Identity and Belonging

We tend to define our individual identities largely by reference to groups. Each of us can be seen as part of countless definable groups; for example, I am an American; I am a man; I am middle-aged; I am a husband and father; I am a business-person; I am a blogger; I am a (non-doctrinaire) libertarian; I am a WASP. I could go on and on. So could you, about anybody.

Groups are communally defined: others must share an understanding of the definitions of the groups by which we characterize ourselves. We pick and choose which group identities are more important in our own eyes.

The sense of belonging in particular groups becomes an important part of how we see ourselves. Indeed, we need to belong to groups that help form our identities. A true loner is a loser … unless or until his loner status somehow helps him establish leadership – of a group.

I recently read an interesting commentary about the UK-born jihadists who are fighting for ISIS. The writer asked: “Are these people really British?” and answered with a resounding “No.” His point was not a racist one, that they could not be British by virtue of their ethnicity, but that they have chosen as their primary identities membership in the Ummah, and roles as jihadists, that are fundamentally at odds with their UK citizenship. Other than as a matter of law, the writer was clearly correct: it is not in the interest of the great majority of Britons that such people be allowed to avail themselves of benefits funded by British taxpayers and the protection of the UK’s laws. They are not really part of the same meta-group.

Why would a British citizen of Pakistani background from York, or an American citizen of Somali ancestry from Minneapolis, take up an identity that is radically inconsistent with his legal citizenship, to say nothing of the interests of most of those who share his place of birth? Perhaps because he sees himself as irrevocably apart from his fellow citizens, and yearns to truly belong to a different group.

By becoming a jihadist, he can join a group in which he will have an honored role as well as (military) adventures that he thinks will benefit the group and please God as his group understands Him.  He will belong, and belonging will give his life meaning. In the thirties, a lot of misfit Germans joined the Nazi party for similar reasons, even without the added impetus of irrevocable ethnic differences from most of their fellow-citizens.

England and other European nation-states have a particular hurdle in trying to convince the readily distinguishable children of Muslim Pakistani (or Algerian or Turkish) immigrants that they belong, or will ever be accepted as equals, in Europe in the same sense that white natives belong or are accepted. Their governments have responded to this dilemma with the false multiculturalism that enabled the Rotherham rapes by turning a blind eye to systematic crimes for fear of being labeled racist; self-evidently different groups were treated differently. Rather than melding cultures, this approach has resulted in what has aptly been described as multi-monoculturalism.

Because ours has always been an ethnically diverse nation, our difficulties in enabling Muslim immigrants to feel truly at home here may be less acute – and there are reportedly fewer Somali-Americans than Pakistani-Brits engaged in jihad against the west – but we are certainly not immune to the virus of deep-seated estrangement. In stressing our differences, rather than our shared values, we encourage a fracturing of our society – multi-monoculturalism.

We need a common vision of primary importance to all that unifies us, one that allows each citizen to feel that he or she truly belongs here, and be deeply proud of his or her American identity. Being American has to be our meta-group.

The Founders articulated just such a vision based on an Enlightenment understanding of unalienable individual liberties rather than tribe or religion. Their vision was not that we are Americans because of the accident of fate that we happen to have been born here (although they granted citizenship on that basis), or proud to be so because we are a rich society (they were not – other than intellectually); those are narrow, parched views of what it means to be American. It was that we are Americans because of our common view of the primacy of individual rights and of our consequent, collective sovereignty as a people. The ballot box is not just a means of choosing officials, it is the ultimate symbol of our respect for each other’s rights as individuals, as opposed to others’ ultimate submission to the sovereignty of a king or a particular understanding of God.

Here, the Christian, the Jew, the Muslim, the atheist and everybody else is equally American by virtue of the mutual acceptance of the primary importance of our individual liberties. Those liberties enable our differences to flourish, and us to harness the differing strengths of our many sub-cultures; they do not permit one group to eliminate another. It is the mutuality of the acceptance of the unassailable right to differences of opinion that is the truest reflection of the Founder’s vision of our identity.

If we forget that we are Americans first– with a shared understanding of the nobility of the vision behind that identity – people will gravitate to competing primary identities, each of which will seek to establish its dominance.

And the field of battle will not be the ballot box.


M.H. Johnston 9/10/14

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