Monday, August 31, 2015

What constitutes an identity? A comprehensive synthesis

People are more than just government documents with statistical information; they are humans who have had their own turbulent childhoods, heritages, culture shocks, life milestones, and relationships. All of these factors lead to the creation of a person's unique identity; one that is dictated not by what the seal of his passport is but by how has lived. One's identity affects how he behaves with other people and reciprocally how others behave with him. Human history of full examples of conflicts and fights because of identity clashes. These clashes could be as minor as a politically incorrect joke on a YouTube video to large-scale genocides perpetrated by colonizers against "savages". These clashes come from a person not fully understanding people who ascribe to different identities; a situation that history proves can be a deadly incentive to persecution and intolerance. Abstracting from this, if a person consciously knows who he is, he will predict and be socially aware of how others will evaluate him based on their preconceptions of what his identity is. With an identity forged from his languages, cultures, and experiences and manifested in his sense of belonging, he understands not only how other people stereotypically judge him, but also likewise how he judges himself, judges others, and connects to others.

Various social commentators, journalists, and thinkers have touched upon the idea of how one's identity is formed and reflected in his and other people’s awareness of his social image. In his 2007 article "My First Passport", Orhan Pamuk gives the reader a glimpse of his early childhood and young adulthood spent in Switzerland and Turkey where he experienced firsthand how identities are formed, clashed, and judged. He claims that a person's identity is formed only from his experiences, wherever these experiences come from. Regardless of how you identity yourself, Orhan argues that other people will try to pinpoint what they think your identity is and judge you based on that. Ultimately, your true identity stays and grows with you. Amin Maalouf follows the same train of thought in "Deadly Identities" (1998) but takes it to a more drastic level. He explores the persecution and marginalization that follows from these identity clashes and identity pinpointing. He claims that one's identity could be formed from multiple cultural resources and experiences, and that people often try to oversimplify other people's identity by reducing it to one's national or ethnic background. But, such actions could lead to intolerance, judgment, prejudices, and xenophobia. This alarming claim is realized in both Mona Kareem's "Why do you hate Khalijis" (2012) and Ghinwa Yateem's "Lebanese women are suffering from sexual stereotypes" (2004). In the former, Kareem's discusses how many non-Gulf Arabs have developed stereotypes of Gulf Arabs (Khalijis) based on neo-colonial attitudes. She claims that non-Gulf Arabs have reduced Khaliji Arabs to these preconceptions and blackened their image, ignoring their centuries-old Bedouin culture and the role they have played in helping the Arab World. Similarly, Yateem argues that this judgmental mentality has likewise been directly from the Gulf (and other Arab countries) to Lebanese Arab women. She claims that Lebanese women have been judged as sexually promiscuous, shallow, and vain by other Arab cultures, all the while ignoring the diversity in the lives and accomplishments of Lebanese women. In response to these stereotypes, many people have taken up a call-to-action and actively fought against stereotyping and prejudice, such as the blogger Faisal Abbas who actively posts on online media in order to counter widespread Arab stereotypes (LAU, 2009). All these writers illustrate the ways that individual identities can be formed and how other people oversimplify them to a great extent.

