Who do you think you are?

Dr Helen Stringer looks at the notion of identity for young people

This question – appropriated as the title of a TV series exploring the genealogy of the famous – is the one I posed to the Senior School girls in my start-of-term Assembly on the theme of identity. 

It strikes me that the question of identity, what it is and how we assert it, goes to the heart of what education is about. The teenage years, above all, are the time of one’s life when one establishes one’s identity – each of us distinguishing ourselves from family and friends by understanding how we differ from them. The pressure on young people to ‘be individual’ can be hard to take. It is a hard journey – to tack between the port of mindless conformity and the starboard of rugged individualism – and school is, or should be, a safe harbour from which every girl can set forth and find her direction by trial and error.

There is a paradox at the centre of our thinking about identity. One the one hand, finding your identity is about separating you from others by recognising what makes you different from them. And yet, we need a sense of belonging to give our identity solidity. If we are too different from others – too alienated from those around us – we lose our sense of identity. This is what happens to young people who become radicalised and join groups with very extreme value systems, such as Islamic State or neo-Nazi groups, sometimes with tragic consequences. 

The process of establishing one’s identity, I believe, is harder for young people now than it was in the past. They may be forgiven for thinking that who they are is almost entirely a matter of choice; living in a consumer society as we do, the world bombards us with images and slogans which persuade us that we can be whoever we want to be. 

In modern thinking, forces shaping our identity which may, in the past, have been regarded as immutable, such as gender or ethnicity, are seen as flexible. Estimates suggest, for example, that at least one per cent of the population is gender non-conforming to some degree and some of these people will undergo gender reassignment. The appearance of Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner, on the cover of Vanity Fair in 2015 was seen as something of a milestone on the road to recognising that gender may not be the fixed entity in identity that has been generally assumed.

 

Equally, one’s racial or ethnic make-up, traditionally regarded as an absolute and ineffable characteristic, has come to be seen in a subtler light.  Nowadays, the phenomenon of the ‘third culture kid’ (TCKs)– someone who has parents from two different ethnic or cultural backgrounds and lives or spends time in a third –  is commonplace.  Barack Obama is perhaps the most famous example. Ndela Faye, who has a Finnish mother and a Senegalese father and lives in the UK describes the two sides of this identity thus: 

“I, like many other TCKs, never quite feel at home anywhere… Being rootless has given me a sense of freedom… and I am proud to feel, above all, like a citizen of the world.”

The anonymity of the digital sphere encourages us to believe that we can project any identity we wish – or even several at one time. Psychological studies have found that young people especially use avatars to experiment with identity types. Is this something we should welcome or be wary of? According to Nick Yee, a research scientist in this field, people tend to create only slightly idealised versions of their actual self-perception rather than letting their fancy fly free. 

Nowadays, science searches for the truth about our identity much nearer at hand –  in the particularities of our genetic code

For a few, however, the freedom offered by the online world allows a darker side to manifest itself. ‘Eris’ – the assumed name of a player in the online game Epic Mafia who was actually a young American computer programmer –  gripped the gaming community with his charismatic, toxic persona. Both abusive and charming, he was banned from the site for trolling but also had intense relationships with people he had never actually met before trying to kill off ‘Eris’ in a fake suicide. Having grown tired of his sinister identity, he tried to reinvent himself – but found it difficult to shrug off his acquired personality as his online ‘friends’ met his ‘death’ with an outpouring of grief. The freedom that inhabiting an online realm seems to offer for self-creation may not, then, in reality live up to its promise.  

Much of the ‘you-can-be-whatever-you-want-to-be’ messaging is connected to shopping and, in our affluent society, it is hard for young people to resist the argument that self-fashioning originates with the things we buy and the labels we wear.  But, as former ‘Marie Claire’ editor Marie O’Riordan (an insider if ever there was one on this issue) recently observed that our compulsive acquisition of must-have brands just makes us more and more like everyone else, less and less willing to stand out from the crowd. 

“Somewhere along the way,” she writes, “we stopped being Amazons – confident, able women – and found ourselves trapped in a backwater of the Amazon website, shopping frenetically for self-definition, circling dementedly around old-fashioned vortices of female prettification and competition.” 

You cannot simply choose a self to wear, like a new dress. 

In a pre-scientific age, people would look for the truth about their essential nature and their destiny in the stars. The alignment of the constellations at birth was believed to presage many things about one’s character and one’s fate. Nowadays, science searches for the truth about our identity much nearer at hand –  in the particularities of our genetic code. The implications of this are seismic, as the outcry which met the announcement last April by scientists at the Sun Yet Sen university in Guangzhou, China, that they had genetically engineered human embryos, reminds us. A world in which designer babies may be supplied upon demand is no longer far beyond the horizon of what is scientifically possible even as it may be ethically out of bounds.

Only time will tell whether the belief that the truth of our nature is genetically encoded within us will prove to be any more adequate than the truth-in-our-stars theory in explaining what makes us the people we are. Meanwhile, young people will continue to grapple with temptations and challenges – to imitate, impersonate, immerse or invent – in their process of individualisation, and we must give them the space and the understanding to help them along the way.

This article originally appeared on the Northampton High School blog and has been re-published with permission.

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