The other side of identity

Aidan Ward and Philip Hellyer

It is so clear to us in our culture that we must be clear. If we want to achieve anything we must be clear about our purpose. We can have a coach to help us be clear.[1] We can make precise plans to show just how that clarity delivers our goals. Why would anyone not want to be clear? Sounds like motherhood and apple pie.

To get a little critical distance we can as usual turn to some great minds. Gregory Bateson had a problem with conscious purpose: he thought it was often self-defeating. Carl Jung spent half his professional life escaping the collective unconscious that otherwise controlled his purpose in ways he was unaware of. Stafford Beer talked about the Purpose Of a System Is What It Does (POSIWID): why is there a gap between the purpose of a system and what people’s purposes in and for that system are? And Humberto Maturana knew that any organism that is not coupled to its environment is dead, so there is a sense in which our purposes are highly constrained by the ecosystem we serve.

All of these great minds point to the necessary humility of listening first: deep listening. What are all the connections we have with our worlds that we don’t pay attention to? How does our world change when we pay sustained attention with our minds wide open? How does a dose of sheer awe and wonder change who we are? What, after all, is the deeper context for what we might want to be clear about?

In these blogs we generally do a little riff like: everyone knows nurses are kind so they are very often cruel; everyone knows the law is there to protect us so it often betrays us; and everyone knows you go to school to get an education, that so often leaves you fundamentally uneducated. “Everyone knows” is of course the collective unconscious of Jung. But you can easily do the analysis of the problem from any of the great mind perspectives listed.

Maybe the topic of this blog is just coming into focus. There is identity and there is the other side of identity. There is the identity that you must have in order to be seen at all in our society and there is the identity that can emerge like the Delphic Oracle: “know thyself”. How fascinating is it that the automatic, culturally located identity can be so far from what we discover when we listen! The purpose that we must be clear about to satisfy social pressures is so far from the purpose we can discover given a life of reflection and contemplation. Who the hell are we?

If we are located within a system that does not make sense, trying to make sense of our roles within it may make us ill. Illness is often the body part of our bodymind rudely interrupting our conscious stupidity. And normally and consciously we suppress (“manage”) the symptoms of illness so they don’t interrupt us. That is why breakfast cereal kills us: what do you want your liver to say, for heaven’s sake? It is cruel to fatten geese for foie gras and yet we do it to ourselves? We can see the two identities here: the one that does what you are supposed to do, and “gets on”, and the one that says there must be a better way. Remember Christopher Robin dragging Pooh down the stairs.[2]

Inside and outside

I think we need to get beyond notions of our public face seen by the outside world and our inner truth seen by us. Gregory Bateson had no truck with a boundary between us and the world: our skin is certainly not such a boundary. We explored in a previous blog that in our culture we describe our “senses” as faculties that bridge out into the world that we “experience”, but that anthropologically there are other schemes for “senses” that don’t make this mistake. And mistake it is.

If we confuse our “identity” with a physical body somehow separate from the world, we are already lost. This objectification of ourselves leads straight to the first sort of identity, how our culture needs us to be and to think of ourselves. The UK government is currently getting its knickers in a twist about Windrush. The (ex!) Home Secretary wants to determine if such people are British citizens, forgetting that they have always been such and that she in answerable to them, not the other way round.[3]

Rather than inside and outside we need to think of something closer to POSIWID. Who are we really when we get past all the stories and wishful thinking about who we might be? Or with Maturana, what is the environment that we really have to stay in contact with to be alive? A job can kill us, metaphorically and then in biological reality. Ergo it isn’t us. A lifestyle, ditto. Or accentuate the positives: when do we reliably come alive, and what does that tell us in “Know Thyself” style?

We also need to recall that we are holobionts. Our mood responds strongly to what our friends in our gut biome are up to. Some conditions classified as mental impairment or mental health problems are strongly affected too. And there is recent academic speculation about the brain biome and the effect of bacteria and other organisms living there on behaviour.[4] I have noticed that commentators typically slip into a germ mindset where elements of these biomes are thought to be a threat. This is a relic of the inside/outside mindset, that we can determine who belongs in our holobiont community and who does not. Who would be doing the determining?