Language is man’s original mode of communication, our innate method of sharing information with others. It thus forms one of the crucial ingredients in the creation of one’s identity. As explored in depth by Maalouf (1998), language can either be an open channel into the further development of a richer and more complicated identity, or it can be a preserver of a person’s original identity by preventing the “intrusion” of other identity-creating ingredients. Maalouf explores the former function of language in “Deadly Identities” where he provides biographical information on how he came to develop a Franco-Lebanese identity. Both the Lebanese and French facets of his one singular identity were nurtured not just by the Mediterranean and European cuisines that he grew up on, but on his exposure to great works in literature through both Arabic and French. It is through his fluency in his own native language that Amin Maalouf was able to access his ancestral folktales and strengthen his Lebanese roots. Likewise, it was through his fluency in French that he was able to penetrate into European literary culture and become a productive writer and sharer of ideas. Both Lebanon and France are a part of his identity because of how language was a channel for him to access and integrate both societies. In contrast to this identity-expansion aspect of language, language can also deter further modifications to one’s identity by fossilizing one’s affiliations and his ease of penetrating into foreign social groups. This is illustrated in the biographical account of Orhan Pamuk (2007), who as a child was not able to integrate into the Francophone Swiss school, culture, and society because of his inability to speak the language. Instead, his Turkish identity was preserved and he had to return to Istanbul to continue his education. Ironically, it was only through reading non-Turkish works in Turkish that Pamuk was able to understand these foreign societies. Furthermore, it was only in Turkish that Pamuk was able to express and refine his identity through his multiple publications.  Both these identity-expansion and identity-preservation functions of language are vividly experienced by any Lebanese citizen who on average is taught two or three languages, each of which bringing with its own cultural baggage and expression. Some find it easy to attain high fluency in these languages, and thus they find themselves cradling Middle Eastern, French, and American ties in their own identity. But others find it difficult to do so. Instead, they (subconsciously) choose to dedicate their time to only one of these language-society pairs and they mold their personalities on only this pair to the exclusion of the others. But regardless of which mode taken, language is a clear constructor of a person’s identity through it being a channel of information transfer and sense of belonging.

Expressed through language, culture likewise plays a role in identity formation. Culture is an umbrella term for the various beliefs and practices that a person grows up around. It is this under this umbrella though those identities are created and influenced. In the case of beliefs for example, by being exposed to a culture that advocates restricted interaction between the two sexes, a person may grow to subconsciously believe that gender segregation is proper and he will act based on that belief. As discussed by Kareem (2012), this is the case of some Gulf Arabs who are implicitly and explicitly told how to a proper man or woman behaves in public and private. Of course, not all Gulf Arabs, raised around the same culture, ascribe to the same attitudes and any such overgeneralization is stereotypical. But a significant number of them do. And for these specific individuals, it is because of Gulf culture. In contrast, exposure to a culture with more lax attitudes on gender interaction could create a person who believes in that same attitude and act accordingly. Gender integration is common in Lebanon as shown by the diversity of how Lebanese women live their lives (Yateem, 2004). Some feel comfortable with their sexuality, while others are more reserved. Some achieve great feats in their professional careers alongside men – May Chidiac comes to mind – while others prefer to live simpler lives outside of the work force. It is through these women’s exposure to a Lebanese culture of gender integration and feminist ideals that they choose for themselves how to live and how to see themselves. Furthermore, in terms of cultural practices and identity, when a person is continuously exposed to the culture of some social group in the form of its arts, literature, and cuisine, his psychological ties to that social group will be strengthened. When a Beiruti who was raised at a prestigious Lycee goes on a vacation to Paris, he will feel a strong bond to the faces, sounds, and sights of the French society that he first experienced in his French-Lebanese school and that he now sees live. Likewise, whether this same person is walking down an alleyway in Cairo or on the corner of the Empire State building in NYC, the aroma of falafels coming from street vendors will remind him of his Lebanese culture and identity. All in all, it is through the exposure of cultural beliefs and practices that a person’s sense of self is created and grown.

Through language and within a cultural environment, a person experiences different aspects of life: education, relationships, struggles, losses, achievements, and victories. It is ultimately his experiences that are the bulk of his identity and selfhood. For Orhan Pamuk (2007), it was his inadequacies in French and the sense of isolation he felt in Switzerland that nurtured his introverted tendencies. It was his later return to Turkey and personal readings that were the seeds for his lifelong literary career. The idea that it is your life that defines your identity is expanded in Maalouf (1998). For him, it was his simple childhood in a Lebanese village and his academic and literary career in France that created his identity. Who a person becomes is the sum product of what he has done in life and what has been done to him. Every Lebanese individual will have a unique identity that grew with a trajectory based on what life experiences he has had. Whether he went finished the Lebanese baccalaureate, got married at a young age, lost his family in the war, or emigrated to the West after graduation, all of these different potential events will create who he his and will be.

