CASSIOPEIA | Philosophy Column – Today’s word: Identity

Valeria Cantoni Mamiani

Why a column on words? How difficult it is to understand each other. Over this last year, which has erased gestures and the body and printed us onto two-dimensional screens, the word has become the queen of communication, creating moments of closeness but also chasms of misunderstandings, nervousness, boredom, frustration. If Zoom could measure the emotions generated by work calls, communication would certainly end up in purgatory, to pay for our lack of familiarity with taking care of relationships. But, since everything has a flip side, it also provided respite to those who have greater difficulty imposing themselves, those who feel they have a bulky, different, uneven body. Behind a screen, or in online chats, these people felt freer to express thoughts and emotions, to give their words weight beyond their physical appearance, their sexual orientation, their gestures, the image that (they feel) others project onto them. Certainly, verbal language prevailed over everything and we must start from here. We attribute a given meaning to our words, but each word hides within itself a vastness of small differences in meaning, of stratifications, of cultural leaps that we ignore and clash with when we do not feel understood by others.

Certainly, during the course of this year, spent trying to understand each other, listen to each other and not just hear (Can you hear me? I can hear you) we have all realised that understanding is a time management tool as well as an element in personal health. If we do not understand each other, it is difficult to accept each other, but you can only understand each other if you listen to each other actively, without prejudice. A very difficult undertaking.

Although of course our communication is generated by misunderstandings, there are times when understanding each other is important to create that free zone in which the reasoning of one does not override that of another. Never before have people in organisations had such a great need to tell each other about their experiences, because there is a shared need to not feel alone, to feel part of an experience that unites us with others. There is a need to feel similar – not different, not equal – and therefore understood, not only in our diversity, but also in our similarities, all committed to traversing an inaccessible, uncertain and clouded territory. And that is how Cassiopeia was born, a space and a time to reflect precisely on the meanings of the most common and “abused” words, to interrogate them, dig them up and open “thought bridges” between our routines and our interiority and uniqueness, between our being “social individuals”, professionals, managers, employees, teachers, salespeople and our being people, complex systems that have an impact on the context, changing it, and modified by it. Even by one word.

Today’s word: Identity 

In every reflection on people’s emotional and sexual orientation, the word identity runs fast and devious, always seeking shelter in a meaning that is supposed to be a given. Whatever our point of view, we think of it as “true”, without considering that everyone always thinks about things based on themselves, located in a certain position, in a culture, in a language, in a history that they carry within, from which they are built. The word identity is experienced and narrated in a different way by those who inherit a history of persecution, inadequacy and exclusion or by those who, on the other hand, were born and raised in an open, welcoming context, where identity is not a matter to be questioned but a given, I would say, a univocal, non-negotiable, static concept. Crimes are committed in the name of identity, people considered too different to be part of the group are marginalised in defence of identity, protective walls are erected by invoking identity which, in the name of inclusion, exclude all who do not conform enough to be on the inside. If you dig into the word, if you carry out a sort of gem excavation, as I like to define the search for gold in mud, identity is a fantasy, it does not exist. Identity comes from the Greek ταὐτότης, identical to itself and distinct from all others. Thus identity was born as a great misunderstanding of modern Western culture, which needs to define everything, even human beings, to pigeonhole, categorise, block, control. It does not contemplate who is in the middle, what is not one thing or another, but both things together. What cannot be pigeonholed escapes the control of the scientific approach, from the Cartesian idea of cogito ergo sum, which took three centuries to be dismantled by psychoanalysis and anthropology. This culture of identity is the cause of many crises for people who, having lost the role they had “locked themselves into” – CEO, president, manager, head of sales, marketing director – feel lost, deprived of their identity. We are not identical to ourselves; we are multiple, multifaceted, numerous within ourselves. We are many people together, many roles, many different voices, contradictory desires, we are breathing contradictions.

As Umberto Galimberti writes, “identity is the product of the relationships that memory establishes between continuously changing impressions, and between the present and the past.” Identity is neither a fact nor a condition, it is not substance, the ego does not exist in itself, but it is a construction of memory, of the mind, it is a narrative process, it is the continuously changing product of many narratives. We recognise ourselves as “I” thanks, above all, to the stories of others (parents, friends, siblings, colleagues), we build the sense of our being continuous over time and distinct from all the others thanks to narratives, experiences, relationships. The story of a life never ceases to be continuously redrawn, “when I say I, I also use a pseudonym”, wrote the philosopher Jacques Derrida. We are never the same as ourselves.

Anthropologist Francesco Remotti writes that, “identity is not only an invention, but even an illusion.” The “I” is actually a “we”, an interior parliament that is much more interested in exchanges and relationships with otherness than in entrenching itself in defence of what it pretends to be. “Good mental functioning is the result of the meeting, gentle or heated, of multiple states of the self. It takes several places, many paths, many motivations,” writes Vittorio Lingiardi.

So, this word identity, created to nail us to a past identical to itself, can be rethought of as the word similarity, which is more docile and indefinite, more suited to the multiplicity of histories, cultures, sexual orientations, languages, religions, roles that populate every self and every organisation. I suggest working on what makes us similar and a little less on what distinguishes us; perhaps some walls will crumble and let relationships through. There is such a need for it in businesses, in schools, in society.

Suggested reading:

  • Francesco Remotti has written “Contro l’identità” and “L’ossessione identitaria”
  • Vittorio Lingiardi, “Io, tu, noi. Vivere con se stessi, l’altro, gli altri.”
  • Franco La Cecla, Il Malinteso
  • François Jullien, “L’identità cultura non esiste”