Are you really who you think you are? I was recently on a plane trip to the UK. I got chatting to the chap sitting next to me, who was also from Glasgow. The Glaswegian accent is well-rehearsed and stands out a country mile.
As we chatted, it seems we shared a similar knowledge of the city. But, I knew that at some point in the conversation I would be asked the stand out question that almost 99 per cent of Glaswegian men ask each other when they get blethering.
Two minutes later and out it came. Are you a Celtic or Rangers man? Bingo! My standard reply to this is that I do not follow football at all, which is quite true. But, as my new travelling companion was only too eager to tell me, he was a Celtic man and this made me think.
Why do we take up identity positions and how do these ultimately polarise?
So much of our lives has been socially constructed by others over the decades and centuries. Our names, for example, can pinpoint where we are from, which area of the country and what team we may or may not support.
With a name like Duffy, I was immediately pigeon-holed by some as a “tarrier” when I joined the police some 25 years ago. This meant I was ostensibly from one side of the religious divide and for some even more extreme officers, a potential IRA supporter.
When the chips were down, would I take a position? Would I take a side? Unfortunately, by labelling me with this anachronism, my mindset immediately pitted me against them. And the “them” and “us” binary is causing even more problems nearly three decades on.
Inherited party allegiance
The problem is not the identity position that you are given, labelled with or adopt, but the easiness and willingness of many people to simply accept these positions. As we are in election mode just now, choices will have to be made on which political party to vote for. Or will it be which leader you decide to vote for? Are you left or right? Did that position stem from where your parents put their cross in the box? Did they get that leaning from their parents? And so on...
If you are a woman, will you take a position in brushing aside the ‘pale, male and stale’ politicians that may be on offer and place your X for Jo Swinson or Nicola Sturgeon for that matter? Or does it not matter what gender a political leader is?
Then we have the “us’ and “them” of country versus country. If I suggest to you that I am a global citizen, you may chortle or even raise an eyebrow. But, although I was born in Glasgow of Irish descent, I feel very much wedded to my position as an individual person on this planet.
That for me means wherever I lay my hat, that’s my home and I do not wish to be slotted into a nationality box, just because it suits someone else to do so. Scottish Independence and all that it could entail a clear and decisive “us” and “them”, both internally within the country and internationally with our neighbours. Albeit, and I have to concede here, that although an inward-looking policy for many, it may now lead to Scotland indeed being more European. A more outward-facing position in a world of polar opposites, some may suggest.
Choosing to think one way or the other, outwith neatly constructed boxes is not easy. One can be an advocate of social justice and welcome immigration for prosperity. Or conversely, a hater of the “underclass” and an advocate of “send them all back in the boats the came in”.
Youth brings hope
Extreme positions that cause others to take extreme positions which in turn fuel division and a sense of sides, tribes, teams and movements are easier to deal with cognitively. Yes, thinking is hard, but labelling is easy.
I wonder how our world would be if the social constructs of, for example, politics, religion, gender, education and nationality did not exist? And is it actually possible to move outside typical positions?
I’m going to go out on a limb and hope for the best. It may simply be a generational hand-me-down via DNA and environmental circumstances that have been confined by a lack of technology.
Further, as technology has improved and expanded, the new generations of young people, Generation X and Y, see less division and are breaking down old social constructs.
I fully accept that things like social media can cause awful polarisations and this is never been more transparent than when Donald Trump tweets. The current US President aside, I am hopeful that young people are being more tolerant, more willing to think about others and not simply stick them in a socially constructed bucket, because it’s easy to do so.
The connected world, cheap travel and what could be seen the failure of decades old traditions, ideas and culture is perhaps making younger people more amenable to breaking down the barriers of “us” and “them”. The question is, will we let them and support them or simply hand down the labels that we received and then cultivated?
It is hard to actually think about who you are and how you have the opinions and beliefs you have. It requires some forensic thinking. Breaking down our social constructs that have shaped us takes effort.
The question I always ask myself to help ground me in a wider reality is this: if aliens came down to Earth and interviewed me on who I am, what would I tell them and what would they think?