Created through language, culture, and experiences, a person’s identity is manifested in his sense of belonging or where he senses home truly is. If a person identifies with some culture and society, then he will feel at home when with other people of similar – but not identical – identities. This home could be the place where a person grew up and felt cultural ties to, as was the case for Pamuk (2007). Despite his attempts at integrating into the Swiss culture and school, Pamuk was not able to feel at home in Switzerland and had no choice but to return to his true place of belonging, Turkey. But for other people, home could include multiple places where a person spent many years of his life and much of his efforts into, as was the case for Maalouf (1998). Maalouf experienced multiple cultures and homes in his life and was able to integrate multiple affinities and ties into his identity. He was at ease in both Middle Eastern and French societies and equally felt at home at both places. The fact that he could so was a reflection of the complicated nature of his identity, one that had incorporated both his Arab and French experiences and cultures. Similarly for the average Lebanese citizen, the languages and people he is raised around and integrates into his identity will be manifested in his sense of belonging. Whether he is located in a Lebanese suburb in Michigan, a pan-Arab ghetto in Paris, or a Francophone city in West Africa, he will feel that he belongs to that area and its people as long as he has a shared identity with them.

It is clear that people’s identities are formed based on the input of language, culture, and experience and the output of their sense of belonging. However, many people falsely believe that all of these factors pale in comparison to the person’s nationalistic or ethnic origin. That is, regardless of how the he has lived in his life, every person has a fundamental identity and sense of belonging that is based completely on where he comes from – his nation, sect, or ethnicity. Other factors like language, education, culture, human relationships, and experiences play only a small role. It is ultimately a person’s passport that is the determiner of his real identity. But, such an idea is false and dangerous. It is false because governmental documents are only that, documents! As exemplified by Pamuk (2007), his passport was only a document that erroneously detailed parts of his body and demographics, not a true representation of who he was and who he would become as a person. Although he had a European passport and was evaluated as a “member of the council of Europe”, his inner identity had no connection with Switzerland. In the Lebanese diaspora, there are many people who have a Lebanese passport and Lebanese DNA running through their blood, but they have little traces of Lebanese culture running through their blood. For example, the actress Salma Hayek has verified Lebanese ancestors and carries the Lebanese citizenship. Yet, she neither speaks the language, cooks the food, celebrates the holidays, nor has experienced a single milestone in her life in Lebanon. She was born and raised in Mexico and is a Mexican by identity in all its aspects.  On paper she is Lebanese, but she is not Lebanese on the inside regardless of the fanfare that the Lebanese showed her when she arrived in Lebanon this April (Westall, 2015).

Secondly, this argument is dangerous according to Maalouf (1998). The danger lies in how this oversimplification of a person’s identity can lead to marginalizing that individual, making him feel devalued, and spreading xenophobia. There are many people who have identities that are more complicated than where they happen to have been born and raised; they further face marginalization because of this. A case in point is the social position of migrant communities such as Algerians in France. These migrants have in reality one identity influenced from both the Arab and French worlds, but both worlds marginalize these people whenever they recognize the other part of their identity, i.e. they French reject the migrant when he acknowledges his Arab identity and the Arabs reject him when he acknowledges his French identity. For the French, he is treated hostilely as terrorist; and for the Arabs, he is a traitor to his homeland Even in the Lebanese context, there are many Lebanese, including Maalouf, who are raised around French culture, have complicated identities, and feel a sense of belonging to both the Arab World and the Francophonie. Their identities are bigger than their passports, but reducing their identities to their passport seal is a denial of who they really. This denial becomes an obstacle against healthy dialogue between French and Arab cultures and could lead to intolerance and xenophobia. Even in the small country of Lebanon, no two Lebanese individuals will have identical identities just because they share a Lebanese passport. Their different family backgrounds, neighborhoods, educations, relationships, and adventures will create two unique identities. A person’s identity cannot be encapsulated in some government document, but will be nurtured by multiple variables: language, culture, experiences, and belonging.

