Can We Choose Our Identity?

Confusing social messages around identity, race, gender and sex

Posted Jun 23, 2015

America was founded, at least in theory, on the idea that people could overcome the circumstances of their birth, and achieve whatever their potential allowed. Or, at least, attempt to achieve it. Our Founding Fathers didn’t guarantee us happiness, just the ability to pursue it. Whether you catch happiness and existential fulfillment is up to you, and how hard you are willing to try. But what if happiness lies in being a different person? Can you choose to become someone else, to be a different person than you were in the past?

//www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Is identity truly a black and white thing?
Source: By JohnLangdon (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

As a student of philosophy, psychology and sexuality, it’s intriguing to me when these topics arise in popular media. And even more so when they show the degree to which our society is wrestling with complex, unanswerable questions.

  • Caitlyn Jenner made history when she appeared publicly as a woman, after a lifetime as a famous man. On television, she asserted that her brain had always been more female than male, and that her transformation was the fulfillment of true sense of self.
  • President Obama made history when he took a strong stand against conversion therapy, and the practice of trying to change (or help someone change) their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Such efforts rarely, if ever, achieve any real success, and more often, result in tragic pain and emotional damage.
  • Rachel Dolezal, former NAACP leader from Washington state, became headline news when she proclaimed that she identified as black, though family history and photos suggested that she came from a Caucasian background.

These stories are linked, not only in their timing, but also in the degree to which they reflect the question: Can I choose who and what I am?

Some pundits and advocates have attempted to link the Jenner and Dolezal stories, asking why Dolezal can’t claim a black identity, if Jenner can choose to embrace a female identity. I’m not going to explore this argument, because I think it is made from frankly political and rhetorical motives. But, the issue does expose our social inconsistency around free will, choice and identity. We want there to be some things that we can change about ourselves, but we don’t want this flexibility to be used to take advantage of us.  

Are there things that we can change about ourselves? Absolutely. Some changes can be achieved more easily than others. At least on the surface. For instance, in a silly and innocuous example—I CAN choose not to use profanity as often. And, at least at first, I can reduce the number of F-bombs that pepper my speech. But, as time goes on, as I encounter stressful situations, and am around other people who cuss a lot, it gets a lot harder to maintain that change and to maintain the self-awareness and focus that is required. And ultimately, I forget and start throwing around profanity again. For me to really change this, at a permanent level, I need to build it into my daily awareness, my patterns, and make it a primary thing I think about and track every day. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is built on this notion, as is the concept of mindfulness. I can create changes in my emotions and thoughts and behaviors, but only if I pay attention to them, and take careful, constant steps to shape them.

I once heard about a man who had committed a heinous crime when he was a teenager. Released from jail decades later, he dedicated himself to service, in a small, new community. When he died later, he was revered by the local people, who were stunned to find out his dark, early history, as all they had known was his selflessness. Thinking of this man, I’ve always wondered at his process, and at the ways his story depicts the struggles of changing who one is, both internally and externally.

By Shujenchang (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As identity becomes more fluid, how can society trust that we are what we say we are?
Source: By Shujenchang (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What are the things about ourselves that we can’t change? Well, we used to say that you can’t change your gender or the color of your skin. Recent events suggest that these categories are less immutable than was once thought. Modern technology and social changes now allow us to explore many different aspects of identity, self and experience. Through the Internet, I can go into discussions and present myself as whatever, and whoever I want to be. I can find others who share the expression of some hidden facet of my identity, and I can choose to make that feature more important and central in my presentation and experience of self. I can’t change the past, but I can change how I think about the past and how much I allow the past to shape my choices today.

My father, recently obsessed with genealogy, sent me a link to the Hartford Founders’ Association, with a message that I could join, through documented ancestry, to a man in the 1600’s. I choose not to. It’s interesting to know, but not a big piece of who I am, at least not right now. But what if I did? What if, even though I wasn’t interested in it, I pursued this? What if I made it a positive, rewarding piece of my daily life, and every day, I pursued an aspect of my identity that I’m currently ignoring? Would that piece of my identity grow in importance?

This is where identity gets really interesting. Because it’s not the big choices that make up who and what we are. It’s the little things that make up the foundation that we have to build, to support these more overt changes. I don’t know Dolezal’s life story, but I suspect, based upon knowing people, that she didn’t simply wake up one morning and proclaim herself to be black. Instead, this aspect of her self-identity slowly built over time, gradually. Likewise, Jenner’s identity as female was probably a lifelong progression, such that when Jenner decided to publicly embrace being female, people closest to her probably weren’t that surprised, having witnessed a foundation of small changes being built over time.

Sexual orientation is less subject to such change efforts. People who appear as “successes” in their efforts to change from being gay to straight, are people who have bisexual arousal and behaviors, and learn to suppress, for a time, their homosexual behaviors and desires. But sexual arousal is a fascinating intersection of biological predisposition with social learning. People identify as heterosexual or homosexual, in part, because they’ve been taught this is how they must identify. What becomes of this question, as new sexual identities become more accepted, identities such as pansexual and gender-queer which embrace more fluidity in the concepts of gender and arousal? What if, instead of attempting to fight and suppress an aspect of oneself, we instead used mental judo, and found a third alternative, an identity which incorporated these varied aspects of oneself?

This is the aspect of identity which is truly changing, resulting in the current apparent conflicts. Society’s rigid definitions about identity are softening. As science and understanding progresses, we learn that most of the things which appear simple and clear, whether they are gender, race, or sexual orientation, are far less, well, less “black and white.”

Identity is a multiplicity, and one which is constantly evolving and transient. When we pay attention to one aspect of our identity, we can elevate it in primacy and importance. Sometimes that change might be permanent, and other times it might be temporary. Individuals are a complex mix of interacting characteristics. Identity is a choice between these characteristics. It is in fact countless small choices about characteristics and behaviors, all of which aggregate into our sense, and external appearance of a single, formed and coherent identity. In order for society to accept that identity is a fluid concept, we will have to wrestle with these conflicts, and try to organically define what this means, and how we choose to incorporate this into our lives, laws and social interactions.