There are two kinds of identities — inherited and acquired.
Inherited identities are almost fixed. It could be your race, color, region, society, etc. These are fairly well defined and any conflict arising out of them can be sorted out by prioritizing one identity over the other. Others see you through this identity. An individual has different levels of affinity to different identities. Since the identities are natural, they co-exist with each other. One can carry an identity of his mother-tongue and that of his community (caste) without them conflicting with each other. By chance, if a conflict occurs, the one with the stronger affinity wins and it gets strengthened further. Weaker identities disappear over a period of time — like castes becoming less important in cities or language becoming less prominent when situations where nationality binds.
(Religion is strictly not an inherited identity. But will come to that later.)
Acquired identities are what you think you are. Identities such as liberal, conservative, secular are in a way values too. These values help you go beyond the constraints of inherited identity. A widely practiced religion, a political party, or an association of people that transcends the boundaries of inherited identities are some examples. Unlike inherited identities, these identities are self-certified or certified by the association. These are not obvious to a person until he interacts with you for a non-trivial amount of time. Since the range is bigger than the inherited identity, politicians, journalists, “thinkers” and actors want to adopt to that identity to ensure that their market is not constrained by narrow regionalism.
Conflicts are Natural
The acquired identity will naturally conflict with the inherited identity. The person has to be highly liberated to rise above this conflict. Or he should be a total fraud or a monster to hide the pull of the inherited identity and wear the acquired identity on his sleeve. For everyone else, it can be an ongoing dilemma.
Though religion could be as deep as an inherited identity, in its true spirit, it is more a package of acquired identities as we have seen people changing their religions, turn atheists and so on. The package contains not just the higher human values but also the conditions from the land from which it originated.
If Islam is a religion, “brotherhood”, “peace-loving” are its values. It comes with conditions like rejecting pork, prayer/assembly schedules and a host of other strict rules. Christianity has its values like love, compassion, etc. It comes with the rules of assembly rules, baptism, contribution to the church, evangelism, etc. I’m limiting the examples to those religions identified by the conditions that they enforce.
In such cases, the religion is a proxy for the underlying value and the conditions. If one’s a Muslim, he’s ‘supposed’ to be peace-loving, Christian to be compassionate and so on. The high human values need not conflict much with inherited identity but the acquired conditions conflict with the inherited identities. For example, Muslims born and brought up in a non-Muslim country like India. While the society inherently is polytheistic, a Muslim will have to balance the values of the land and that of the acquired identity.
Establishing the Abstract Identity
Though the identity is self-certified, it needs consistent actions for others to accept it one’s identity. Because of the abstractness of the acquired identities, it takes a lot longer to express and establish such an identity with a large audience. An example would be that of non-violence practiced by Gandhi. It took him years to establish that identity and inculcate that, as a value to his followers. He had enough opportunities to prove his identity as a non-violent person and he used every one of them. The identity is strengthened only by consistent actions.
But such specimen is too few. It takes a lot of moral strength and integrity to maintain such abstract identities. As conflicts occur, the weak choose the easy way out by hiding behind the identity instead of doing the right. People who hold inherited identity won’t always do the right thing, even if it is not in the best interest of *all* the identities he holds, because he does not need to justify towards a higher “value”. But someone holding an acquired identity will trade his integrity to retain the identity.
For all our liberals, seculars and holders of other virtues, the world has got a lot more complex since Gandhi’s days and the opportunity to prove the value occurs more often. Since most aren’t consistent with their values, forget about changing the world for better with elevated human values, the current mask that they wear comes off too soon.