David Abram published a piece recently about the migration back of forth of salmon, of cranes and of butterflies: these pose fundamental challenges to our sense of what can be known. Thinking of such global events as the breathing in and out of the world is helpful. What are humans caught up in, in that respect? What are we enacting as a species that refuses to acknowledge our connections to Gaia? What does that say about our identity? What is the significance of us trying desperately to lock ourselves into our skulls?

And if you change your diet in ways that change your biome in ways that change your fundamental behaviour, who or what is this ‘you’ that persists across that transition?

Identity as continuity over time

We need people to recognise us as the same person we were yesterday and the month before at the same time as they recognise the potential within us to transform ourselves into something new. This is the completing distinction pattern we have described before: we can only be new and different in distinction to the person we were and therefore the continuity is a precondition of the newness.

By way of contrast, the notion of brainwashing is the imposition of a change in thinking and behaviour that makes a person somehow different than they were. The roots of neuro-linguistic programming lie with Gregory Bateson himself as a mentor and support to Bandler and Grinder.[5] Shaking the foundations of identity is a good start to brainwashing, as David Graeber discovered during the Occupy saga. The FBI (or other TLAs) broke into his home only to rearrange things a bit, thereby rearranging his mental furniture too.

A good guide to recovering these feelings of continuity and discontinuity is David Abram. When he returned to his native New York after studying shamans in the far east, he could not understand why people in NY did what they did. Clarity anyone? David Abram’s New Yorkers are very much the same as they were when he left but he experiences them as so different as to be incomprehensible. And vice versa of course: his incredulity must have come across as very strange. We have a fear both of being rootless in the great void with nothing to define us and simultaneously a need to shake off all the baggage we have acquired over time and allow our new self to emerge.

Social media as a stripped-down version of real life leads to people constructing identities more or less purposefully. One challenge is that the same twitter feed might be seen by your mother, your boss, your colleagues, and your friends, when in ‘meatspace’ you instinctively treat those (and subgroups of them) differently. Social media tends to force a consistency of expressed individual identity across social groups.[6] Imagine the converse: expressing our multiple identities in a single feed might come across as incoherent and, ironically, less than human.

In case it is niggling at you already: this other identity is deeply and radically unacceptable. It is unacceptable in a sort of mutual dance because it precisely refuses to accept who other people think you are or should be. Thank heavens there is another dance too that we danced around in the last blog that the authentic recognition by others of who we are and might be relies completely on our not being deflected by social pressures. This is no grey scale of authenticity from our social face to our inner selves, it is much more Maturana than that. Maturana in one way and Maturana in another.[7]

Caroline who graced last week’ blog came to me as Spacecrone, a character out of Ursula le Guin. In this simplified space we can see that an identity that is too static or too obvious and predictable with have little attractiveness and an identity whose continuity really cannot be discerned, likewise. The humanity of an identity, which like a character in a novel undergoes growth and development, is intrinsically more interesting. Our most highly tuned faculties are brought to bear on these delicate social judgments about someone else’s worth and trustworthiness.

I had a fascinating discussion with Andrew Carey of Triarchy press about whether we would trust a dog to assess a person’s character. There is a point of view that a dog working entirely on instinct will know when a person is not consistent or authentic when a human might be charmed by a con-man or a spy. There is another point of view that a dog may have had life experiences that we are unaware of that can result in interactions that are not actually relevant in the new situation.

Acquiring baggage

We are structurally coupled into our environment. The things we depend on, the institutions and the people, simultaneously make us who we are and are in the way of us changing. Paul Graham recommends keeping our identity small, with minimal baggage, to limit the pain and disruption of change when it inevitably happens. Whether this advice is actionable sensibly I am not at all sure.

