Who are we? Identity in crisis

Battle of Ideas festival 2021, Saturday 9 October, Church House, London


Identity has become a defining factor in how we understand ourselves in the modern age. But the idea of what identity means hasn’t always been the same. The concept of identity is used by some as a marker of where you’re from, by others as a way of explaining who you are deep inside. For some, identity is a fixed, constant factor from which we shape our lives. Others see identity as something changeable and malleable according to how we want to project ourselves into the world.

What’s certain is that our changing concept of identity and its importance has come to shape much of contemporary political debate. ‘Identity politics’ is praised by supporters as a move to focus political change around the needs of individuals and their different identities. Feminists who coined the term ‘the personal is political’ have long argued that women and men’s private lives, and how these identities present in society, are crucial to understanding why sexism and misogyny exists.

On the other hand, identity politics and its ‘intersectional’ tendency is criticised by those who see it as move away from collective political ideals like universalism and solidarity. For example, many political commentators now seek to draw their authority from links to their own personal identities – such as speaking ‘as a gay man’ – a move which some applaud as a celebration of ‘lived experience’ and others condemn as divisive.

But what happens if we start to lose confidence about our identity? A common complaint among younger people is the worry that they ‘don’t know who they are’, with demands for therapeutic or medical intervention offering solutions to help lost youngsters discover what their true identity really is. On a bigger scale, divisions on political issues from Brexit to Covid-19 call into question the idea of a national identity or shared sense of self among the populace. Recent events in Afghanistan have posed the question of whether the West is sure of its identity on the world stage.

But not everyone is worried about this shift. In fact, many argue that it’s important to stress and celebrate our differences – from race and gender to culture and heritage – in order to resist regressive political identities from coming to the fore. For some, identity has now become a battleground: anti-racists claim that copying cultural identities is ‘appropriation’ and racist, while gender-critical feminists claim that trans women are ‘threatening’ their identity as women.

Two new books examine the way in which identity has moved from a sense of inner meaning to a thing we wear on our sleeve, and the implications of that change. Professor Frank Furedi’s 100 Years of Identity Crisis: culture war over socialisation argues that we must understand our current ‘crisis’ of identity to explain the problems we have with socialisation and the ever-toxic culture wars. Rakib Ehsan’s forthcoming book, Manufactured Grievance: the modern Left and Britain’s ethnic minorities, looks at how a narrow focus on personal identity – particularly when it comes to race – is in danger of impeding a ‘civic nationalism’ based on traditional shared values of ‘faith, family and flag’.

Do we know who we are anymore? And does embracing our sense of identity hinder or help our ability to engage in collective ambitions, like figuring out what society stands for? How has the atomisation of modern life changed our identities – particularly when the online world offers opportunities to curate and manicure our own view of ourselves? Is identity important, or should we be telling young people that it’s what they do in the world, rather than who they are, that matters? And can today’s culture wars be seen as part of this identity crisis – or should we accept that all aspects of life are now up for grabs on the political stage?

Dr Rakib Ehsan
author, Manufactured Grievance: the modern Left and Britain’s ethnic minorities; research fellow, The Henry Jackson Society

Professor Frank Furedi
sociologist and social commentator; author, 100 Years of Identity Crisis: culture war over socialisation and Democracy Under Siege: don’t let them lock it down!

Ella Whelan
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; journalist; author, What Women Want