuances of individual identity in the modern era. Perplexingly, some of these questions cannot be answered with a single, simple response; some are multi-dimensional; some may seek in vain for a static response from a fluid state in our present circumstances. Ironically, all of this information is already well known to the immigration authorities at your destination, courtesy of the data collection conducted by the airline or transport carrier. ‘Big data’ is global.

A modern trend, facilitated by technological advances, has increasingly seen countries capturing biometric data electronically, to eliminate potential ambiguity or inaccuracy in the information provided by passengers. Our fingerprints or faces are machine-scanned in much the same way as our mobile phones recognize us now. But does this process really serve to define with any accuracy our true identity? To use a publishing analogy, external biometrics offer judgement based on the cover, rather than the contents. We might change the cover, but the contents remain undisturbed.

A key part of a complete education on the journey from childhood to adulthood is the formation of self. Self-discovery is seen as a legitimate goal of learning. But what of that ‘self’ that we seek to discover: what can we say of our increasingly complex and at times contested identities? Who is the real ‘me’? With whom do I identify? To whom do I owe my allegiances? And what roles do I perform within my family or the wider community that may serve to define my existence?

There are complexities to life in the 21st century that defy simple categorization. That assured sense of ‘self’ is elusive for many. Yet reductionism and disambiguation seem to be ever-present in all aspects of our existence. Faced with a forced choice, we are asked to be one thing or the other, but not both at the same time. Once labelled and boxed, we are expected to remain fixed in time and space.

There is an absence of nuance in these mechanisms and choices. They ignore the dynamic forces that shape us and the constant fluidity of life and its attendant changes. The search for certainty also ignores the complexity in the natural world around us. There are fascinating natural phenomena that allow things to exist in multiple, apparently contradictory states, at the same time. Light has an inherent duality that permits it to exist as a particle and a wave at the same time, at times behaving in apparently mutually contradictory ways. The superposition principle in quantum mechanics permits atomic particles to exist in multiple states simultaneously. Interestingly, any attempt to measure or observe this phenomenon causes it to collapse to a single state. Humans too can be simultaneously multi-dimensional: we can be part of groups and collectives, or just be ourselves; we can act alone or in concert. Some states of matter can only exist for the briefest moments, the fleeting product of extraordinary physical forces, before blinking out of existence. We too can adopt identities that shine brightly for a brief moment, the product of exceptional circumstances, before reverting to an earlier state or evolving into something else entirely.

Our identities are complex, multi-dimensional constructs that reflect a range of choices, predispositions, accidents of birth and parentage, and multiple external forces that shape us, constrain us, and guide us. While we should never seek to be all things to all people at all times, we need to be true to self, no matter how uncertain or fluid that ‘self’ might be. Crude categorization is incompatible with our personal ‘quantum’ states; forced ‘choice’ is no choice at all.

When troubled by this pressure towards fixed, simplistic certainty, we should encourage each other and our children that this most important and precious enterprise – learning – is change – inherently and quintessentially. Our identity, in its natural state and unconstrained by labels, is unceasingly dynamic, deeply complex, confusingly multi-faceted, and maddeningly contradictory. On our ever-changing identities, the only question we must ask is: “Are we masters of change or victims?”

 

Dr. Malcolm Pritchard

Head of School

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