The structural coupling notion is a piece of cybernetics from Stafford Beer. An organisation is what it is given the other organisations it must relate to, a very ecological niche sort of argument. If we take a life event such as divorce, it can disrupt many elements of our coupling into our environment simultaneously. All life’s high stress events such as moving house and finding a new job may ensue. The stress and the disruption are two views of the same thing of course. Our identity becomes at risk because the things that held it in place all shift and reconfigure.

Structural de-coupling is at the heart of the fantasy of a fresh start, arriving with nothing. Change city, country, friends, job, and all will be well. “if only” x were different. Sometimes we need to uproot ourselves from the eco-system in order to find another one that suits us better. (Whoever that ‘we/us’ is after the transition. Tricky.) Wherever you go, there you are.

Conversely, we seem to fear the nakedness of being without clarity, and often grab the first identity that comes along. Somehow that provides ready-made solidarity, a sense of belonging, a framework of social values. If we’re lucky, our new associations will be healthier than the previous ones. Unlucky and they could be inappropriate, unhelpful, and harmful.

The inside and the outside of coupling are not obvious as we noted in the introduction. If we change our food habits many things about us may change. For instance Dr Ann Childers points out that once a diet moves away from the paleolithic standard of mainly meat then our teeth rot and our facial structure changes, getting narrower and with a jawbone unable to accommodate all our molars. So, if we can make a change to our habits that leads to changes in physiognomy and dental health then where is the continuity?

We are structurally coupled in the Maturana sense as much to our microbiomes and epigenetic switches as we are to friends and family. Clearly some of this coupling seems optional and some seems to be unavoidable: both lead to what we are becoming in a way that is unlikely to be reversible and is very much the stuff of whatever continuity ensues.

There is a question too about which structural coupling links are more fundamental. Maybe when more superficial links are broken, perhaps moving job or house, we have a deeper set of links that are more formative in reforging who we are. Some people are more deeply rooted in place and the land, some people have lifelong friendships, some people have a community responsibility that carries them through.

The other side of identity

Perfect freedom is choosing to be who you already are and must be! Many things in that statement are difficult to fathom. We do not know who we are. We do not know what shapes us. We do not know what choices we can make either to push against that or to flow with it. I for one get perturbed if not positively frightened by the smallest of details that can have such large effects in that non-linear way we call the butterfly effect.

In considering that other side of identity I think the biggest question is where we started. Why does our culture require us to be clear? About who we are and what we want to do? What horrible cultural lack and void is being revealed by the implied criticism of hippie just being? Why do we censure people for lacking ambition?

Perhaps it is the sheer pointlessness of our material culture. In an ecosystem every sort of creature ends up providing services for everyone else. There are vibrant informal economies where that seems to be true for human societies. But we seem to have turned a corner into some blind alley where instead we degrade each other’s environment and step on each other’s toes.

[1] Coaches don’t even need to be human. Commitment devices like Philip’s Beeminder help maintain focus on your goals. In a recent blog post (, Kim Harrison writes that “Beeminder is the accountability tool that helps me maintain my me-ness. It keeps me doing all the things I consider crucial to my happiness or health.” Remains as an exercise to the user to ensure regularly that those goals are maintaining a still-relevant me-ness, of course…

[2] “Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.”

–A.A. Milne, Winnie-The-Pooh

[3] Ironic that this political gaffe occurs as Britain gears up to leave the European Union; it was during (and a condition of) the entry phase that the Windrushers’ nations were granted autonomy from the Empire, no longer mere ‘subjects’.

[4] One paper thought a religious outlook might find an explanation there!

[5] Sadly, the ethics of having a mechanism to control to some degree other people’s minds were flunked. In general, as with the Facebook scandal, we cannot trust ourselves and our identities to any corporate environment.

[6] Google+ tried to get users to consciously segregate these groups, but may have failed because managing our multiple expressed identities is usually an unconscious happening that is triggered by context, sensitivity to which is impoverished when interacting with a screen.

[7] He has a book titled the Biology of Love.