We are facing a quiet crisis of identity. The crisis penetrates through the shell of contemporary society, breaking, cracking, and scratching at our insides. It most visibly manifests itself when you answer the question “Who are you?” and you start your answer with “I am…”.
And then you say,
“I am a Christian/Buddhist/Hindu/atheist/etc.”
“I am a White/Black/Asian/Hispanic/etc. person.”
“I am a teacher/student/manager/doctor/worker/etc.”
“I am a man/woman/intergender/agender/etc.”
“I am a American/Chinese/Korean/Nigerian/etc.
“I am a straight/bisexual/gay/asexual/etc. person.”
Etc. etc. etc.
There is a sense that what you are doing here is identifying yourself. But what does that really mean? It seems like you are not simply describing yourself; there feels to be a difference between saying the phrases above and saying something like “I have black eyes” or “My height is 5’9”. Furthermore, it also seems like you are not merely providing information that would make it easier to differentiate you from others, since you declare this kind of information even in a situation where that is not a concern of your identification. If you think carefully about it, it does not even necessarily seem to be a matter of degrees of importance; one anonymous friend of mine, for example, considers his academic interests to be far more important than his non-straight sexuality, and indeed, even viewed from an outside perspective, it influences his life far more. Yet, again, few would say that they identify as a history/math/science/etc. fan.
There is something much more complicated and unclear going on here. Some might say that this is merely a self-contained psychological process of self-identification: that, for example, saying “I am bisexual” is merely an action that reflects the speaker’s intrinsic belief that they are bisexual. But this is a naive stance. It is obviously not the case that humans are naturally born with an instinct that connects arbitrary words to certain states of affairs. The speaker’s belief that they are bisexual is contingent on the speaker’s conceptualization of bisexuality, being, and linguistics, which are morphed by extrinsic mechanisms. By their very nature of being words, “identifier words” such as different races, genders, sexualities, jobs, and so on, do not originate from the self. No one is born an Asian, man, Korean, etc. in the sense that they identify with those words, they become those things as they engage with society. This is how I still check off “Asian” on the census even though I think the very conceptualization of “Asian” is unsubstantial. I have never felt like an “Asian” (whatever that means), and yet I still am Asian in some way.
The issue here is twofold. First, there is a semantic confusion in the evocation of “identity.” Second, there is a grammatical confusion in the way we perform identification, which then causes a conceptual confusion about identity, and this eventually leads to a concrete psychological crisis of identity. The second issue will be discussed in the next issue of the Centipede, while the first issue will be discussed here.
When I say that there is a semantic confusion when evoking “identity,” I mean to say that the word seems to refer to various, sometimes conflicting concepts. Consider the following statement: “I identify as a man.” Here, “identify” functions as a reflexive action verb, where the “I” acts upon itself. In this way, it can be seen as equivalent to the statement “I identify myself as a man.” However, it can also be looked at so that “identify” effectively functions as a linking verb, in which the statement can actually be seen as equivalent to “I am a man.” Looking at the first interpretation under a philosophical lens, identifying is an action performed by a subject, while in the second one, identifying establishes the essence of the subject itself. This is why, for instance, the statement “I identify as a man” sounds natural, but the statement “I identify as a teacher” sounds odd, even though both “I am a man” and “I am a teacher” sound perfectly natural, and indeed both perform “identification”.