Identity is that which is given
Year Published: 2008
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX8166
In this age of globalisation many people fret about Western culture taking over the world. But the greatest Western export is not Disney or McDonalds or Tom Cruise. It is the very idea of culture.
Kenan Malik writes:
Increasingly identity has come to be seen not as something the self creates but as something through which the self is created. The inner self, in other words, finds its home in the outer world by participating in a collective. But not just any collective. The world is comprised of countless groups - philosophers, truck drivers, football supporters, drinkers, train spotters, conservatives, communists and so on. According to the modern idea of identity, however, each person's sense of who they truly are is intimately linked to only a few special categories - collectives defined by people's gender, sexuality, religion, race and, in particular, culture.
To say that no human can live outside of culture is not to say they have to live inside a particular one. Nor is it to say that particular cultures must be fixed or eternal. To view humans as culture-bearing is to view them as social beings, and hence as transformative beings. It suggests that humans have the capacity for change, for progress, and for the creation of universal moral and political forms through reason and dialogue. To view humans as having to bear specific cultures is, on the contrary, to deny such a capacity for transformation. It suggests that every human being is so shaped by a particular culture that to change or undermine that culture would be to undermine the very dignity of that individual. It suggests that the biological fact of, say, Jewish or Bangladeshi ancestry somehow make a human being incapable of living well except as a participant of Jewish or Bangladeshi culture. This would only make sense if Jews or Bangladeshis were biologically distinct - in other words if cultural identity was really about racial difference.