Identity, Violence & Corporates

This quote from Oscar Wilde is so true. Each one of us borrows this thing called “our identity” from the milieu and our identity is in constant interaction with our environment and vice versa. When I am outside my country am just an Indian, but if a meet a fellow Indian then I quickly add that I am Maharashtrian, the state where I live & have been raised. If this stranger happens to be from the same state I will then state that I am from Pune, the city I call home. And if the person is also from Pune then I will further narrow down on the suburb of Pune.

Based on my appearance my caste is often guessed and depending on the “identity” the other holds for my caste their behaviour towards me could change for better or for worse.

And so for me the question is what is mine in my identity and what is not? Are these boundaries so clearly visible? Can they be maintained?

One of the most touching work in this area is from a guy named Amin Maalouf. Through his personal experiences of being born in Lebanon and then living in France he has written a wonderful book named — In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to belong. I borrow some of his lines from the book here.

How many times since I left Lebanon in 1976 to live in France, have people asked me, with the best intentions in the world, whether I felt “more French” or “more Lebanese”

This oft-repeated question seems to reflect a view of humanity which, though widespread, is in my opinion dangerous. It presupposes that “deep down inside” everyone there is just one affiliation that really matters, a kind of “fundamental truth” about each individual, an “essence” determined once and for all at birth, never to change thereafter.

So is my identity really just that I am a Hindu? Or a Maratha? (A sub-caste within Hindu). When I do not confirm to any religious practices advised by the “elders” am I considered polluted? And I am only talking about religious identity as that’s the most “in your face” identity that we experience & identify with. While I am not negating all other types of identities that you & me carry with us all the time.

Within my own house I have multiple roles and demands from the role –Husband, Son, Father, Son-in Law, Brother, Cousin and many others. Where is the space for me? Who I am? Do I just really be a servant of all these identities and make them as my identity? After all self-less service is universally considered as the greatest good that a human can do.

While I have been in pursuit of my identity I realised that pursuing the same via these external affiliations does not do any good. Soul touching music was never made by just mixing sounds from all around the musician. The real music is made when you sit in silence and connect with the purpose of the song in the context. When I started to look inside of myself for my identity that’s when I came across the noise within me, many a times caused by the external which is now internalized. How do I separate the two? Is it really necessary?

That’s when I got in touch with the violence and the acts of violence associated with identity both in the external world and the internal world. As part Indian history we have seen many violent acts perpetrated for identity. The bloodiest of them all has been at the time of independence. The next one etched in my memory is the Sikh massacre in 1984 and then more recently the Hindu Muslim riots in the aftermath of the babri masjid demolition.

I have done my share of violent acts in pursuit of internal identity as I unshackled myself from the identify of self which was so deeply rooted in external aspects or identities given to me by others, the roles that I was playing. The violence was often directed at self or others, either being aggressive or passively aggressive.

Here I quote from Amartya Sen in his book — identity & Violence — The illusion of destiny — “ The incitement to ignore all affiliations and loyalties other than those emanating from one restrictive identity can be deeply delusive and also contribute to social tension and violence”

In my case the violence towards self & others emanated from the fact that I was trying to overthrow my current perceived singular identity with another perceived singular identity and I kept on arguing with self about the same. Until I realized the plurality of my own identity, and the fact that I draw it from multiple sources, people, groups and even organizations. Coming to terms with this plurality of identity and living peacefully with it is easier said than done & I am yet walking very tentatively here.

However this journey also brought me close to the singular identity that we assign individuals in organizations and how that creates violence in organizations. It’s no different when the boss asserts his or her ways and wishes all individuals to confirm to his or her worldview. It’s not different when we slot people in functions and offer them career paths only in that function within an organization. It’s no different when we hire people from elite institutions and offer them middle or senior level positions much earlier in their lives as compared to individuals from relatively modest institutions. In my view all of these are violent acts based on singularity of identity associated with a particular individual or group.

A lot of organizations today are waking up to this reality albeit gingerly and deciding to take action. In my opinion and experience if the individual journey is so tough the journey of the group would be no easier. So if you have decided to take this journey then be aware that at any given point of time all of us are looking at the other person from a specific lens and hence we practice “identity disregard” where completely ignore or neglect the aspects of an individual’s being. It’s like if you are out looking for a medicine shop then you tend to miss all other type of shops.

I wish to conclude by again quoting from Amartya Sen’s book “In recent years results of experimental games and other behavioural tests have brought out serious tensions between the assumption of pure self-seeking with singular affiliations and how people actually observed to behave. The “loyalty filters” as defined by George Akerlof can powerfully influence individual conduct as well as their interactions, which can take richly divergent forms”

So if you are looking for answers for a particular individual’s sudden outburst of emotions at workplace or a group of individuals practicing passive aggression at work, may be if you look at the identity crisis and underlying behaviours you may get some answers. And yeah reading more about theories of economics will not do any harm either.

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