Our post last week “Why I consider myself a Himachali”, received a record number of visits and our Stats at Masala Chai are booming. It was also featured on the Facebook page of another group where it received many positive responses. The warmth and affection that Kalpana infused the piece with has evidently touched a chord with people from Himachal and other parts of India and overseas. She has woven a magical story of affectionate belonging to a place and its people in a way that does not exclude others. There are many underlying issues that arise here, and we wanted to bring them up in our commentary for this week’s post. As always, we welcome your comments and suggestions.
Identity and selfhood
Perhaps the best way of opening a discussion of selfhood and identity is to ask the question “How would you describe yourself”, but this would be one aspect. The other would be how others describe us, since what we know of ourselves is closely formed by what other people communicate to us about ourselves. The study of the self has been a preoccupation for human beings from the earliest times and in every culture. Archaeological excavations are a testimony to the fact that people all over the world speculated about their own place in the universe and expressed this through cultural products and processes. Ancient philosophical and religious texts deal extensively with the subject of the self in relation to others. For instance, the Self is the primary subject of the ancient Indian scriptures, the Upanishads.
Largely explained as a small element of divinity, a person’s aatman or inner self is believed to be a shared element of humanity. The differences among people is believed to be nothing other than the play of maya or illusion. A personal journey of every enlightened soul is to recognise the self and realise the illusion! The extensive and elaborate discussions in the different Upanishads dwelt on this subject around the 1st century BCE and the 200 odd texts are known to have passed down from teacher to student orally.
Several academic disciplines deal with the subject of the self and among them, the most prominent are philosophy, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. As an academic discipline, psychology has dealt with the development of identity with a primary focus on an individual’s developmental struggle of knowing oneself, and the different phases of this awareness between infancy and the end of the life-course. Some theories point towards a deep and mysterious unconscious mind that drives us in unknown ways that can only be accessed through dreams whereas as others argue that identity development is a life-long struggle between opposing pressures from social surroundings. In philosophy and psychology as well as the social sciences, there are many profound essays to be found about who we really are and how we become what we are.
There is general consensus about the fact that who we believe we are is actively built around what we see reflected in other people’s opinions of us. Watching a young baby transform into one who gradually learns to recognize herself and then realize that she is a separate being is a fascinating experience, both for the child as well as the ones around her. As we grow older, we try to get to know others as well as ourselves. Far from being a fixed element, a person’s identity is in constant dynamic flux in response to the world around.
Different societies also have their own beliefs about selfhood and identity that shape their realities. Among the Ubuntu tribe which has its origins in ancient Africa, for instance, a young baby is believed to have no ‘self’ since it is born without ‘ena’ (selfhood), something that will be acquired over a period of time as the child interacts with others. In an essay about the Ubuntu philosophy, Abeba Birhane writes that “As the Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti put it in African Religions and Philosophy (1975): ‘I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.’” Among Indians, it is believed that our relationships define us. It is who we are related to that defines who we are. Indians have been written about as having more ‘collective’ or ‘relational’ orientations characterised by ‘familial’ or ‘di-vidual’ dimensions that are more prominent than ‘individualistic’ ones. Many interesting articles have debated these issues about different cultures having different ideologies of selfhood and the impact of these ethnotheories is the subject of many research projects in different branches of psychology.
How do we gather knowledge about ourselves? As the memories of our recent holiday are fresh in our minds, we can recall visits to family and friends and the times spent together, reminiscing about old events and building new memories. Children learn about their parents’ childhood and upbringing while bonding and creating memories of their own with extended family members. Such periodic recursion to earlier times is the substance from which identities are shaped, as last week’s essay also displays very vividly. Research has shown that when we remember our past, we do so through the themes of our cultural practices. In one study, for instance, we found that when adolescents were asked to speak about their own memories of childhood, the patterns of remembering related to cultural patterns of interaction and cultural ideologies. Indian youngsters tended to channel their remembering through relationships whereas personal achievements were the dominant theme among German adolescents. Such differences show the importance of the stories we hear that are foundational for making us who we are.
The sense of self and its loss
How the sense of self sustains through life is a fascinating theme of study. The various essays by the eminent neurologist and physician Oliver Sacks delve deep into the functions of the human mind and cover a whole range of phenomena including identity, music, language and memory. Another interesting book that we would like to recommend for those who want to search further is ‘Phantoms in the brain: Probing the mysteries of the human mind’ by V. S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee.
Many films have also explored the subject of the self, its exploration and its loss. In the recent film ‘Still Alice’, a Professor of Linguistics is shown trying to explain her condition to her daughter. “On my good days, I can almost pass for a normal person. On my bad days, I feel like I cannot find myself… I don’t know who I am and what I am going to lose next”. Dementia is a condition in which the sense of self itself breaks down and a person’s identity becomes fragmented. The greatest tragedy of dementia may be that the onset of the illness destroys a person’s awareness of themselves and their memories, gradually recognising neither themselves nor their loved ones. This troubling outcome of the ageing process that inflicts some of us highlights the key importance of how intricately assembled the sense of self is. Like any other ownership, perhaps we realize fully what it means only when it is lost. Memories are what make us who we are. Some philosophers also argue that the origin of identity and memory is in fact the same.
Liberalism, secularism and identity politics
We will end this commentary on a political note, taking the time to assert the significance of Kalpana’s essay in the larger scenario of group identity and individual selfhood. In the present times, it appears that group identity often manifests itself as a divisive force where people compete with others and argue about who they are and where they ‘come from’. Labels like aliens, immigrants, outsiders, and expatriates, are used to separate us and them, sometimes with life-threatening consequences. Without underestimating the seriousness of divisive forces, it is important to remember that group membership also has another face, a more friendly, positive and favourable one. Group membership that can divide, can also provide life-long affiliation and meaning to oneself.
Affiliation with an ethnic group, region or nation is sometimes believed to be counterproductive to liberalism and secularism. As an ideology, liberalism rejected traditional affiliations and conservatism was opposed. Clinging too closely to the past was seen as being narrow-minded and tradition-bound and therefore anti-liberal. Since its original use, however, the meaning of the term (liberalism) has shifted dramatically opposites sides of the political spectrum use it in whichever way that suits their argument. Perhaps that is what happens when you add the suffix -ism to any term!
Identity politics refers to the use of affiliations, perspectives and politics of any community based on common interest (race, class, nation, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, age, others). The term emerged around the 1970’s to refer to the social phenomenon of group identity in dealing with issues of political oppression and discrimination as in the Civil Rights movement in the US. Identity politics became a powerful tool for emancipation and equal rights. Yet, critics of the movements highlighted that the focus on group identity tended to mask several fundamental issues common to humanity. Identity became a contentious issue and as an outcome, discussions about traditional social affiliations began to be frowned upon.
In contemporary discourse, being ‘proud’ of ‘being something’ seems more justifiable when the membership of a marginalised group is being discussed, and fighting against a dominant ‘oppressive’ force is a legitimate position to adopt. Undoubtedly, there is an important place for this discourse as history has shown. However, it is important to also reflect on conventions and tradition as formative for personal and social identity and that identity is not only about identity politics. The essay on Being Himachali was an attempt to visit that notion of group identity as a formative, affectionate affiliation, not at the cost of being someone else, not precluding the becoming of someone else, but of a past that was remembered with a great deal of affection, a central dimension of who the author believes she is as a person.
 See Alan Roland, McKim Marriott and Anand Paranjpe for more details
 See Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson for an interesting discussion