Colloquy on: “European Culture: Identity and Diversity”
8-9 September 2005
The Challenge of Identity to Cohesion and Freedom
Identity has become a word with dangerous and conflicting connotations. Individuals are freer than ever before to adopt elements that contribute to their sense of identity, social and ethnic groups use the concept of identity to justify their special treatment. In the meantime governments are obsessed by identity – their own (the importance of their flags, anthems and symbols of dignity) and that of the inhabitants of their territory. Governments are desperate to be able to answer the question ‘who are you?’. They attempt to do so by all the technological controls on offer – cards, photos, fingerprints, DNA, retinal scans, bar codes. If the public authorities could reduce us all to a bar code and pass us across the supermarket till they would be happy indeed.
However much physical definitions may tell security services in fact, though, they are utterly misleading in predicting how people react, to whom they owe allegiance and how they construct their personal world identity. Often, to the confusion of governments, the identity is non-territorial, non-geographical. The identity will have more to do with communities of interest (professional, social, sexual or of pastime) than with where people live and what is printed on their passports. Surfers or philatelists have more to say to their fellow enthusiasts than they do to their next-door neighbours. True identities are always multiple – a combination of ancestry, habitation, work, personal experience, belief, taste, love and inclination. They cannot be regulated or pinned down and they change through life, often rejected, often resurrected.
Real globalisation, rather than the corporate or trade variety, allows us to become cosmopolitan, to choose the elements of our identity we wish to emphasise and explore. We can belong wherever we choose and hold our multiple identities simultaneously without threatening our neighbours, the government or the cohesion of society, and at the same time enjoying their respect. That can be defined as cultural security – individual, not endowed by membership of an official tribe, and mobile.
Uncomfortably for bureaucracies, cohesion is not conformity and it cannot be achieved by passing a law or restricting the freedom of movement of dissenters. Angry and excluded people will not be assuaged by having their identities denied, neither will peaceable citizens be reassured for long by governments with fixed ideas. Protectionism against other people works in the long run no better for societies than it does for trade. It leads to stagnation, insularity and paranoia. Security is always relative and should not be confused with comfort. There is, in the end, no more absolute security than there is absolute safety or health.
To make the most of people’s identity, to enable them to use all its elements creatively, we need to realise that in societies, as in music, counterpoint is always more rewarding than static harmony. However perfect harmony looks in a chord, without counterpoint it is merely part of a progression without dynamic movement.. We must educate for a global age, investing people as they emerge into citizenship with the ability to argue, the agility to harvest ideas and the adhesiveness to accrete new components to their mental costume. We must let people design their own flags, not assume that the national, regional or city flag under which they stand, gives more than a hint of their true identity.