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On Identity, Conflict, and Liberty in a Modern Context

NOTE:  Following recent events in the United States and elsewhere, I thought a discourse on identity, society, and liberty seemed only appropriate.  This is the result.

Kyle R. Brady

Identity is, fundamentally, at the core of most human activities.  And, yet, it is one of the most complicated, unstable, and multivariate philosophical and social concepts that exists.  From a practical standpoint, there are two broad forms of identities -- individual and collective -- and in a modern context these two may often be at odds with each other, creating conflict.  By better understanding identity and how it drives individuals, an enhanced approach to ensuring the freedoms of others may be developed.  



Individual identity, also referred to as personal identity, is comprised of a wide mixture of concepts of and about the self, partially created by extrapolating thoughts and character traits into more concrete categorizations affected by social norms and expectations.  It is an essential component of each human defining who they are -- both positively and negatively -- and maintaining a sense of self.  It is a critical component of the self-awareness required to be human.

And, yet, individual identity is interwoven with collective identity, particularly through identity politics, social identity, and shifting, limited applications of utilitarianism.  In this way, humans are both individuals and members of larger groups, separate entities and part of a larger whole.  From these collective identities have evolved the applied concepts of nationalism, sovereignty, and, of course, society, all of which depend upon the positive and negative group association of individuals.



It is from these identity-based practices that modern humans have produced the current identity-fusion that any given individual will recognize, based upon considerations such as age, gender, sex, nationality, ethnicity, citizenship, language, religion, spirituality, politics, finances, and much more.  Not surprisingly, it is extraordinarily common for an individual to intentionally self-identify with a number of personal identity characteristics and extend those characteristics into intentional collective affiliations, both on a per-characteristic basis and more broadly.  How these different forms and levels of identity are ordered, provided preference, or given consideration is dependent upon the individual, but within each person exists a hierarchy of identity, sub-identities, and characteristics.  Notably, identity characteristics often play an essential role in the actions of an individual.


In a Modern Context

With all this in mind, it is important to consider the current structure of modern identity affiliations.  The following is a broad outline that serves the larger point that will be made, but it is, by no means, a comprehensive listing of all possible options.

The world is comprised of states -- many belonging to suprastate entities of various kinds -- and each state is further sub-divided into ever-smaller entities of governance.  In this way, every individual is a member of multiple forms of governance -- from the neighborhood up to the state and suprastate -- by birth, choice, or a combination of both.

Each person is a member of a family with an inherently branched history and an array of current family members across various levels of familial affiliation.  Each person has a circle of friends, acquaintances, and personal affiliations that are both chosen and the product of circumstance.  Every individual has the choice to create their own familial branch with another individual.  All such affiliations innately carry narratives, past, present, and historical.

Each person has graduated from some collection of schools, institutions, or universities, just as they all have a relationship -- past, present, or both -- with a career or a collection of jobs. 

Each person has the choice to be an intentional member of various groups and societies organized around favored interests, shared traits, or common goals.

Each person is inherently an unintentional member of various naturally-extant groups by the simple facts of their physical, mental, and physiological characteristics.

Each person is part of other naturally-extant groups as a result of the language into which they were born, the language they choose to use daily, and languages they may have acquired.

Each person has the choice -- both positively and negatively -- to be an intentional member of groups oriented around religious and spiritual belief systems.

Each person has the choice to express themselves as they see fit, inherently associating themselves with others who undertake similarly-oriented expressions.


The Conflict

Taking the broad outline of various forms, types, and levels of identity in a modern context into consideration, the inherent problem should be obvious:  not all forms of identity will be synergistic with all others.  Notably, this conflict also exists within the self:  not all forms of identity within the self will be synergistic with all other forms of self-identity simultaneously extant.  This, then, creates conflict.

This conflict can come in the form of prioritizing decision-making for the self, as courses of action are necessarily chosen over others, thereby providing preference to some forms of self-identity.  But this conflict is also seen in the collective sense, as various collective and social identities organize and act to ensure their interests receive preferential treatment, with the interests of other groups intentionally or unintentionally marginalized as a consequence.  The problem, then, becomes clear:  how should governments and societies tolerate and encourage the proliferation of expressive identity, while simultaneously protecting the identities and interests of all?

However clear the problem statement may be, the solution is not.


The Solution

As a simple expression of pragmatic reality, it must be understood that not all identities and interests can be provided permissive and supportive environments, since not all identities and interests are able to peaceably coexist.  Since the peaceful coexistence of individuals -- domestic stability -- is one of the primary internal interests of modern governments,  but this is inherently impossible, a best-fit solution must be developed beyond the current, common, and often ad hoc approach.

This solution of best-fit is based upon the underlying principles of utilitarianism and adapted for this specific case at hand:  individuals within a society and under a government must be free to identify as they wish and act in accordance with their own interests, so long as their identification and actions are in accordance with all laws, comply with the most universally applicable social norms, and do not cause harm to others.

In adopting such a solution -- a mix of the individual liberties seen in liberalism and the collectivism seen in communitarianism -- not everyone would be free to be anything and do anything, but the greatest number of people in a society would be free to be a reasonable approximation of anything and to do nearly anything.  The principle of no harm, carefully applied, ensures maximum liberty to a maximum number of persons while simultaneously ensuring that even those who find themselves restricted from activities are still permitted nearly-maximum liberties.  Further, and with a carefully interpretative application, if an individual seeks to identify or behave in ways that would potentially be restricted, the individual may choose to privately engage -- within the confines of their own home and in the presence of no others -- thereby restricting the restrictions themselves, in order to maximize liberty. 

With the application of this solution, racism and all other concepts of trait-based and perceptual supremacy would inherently be impermissible -- and should be easily understood by all within the society as such -- as the result of the simple truth that such supremacy frameworks disadvantage, disparage, and disabuse the freedoms of a great many others.  Such a society would not permit the spread of such concepts to others, nor would free organization or association around such concepts be permitted.  As this would be based not on truth, perception, justice, or belief, but, rather, the simple greatest good for the greatest number of persons, there would be no arguments over facts, belief systems, or any other points of social contention.


The Connection

In a world full of states, governments, and people -- all with different identities, interests, and ideologies -- attempting to serve justice in all its forms to all people is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.  If, instead, the world carefully pursued the principle of no harm, a more straightforward approach to identity and freedoms could be easily developed, applied, and understood by all.  Rather than attempting to outlaw and outlive all that is perceived to be wrong, unjust, or unfair -- a definitively negative approach -- perhaps a positive, universalist, and inherently impartial design would better serve the ever-evolving needs of an expansive and diverse humanity.