A person’s identity is unique because of the multiple ingredients in its constructions. However, people are naturally inclined to find patterns in the world, and that includes the human tendency to ignorantly overgeneralize people, to put them into narrow categories, to have stereotypical preconceptions of them, and thus reduce people’s unique identities into smaller boxes. These stereotypical overgeneralizations and ignorant prejudices are dangerously pervasive in Lebanese culture and towards the Lebanese people. As explained by Kareem (2012), there has been a surge of stereotypical preconceptions of Gulf Arabs or Khalijis by non-Gulf Arabs, including the Lebanese. Because of their countries’ economic boom, human rights record, and conservative sexual attitudes, Khalijis are judged as being greedy, exploitative, backwards, and sexually repressed people. The actions of the few – the menial labor employers and the sex tourists – have been the measure by which all Gulf Arabs are judged and lumped together. The intricacies of Bedouin culture and society are completely ignored and reduced into this single false image of the greedy oil baron who goes on sex trips to Beirut. These stereotypical tendencies also work in the opposite direction whereby Arabs, including Khalijis, misperceive Lebanese women as promiscuous, vain, and shallow (Yateem, 2004). Their evidence is just the actions of a minority of superficial Lebanese women and prostitutes. No attention is given to the full spectrum of Lebanese women – the lawyers, judges, housewives, journalists, and mothers who play a crucial role in Lebanese society and enjoy more freedoms than their Gulf counterparts. But regardless of the direction of stereotypes, both the judger and judged are mistreated and misevaluated. Their identities are reduced to simplistic and false descriptions, based on paltry evidence and ignorance.

Based on ignorance, stereotypes are a dangerous slippery slope that can lead to intolerance, loss of humanity, and homogeneity. First, by negatively overgeneralizing a population and the identities of its individuals, the value of that population’s history, culture, and world contributions are lost. Through the reduction of Khalijis to repressed oil barons, the centuries-old Bedouin culture is marked down as just a land of oil and not a land of hospitality, poetry, and tradition. Through the stereotyping of Khalijis as exploitative and spoiled, the contributions of the Gulf in the Arab revolutions and its place as a meeting point between multiple cultures is forgotten (Kareem, 2012). Time will tell if this erasure of Gulf contributions to the world will ever be brought back into public consciousness and if the Khaliji will regain the respect he once had. But secondly, on a much more serious scale, stereotyping will not just lead to a loss of humanity, i.e. the dehumanizing and forgetting of a culture and history of some people, but also to intolerance and the loss of lives. History is full of civilizations and peoples who were killed and eradicated because of extreme stereotyping and dehumanization. To cite just a few examples, the last 100 years has seen the mass deaths of Rwandans, Slavs, Palestinians, Jews, and Armenians because of how too many people believed in horrible stereotypes about them. How stereotyping can potentially lead to crimes against humanity is difficult to explain. But Maalouf provides a model in his hallmark “Deadly Identities” (1998). By oversimplifying a person’s identity and by ignoring the complexities that go into creating his multifaceted identity, stereotyping limits healthy human interaction. If a person who, like Maalouf, has a complicated identity influenced by multiple cultures and societies, then he can act as a bridge of dialogue between those societies. But by disrespecting such complicated identities, dialogue cannot happen even between societies that are geographically close to each other. The diversity in population identities will be reduced into one homogeneous pile whereby people with complicated identities or those who have identities associated with the ‘enemy’ will be marginalized and repressed. Conversely, by respecting people who have complicated identities, dialogue and peace is insured between the societies associated with these identities.

