Different Identities: Dividing or Uniting?
Who am I? What defines me? What makes me different from other people? Questions that probably everyone has asked themselves before in one way or another and which all have something in common: They relate to one’s identity. Throughout human history, people have searched for answers to these questions in multiple ways, relying on religion, science or philosophy.
With identity being such a complex and multifaceted concept, countless definitions and explanations have been developed over centuries. However, most sources agree that identity encompasses characteristics that make a person or a group unique and therefore distinguishable from others.
But what exactly are those characteristics? The short answer is: It depends on who you ask. When talking about self-identification, not everyone might view one characteristic as important to their own identity as someone else. When we are looking at a group, it can be hard to describe what exactly is to be viewed as a universal characteristic of it and what as a stereotype. Thus, identity can include numerous things: Religious and political beliefs, culture, heritage, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, gender, nationality, profession, wealth or simply character traits, the list could go on forever. It is also important to note that identity is something that is not only relevant to us, but to others, which leads to social categories and groups being formed based on these characteristics. We do not only look at ourselves based on what we identify as, but we also perceive others differently based on what social group they might belong to, whether this may be consciously or subconsciously.
So how does identity affect society, what role does it play in politics? Why is it more relevant than before? Most of the above-mentioned characteristics have existed for as long as mankind itself, so what changed that we are talking so much about identity in our current political and social climate? It is the circumstances around it that have changed and that have made it so relevant. Despite the expectations at the end of the last millennium that the world would unite under an almost inevitable global development towards cooperation and liberal democracy as seen in western countries, there seems to be a counter development with an increasing divide between different identity groups.
As society has become more aware of differences that are connected to identity, some political movements have set these groups off against each other, by not emphasizing what we have in common but by focusing on differences and creating an idea of “us against them”. This phenomenon is not new and is included in several older ideologies such as nationalism or segregation but also appears to be part of newer terms such as “identity politics”. Nowadays, however, this tendency seems to be on the rise again, questioning our core values and what Civil Society stands for. Complex issues are being simplified into “black against white”, “men against women”, “Christians against Muslims”, so on and so forth. In the news, we often hear about the rise of extremism within our world and several elections have shown outcomes where parties at the far-end of the political spectrum are gaining more and more support.
Besides the idea of division through different identities, there are also social concepts that suggest the exact opposite, resulting in phrases such as “Unity in Diversity”. The concept focusses not only on accepting and tolerating the differences between individuals or groups, but viewing them as an enrichment to society, something that can contribute to a larger variety of ideas and dialogue, thus promoting progress. Several political actors are calling for unity and common ground in order to address bigger issues such as climate change, natural disasters or the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction, problems that affect us all regardless of our identity and threaten us as the world’s population. They see globalisation as an opportunity for positive change and symbiosis between different social groups. “Unity in Diversity” further contains the idea of nobody being excluded based on their differences through realising that every single person is unique.
This year’s conference theme asks the question whether the large variety of identities will divide or unite us, if we will use it based on the ideals of fighting against or benefiting from each other. This is a fundamental question about our values and how we will function as a global society. We need to question ourselves and what we want our roles as individuals that are part of the global society to be. Therefore, we should acknowledge the urgency of finding an answer to the question: “Different Identities: Dividing or Uniting?
Deputy Secretary General