Post Categories:Culture Diversity Ethics Inclusion Philosophy Society
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By Paula Livingstone on Feb. 11, 2014, 7:18 p.m.
Identity is complex. The postmodern view sees each person as containing a myriad of identities that are changeable, constructed, and expressed through social and cultural interactions. This perspective aligns with ideals of diversity and flexibility. Viewing identity as multifaceted and mutable is seen as positive by many contemporary theories. Having the freedom to express different aspects of oneself in varying contexts allows for greater individual fulfillment. It also enables social progress, as diversity and intersectionality become valued within institutions and systems. Core to this perspective is the notion that identity is performative - we actively construct it through what we do socially and culturally.
The Value of Multiplicity
Viewing identity as multifaceted, mutable, and performative is seen as beneficial by many modern theories across diverse disciplines like sociology, psychology, gender studies, and cultural studies. Having the freedom to express and embody different aspects of one's identity across varying situations allows for greater fulfillment and exploration on an individual level. Identity is not fixed or stable, but flexible and co-created. We actively construct, shape, and modify our identities through the social and cultural acts we engage in with others in society. This perspective also enables social progress, as diversity, intersectionality, and multiplicity become valued positively within institutions, systems, public discourse, and social policy. Core to this postmodern understanding is the notion that identity is performative and malleable in nature - we intentionally build, adapt, and alter our identities through what we do, say, and how we interact within the complex fabric of society.
Forces Promoting Singular Identities
However, some theorists vociferously argue that exceedingly powerful forces are emerging and ascendant in contemporary society that actively undermine postmodern notions of multiplicity, hybridity and fluidity with vehement vigour. These ubiquitous, far-reaching forces impose intense pressures to conform to narrow, immutable singular identities rather than embracing wider latitude for adaptability, fluidity, and nuance. For example, internet policies, terms of service, and corporate practices increasingly require the invasive use of real names, detailed legal documentation, biological records, and third-party verified proof of singular identity, undoing earlier freedoms surrounding anonymity, creativity, exploration, and the ability to craft alternate online personas to express multiplicity. Draconian political rhetoric in many Western democratic nations has utterly rejected the perceived failures of multiculturalism and diversity, proclaiming the complex identities of immigrants, minorities, people of colour and those with multidimensional backgrounds as fractured, inherently suspect, and fundamentally unable to adequately assimilate into restrictive, dominant cultural and societal norms. Reality television focuses intense voyeuristic intention on brutally uncovering the "real" singular identity of participants, probing in predatory and exploitative fashion to ruthlessly reveal an "authentic self" rather than exploring multiplicity, nuance, depth, and complexity with empathy and compassion. Other forces from profit-driven commerce and industry also myopically push singular identities to better target consumers for maximized monetization, consumption, and brand loyalty.
Identity Management Systems
In addition to social and political forces, various technologies and practices related to identity verification processes also promote singular, rigid identities rather than embracing nuance and multiplicity. Various examples demonstrate this tendency of identity management systems to impose categorization and uniformity in how people's identities are codified. Requirements for passport photos serve as a prime illustration, with their stringent rules regarding facial expression, angle, head coverings, and visibility of features. These homogenizing requirements espouse a view of identity being tied to invariant biological traits rather than outward presentation and expression. Full body scans at airports and other security checkpoints represent another technology that constructs identities in very binary terms, flagging bodies that do not conform to expected sizes, shapes, abilities, and gender presentations. More broadly, voter ID laws, no-match letters, digital registers of citizens and other tools for confirming eligibility and status often fail to account for the complexity of people's lived experiences and place them into narrow categories.
In summary, technologies and bureaucratic practices aimed at identification, verification and categorized documentation overwhelmingly simplify identity into singular dimensions, even when the results contradict stated values regarding diversity and inclusion. The complex assemblages of attributes, embodiments, experiences and expressions that shape each person's identity do not fit neatly into predetermined boxes and classifications.
Impacts and Risks
The fixation on singular identities driven by social, political, and technological forces carries significant implications and risks. At a broad level, the cementing of singular identities undermines values of diversity, flexibility, and intersectionality by narrowly defining people in terms of reductive categories. This can foster prejudice, discrimination, and marginalization of those seen as outside the norms. More specifically, the imposition of singular identities enables increased social control, restricted access to spaces and services, and systemic inequity.
For example, algorithmic categorization of people into identity types can lead to differential opportunities, resources, and treatment based on the assigned pigeonhole. Predictive policing tools may unjustly target certain neighborhoods and communities based on racial and economic profiling. Services like credit lending or job recruitment may limit prospects for those marked as risky or inadequate by identity-driven analytics. additionally, the prevalence of biometric surveillance and verification technologies raise profound questions about privacy, consent, and autonomy. Pervasive tracking of faces, fingerprints, DNA, and other identifiers erode personal agency over identity disclosure and performance. Overall the harms of identity essentialism and fixation must be weighed against any benefits of administrative efficiency, safety, and fraud prevention.
In summary, while well-intentioned, the emerging infrastructure of identity management carries disconcerting threats of control, discrimination, and lost freedom when identities become ossified into singular, immutable categories. Ethical technology and policy requires centering identity complexity in systems design.
Opposition and Alternatives
However, constructive opposition to the forces of identity fixation also arises from many quarters. Digital rights groups, civil liberty organizations, and grassroots activists publicly critique practices and technologies that impose singular identities, arguing for policy and design changes to support multiplicity. Artists use creative mediums like performance art, hacking, and media installations to challenge surveillance and highlight identity complexity. Legal challenges also provide productive friction against overly simplistic identity systems, as with recent court cases on transgender rights, indigenous land claims, and voter disenfranchisement.
Beyond resistance, many viable alternatives exist that embrace the postmodern view of identities as multiple, intersectional, and co-constructed through history, culture, society, and personal experience. For example, the government of Australia now allows citizens to select Male, Female, or X as their gender identity on passports, recognizing those who identify outside the simplistic male/female binary. Some social media platforms enable users to manage multiple profiles linked to one account, switching between expressions of identity contexts. On a deeper level, conceptual frameworks like Afrofuturism, intersectional feminism, and queer theory foreground hybridity and resist essentialism.
In summary, while unitary identity frameworks are ascendant, compelling counter-narratives and models provide inspiration for technologies, policies, and social systems that validate people in their many facets. Rather than shoehorning diversity into stale categories, multidimensional identity can be centered in how institutions operate and relate to individuals. The path forward lies in collective imagination, advocacy, and moral courage.
In conclusion, identity in contemporary society sits at a crossroads between multiplicity and singularity. While postmodern thought conceptualizes personal identity as comprised of many overlapping, fluid facets, powerful emerging social, political, and technological forces threaten to impose singular, restrictive categorizations. These dynamics raise profound questions and consequences regarding social equity, ethics, inclusion and human rights.
Constructive opposition provides hope that unity and diversity need not be opposing forces, but can find synthesis in systems, policies and technologies that embrace the multidimensionality of human experience. But profound mindset shifts remain required. Identity multiplicity must be centered not only in academic theory but operationalized within the code, databases, bureaucracies and commercial structures scaffolding society. And singular identities must be constructively troubled, rendered more capacious through diligent examination of their blindspots and limitations.
This struggle between multiplicity and singularity is neither academic nor abstract, but deeply entwined with people's capacity to access opportunity, resources, justice, and self-determination. How the forces of identity ultimately negotiate this tension will shape the moral arc of our collective futures. The stories we tell about identity matter deeply, rippling out across culture and consciousness. May we choose stories that liberate, uplift and redeem.
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