The subject of identity is far from an easy one. That is not to say merely that it is difficult to solve – that much is a statement of the obvious. It’s more than that: it has no solution at all. Each of us have not one but many identities, and the course of our lives – particularly as young people figuring out who we are and what our place is in the world – is a constant process of reconciling conflicts and contradictions within ourselves. It is, of course, an intensely personal process, but there are things we can say about how we as a society should think about identity in order that to best understand and live with each other as a community. Modern British politics lacks a nuanced conversation on identity, almost as though we are afraid or embarrassed of the subject; but these are questions which will not answer themselves, and we must collectively face up to solving them.
‘Integration’ is a loaded term, but it is also incredibly important. That might be an unpopular starting point for some, but it is a vital one; we are all part of one country, and for that to be a liberal, open country we must all buy into the belief that we live, work, love as one people.
But equally we must recognise that people place tremendous value in personal traditions and feeling part of their own conception of their heritage. Misguided attempts to legislate ‘Britishness’, or artificially determine the precise qualities of what ‘the citizen’ must be – what they believe, what they look like, how they behave – do not help. Examples like the French Burqa ban are counter-productive precisely because they send a message that people must choose one identity – that you can be a Muslim as you understand and interpret it, or you can be a French citizen, but you cannot be both.
Like many people, I’ve spent most of my lifetime not aware of my own identity; I didn’t think about it, I assumed life was as I had experienced it, that everyone was basically the same give or take a few arbitrary differences of genetics. ‘Identity’ was a concern, perhaps, for people on the news having their rights ignored by their government, or for political movements representing rigidly defined nationalities; but not for me.
But of course all of us have have identities, whether we notice them or not. They exist dormant within us, and become painfully obvious only in conflict. I have a personal example to illustrate this:
In September of this year, I was returning to Brighton when a newsreader on the car radio began reading a story about what they called a “local dispute” in Leamington Spa. A group of young Sikhs had occupied a gurdwara (a Sikh temple) in protest against an inter-faith couple being married in a traditional wedding ceremony.
Listening to this in the car along with me was my Sikh Indian-born father, my white British mother, and – just to compound the point – our dog, whose dad was a poodle and mum a springer spaniel. You usually hear about ‘culture shocks’ being experienced when visiting exotic locations far abroad, not so much in Leamington Spa – but this was certainly a cultural shock to me.
I mention this for two reasons: First, because we should not assume that remaining culturally distinct is always good for people of minority descent, and integration always the tool of the oppressor. Multiculturalism is to be valued, but it should not stop us from applying liberal ideas to traditional customs, see how they measure up and sometimes opt for liberalism. That doesn’t mean we are abandoning our heritage, or implicitly supporting oppression as some would claim, it is simply a statement of the reality that all of us have within us not one but many strands of identity, that they sometimes contradict with each other, and that they must be resolved based on how we feel and what we think we believe without easy answers.
Second, that a multicultural country – and that is what we are now in the twenty-first century whether we like it or not – must face up to its issue of identity if it is to reconcile its differences and bring itself together as one people, and that those differences are far from resolved.
Too often conversation about identity has been split between an implicit cultural relativism and those demanding assimilation to a set, safe national identity.
The problem with this thinking is that it takes on the one hand identity either to be the realm of the minority, while the majority have no identity (they’re just ‘normal’) and so should always respect the minority; on the other it holds that there is only one valuable identity and all others should assimilate to it.
For the reasons already given, I’m no cultural relativist. But I am, if you like, an individual relativist in this sense: individual’s subjective conceptions of themselves – who they are, where they belong – are not insignificant academic questions, they go on to impact and shape reality. If a state pursues policies designed to to force integration, in fact these policies tend to alienate those of minority identities instead of integrating them. And in provoking alienation, states water the seeds of their own division; heavy-handed assimilationism becomes counter-productive.
It is not good enough simply to retreat to the comfort of an established identity and understood place in the world, and demand that ‘the system’ recognises your right to respect. And that is equally true of individuals belonging to the majority identity and those of any given minority identity.
We have as liberals (in the broadest sense of the term) at the core of our being certain ideas – democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law and so on. They are ‘British values’ not in the sense that we have a monopoly on them, or that they should be used to try and rigidly force minority groups to assimilate totally to the majority way of thinking, but in the sense that there are commons ideas around which we can all come together. Ideas that are accepted by everyone, regardless of creed or colour, background or belief, upon which we can build the foundations of a society in which the same freedoms and opportunities are extended to every one of us. If we are not all to unite on one rigid and all-encompassing common identity, and I would suggest that we have left behind the age in which that was possible, then we must build a new shared identity; an identity of ideals.
That requires a more nuanced understanding of identity. We are, whether you like the term or not, a melting pot of different identities, with an increasingly mixed and diverse heritage. I mean that of society as a whole and of each of us as individuals. That’s why ideas like black history month are so important – our history is a rope braided of many strands; it is so much more complicated than we are commonly taught, and the experiences of different groups of people have all too often been wildly different. We should promote those experiences which are forgotten or suppressed, and we must all of us understand different experiences if we are to truly understand each other. Giving value to different conceptions of identity and history is essential not because it is in opposition to traditional ‘Britishness’ but because it compliments it. It allows people to understand where they came from, who they are, and where they’re going. Because the bottom line is we are all moving into the future together.
Our country is not a meaningless geographical entity – we are one country, but more than that we are one people. We should celebrate the diversity of our pasts and histories, and move forward to building a better country together. There is no contradiction there – it is not just the right option, it is the only one.