Identity is one of the most used and abused words of our times. Everyone asks for it, everyone invokes it, but as soon as we try to define it, its meaning gets out of hand like an eel.
We can deal with identity referring to two types of subjects: individual (single people in flesh and blood) and collective (groups). Although the two levels are often intertwined, it is worth keeping them analytically separate because this allows us to identify two deeply different paradigms.
The first – let’s call it the paradigm of autonomy – has as its starting point the individual: one single person who, independently, “chooses” among different available options, composing his own unique and unrepeatable “patchwork”.
The paradigm of autonomy does not obviously deny that each of us is a bounded and “situated” being, I mean, placed in a clearly defined historical, geographical, cultural, social, family context, but it shifts the focus of attention: individuals are the bearers of identity, it’s not identity to determine individuals.
Identity and membership
Indeed, each of us is crossed by multiple identities, by multiple memberships and reducing one to a single piece of that mosaic means violating the dignity of that individual as a person, with its own unique and unrepeatable identity. There are as many identities as the individuals are. Actually more: individual identities themselves are often conflicting, confused, overlapping, each of us identifies himself merely partially and dialectically with various belonging “communities”, or rather “provenance” communities, each telling something about us, but not everything, it doesn’t de-fine us, it doesn’t bound us, it doesn’t determine us.
Different “memberships”, or rather “provenance”, do not exhaust the identity of each one and there is a margin of autonomy – more or less large – that belongs to each individual and that allows to make ethical and political choices, even contrasting in relation to the “data” of belonging.
The opposite paradigm – the heteronomy – defines instead, once and for all, the characteristics of a given collective identity and claims that only those who satisfy them all, can fully define themselves as members of the group, automatically transforming into heretics all those who turn away.
At the basis of this paradigm there is an essentialist idea of cultures, according to which they are immutable, uniform, identifiable monoliths, neglecting the fact that cultures – by their very essence – are un-definable.
The “nature” of culture is precisely not to be a given object, and being constantly challenged, not so much by the outside, but by its interior, that is, by those who are even partly carriers of that culture.
The danger of “authenticity”
This second paradigm also conveys the very dangerous concept of “authenticity”, on the basis of which we intend to distribute labels according to the greater or lesser adhesion of each individual subject to a presumed ideal “model” of a specific collective identity.
A reductionist and deterministic approach, deeply opposed to a progressive vision of the human being as a subject, as an actor of his own destiny and not just as an object of an already written story.
In the name of the battle against community and identity logic, the South Tyrolean political activist Alexander Langer, refused to declare his ethnicity in two censuses (refusal which prevented him from applying for mayor of Bolzano). In the South Tyrol of the fifties and sixties of the last century the conflict that divided the Italian-speaking community from the German-speaking one reached extremely violent levels.
Ih his A Tentative Decalogue for the Art of Inter-Ethnic Togetherness Langers writes that to face the conflict it is necessary that “every ethnic community will need to give value within its ranks to the people and forces who are capable of exercising self-criticism, and criticism towards one’s own community: real “betrayors of ethnic compactness” (translation found on http://www.alexanderlanger.org/en/276/1369), and the cultural one, I’d say.
If in 1968 Franca Viola had not questioned the patriarchal culture in which she was born, if she had not somehow “betrayed” the cultural compactness of the context in which she lived – and which also represented a mosaic tile of her own identity – we would still have the “reparative marriage” in our legal system.
It is indeed the questioning of certain aspects of one’s own belonging culture, of one’s own “identity”, to allow progress in terms of rights, while an “obsequious” attitude towards traditional cultures, which treats them as museum objects to protect instead of social products to confront dialectically with, it only maintains the status quo.