When we speak about our identity I believe that we are referring to four different things: 1.) how we see ourselves as we relate to society around us, 2.) how we want others to see us, 3.) how others see us as we relate to society, and 4.) how we perceive others’ perceptions of who we are.
The key point is that how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us is always dependent on which context we find ourselves in. How I describe myself to a group of 20-somethings in San Francisco is very different from how I describe myself to a group of 50-somethings in Bangladesh. Similarly, how a group of 20-somethings in San Francisco perceive me is completely different than perceptions of the group in Bangladesh. I am still me in both cases, but different characteristics are emphasized – both in how I describe myself and how I am described by others.
At the risk of sounding academic, the ‘taxonomy’ of identity is undergoing a radical shift. 20th century categories like nationality, profession, and political ideology are giving way to new categories which are either more difficult to define or have yet to establish themselves. Sub-cultures based on musical genres, activities, and fashion are replacing former adjectives of identity like nationality, religion, and class.
I believe that how we shape our online and offline identities has much to do with the emotions of pride and embarrassment. We tend to emphasize our characteristics which fill us with pride. For some it is the music they love, for others it is their ethnicity. On the other hand, we tend to downplay our characteristics which embarrass us. Again, this could be music, ethnicity, class, or anything else. Ethnic pride and ethnic embarrassment, for example, is a phenomena among young people of all ethnicities.
Adolescence is filled with tension between how we see ourselves and how others see us. I believe that part of maturing and ‘self-realization’ is reconciling those two perceptions.
All of this is on my mind because two days ago I partook in a fascinating conversation among twenty young people from around the world here at Interdependence Day. It was led by Bleri, a young Catholic Kosovar Albanian now living in Brussels whose best friend is Palestinian. Here is a 12 minute video which shows excerpts from our two hour conversation.