Although the problems posed by stereotypical thinking are clear, an effective antidote is not. However, one potential solution is to utilize the media in both actively and passively fighting stereotypical generalizations. To actively fight stereotypes is to explicitly address stereotypical thinking and judgments on different media platforms. For example, to counter rising stereotypes about Lebanese women, journalists could publish multiple articles, blog posts, and videos where they talk about these stereotypes and debunk them. This is illustrated in Yateem (2004) where she directs most of her efforts into detailing what stereotypes exist about Lebanese woman, showing the hypocrisy in the people who believe such stereotypes, and providing counter-arguments in the form of real-life diversity in Lebanese women. Her article is an active struggle against stereotypes because it directly challenges them with the intent of correcting or erasing them. The same can be said for the blogger Faisal Abbas (LAU, 2009) who has made an online journalism career for himself out of his blogging activism against Arab stereotypes. On the other hand, another effective subsolution to the stereotyping problem would be to passively fight it. Instead of having the media publish works where the writer or creator explicitly and deliberately condemns stereotyping, passive media would involve releasing documentaries or articles where the stereotypes are implicitly resisted and disproven. For example, a fear raised by Kareem (2012) in her discussion on Khaliji stereotypes is the fact such prejudicial thinking has erased the existence and value of Bedouin culture from the public consciousness of the Arab World. That is, the idea of the Khaliji has now become associated with the inhumane oil baron and not the noble Bedouin nomad. To relieve this situation, journalists could publish works where this image and culture is renewed. They could broadcast documentaries exploring Bedouin history, the multiculturalism of the Gulf, and military history on the role of the Gulf in the Arab revolutions. The same could be done to resolve the issue of stereotyping Lebanese women by getting the Lebanese media to no longer use the vain nymphomaniac Lebanese girl as a stock character. Instead, Arab media would create multidimensional Lebanese female characters modeled after real-life Lebanese women. These two steps are passive in the sense that they do not involve explicitly arguing with the prejudicial audience but they indirectly make the audience see how the stereotypes are inaccurate or misguided. By watching and understanding the history of the Gulf and the value of the contributions of its people, non-Gulf Arabs will be less inclined to believe their narrow-minded judgments of Khalijis as exploitative sex tourists. Likewise, by having the diversity of Lebanese women be displayed on television as it is in real life, other Arab people will no longer think that all Lebanese women are identical fickle fashionistas. By utilizing both the active and passive forms of media as described, the Arab World has a viable strategy to counter the spread of prejudicial and stereotypical thinking. The media is one of the most powerful social forces that exist in human society. Just as it has been able to spread stereotypes before, so can it resist and cure them.

Just as no two people share identical genetic code, no two people share the same identity. Every person is unique because they were to different dialects, different cultures (cuisines, ideologies, beliefs, practices, customs, arts, ), and had different ups and downs in their life. They know who they are in relation to other people by sensing if they belong to a certain land, area, or people. They could feel this belonging to multiple areas and peoples though because of the multifaceted nature of humanity and the human psyche. Their identity is just bigger than the where they happen to have come from – their government documents. This is illustrated in the lives of many Lebanese people who have ties to multiple cultures (Middle Eastern, French, or American) and who maintain these identities wherever they live, whether it’s somewhere in the Arab World, the Franchophonie, or the Anglosphere. However, out of ignorance, many people oversimplify different people’s identities into small stereotypical boxes. This action is dangerous because it can lead to a loss of human value and, much more seriously, to the loss of human lives as illustrated with past genocides and contemporary inter-Arab discrimination. Respect must be given to the diversity of human identities, or else the consequences may be undoable.

Lebanese American University. (2009, July 13). Award-winning LAU grad uses blogs to break Western stereotypes of Arabs. Retrieved from http://www.lau.edu.lb/news-events/news/archive/award-winning_lau_grad_breaks/

Kareem, M. (2012, August 29). Why do you hate Khalijis? Al-Akhbar. Retrieved from http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/11576

Maalouf, A. (1998). Les identités meurtrières [Deadly Identities]. Grasset.

Pamuk, O. (2007, April 16). My first passport: What does it mean to belong to a country?. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/04/16/my-first-passport

Westall, S. (2015, April 27). Salma Hayek pays tribute to Lebanese roots with film of ‘The Prophet’. In Reuters. Retrived from http://reuters.com/article/2015/04/27/us-lebanon-film-hayek-idUSKBN0NI17O20150427

Yateem, G. (2004, April 21). Lebanese women suffering from sexual stereotypes. The Daily Star. Retrieved from http://www.dailystar.com.lb//Opinion/Voices/2004/Apr-21/92061-lebanese-women-suffering-from-sexual-stereotypes.ashx

This synthesis can be found on http://blog.georgechalhoub.com/2015/08/identity.html and can be reproduced elsewhere without permission as long as this message is kept. © 2015 George Chalhoub.

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1 comment:

  1. Was great to read the comprehensive post and it was nice to figure out the components of an identity. Really intriguing idea and will recommend it to my friends also.

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