On ‘Identity’

Florian Coulmas is Professor of Japanese Society and Sociolinguistics at the IN-EAST Institute of East Asian Studies at Duisburg-Essen University. He has published numerous books, including ‘An Introduction to Multilingualism’ (OUP, 2017) and ‘Writing and Society: A Introduction’ (Cambridge University Press, 2013). In 2016, he was awarded the Meyer-Struckmann-Prize for Research in Arts and Social Sciences. For the past three decades he has served as Associate Editor of the ‘International Journal of the Sociology of Languages’, during which time he has observed the steadily increasing use of the concept of identity in both general and scholarly publications. His latest publication, ‘Identity: A Very Short Introduction’, was published in February 2019.

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Florian Coulmas: I am and have been for several decades one of the editors of the International Journal of the Sociology of Language. Over the years, the number of submitted papers that in one way or another deal with questions of identity has steadily increased. This is one of the sources of my interest in identity. Another is to do with the fact that my children’s grandparents came from four different cultural backgrounds, and they were born in a country of yet another one. They were born and grew up in Japan, a country whose leaders have cultivated a strong sense of national identity ever since it was forced at gunpoint to open up to intercourse with the West and they felt compelled to adopt an ideology of ethnic nationalism to spur modernization. Helped by the fact that the Japanese population is relatively homogeneous, this ideology took root easily and is still felt strongly today. That you cannot be a “real” Japanese if you don’t look Japanese and speak Japanese, is considered a matter of course by many. The experience of living in Japan has taught me that the barriers of national and ethnic identity outsiders have to scale if they want to be accepted as members of the community are higher in some places than in others.

RB: Your recent book Identity: A Very Short Introduction provides a survey of the many faces of the concept of identity. Is there an overall definition of what is meant by the term identity?

FC: References to identity have become ubiquitous. One reason for this is that my identity is my identity rather than yours, and it is up to me to say what it consists in. We encounter the term in many fields of scientific inquiry as well as in the media and everyday speech. A restaurant which tells you that its menu is your guide to your “gourmet identity” surely has something else in mind than Timothy J Oliver who informs you in The Guardian that “A new British identity is key to Brexit’s success”. Mary Ann Evans’s identity is known to fewer people than George Eliot’s, which is a puzzle about proper names and assumed identities. When in International Affairs Helene Sjursen writes “On the identity of NATO” she does not deal with names or people or anything tangible. Does laser eye colour change affect your identity? How about sex reassignment surgery? The former no, the letter yes? These questions and many others are to do with identity, and if we review them all, Humpty Dumpty comes to mind, who famously said: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” Many people seem to have taken this principle to heart. Yet, it would be too easy to dismiss the inflationary use of the term as a fashion of sorts and an arbitrary use of important sounding terminology. “Identity” is an index of our time. Many people find it important, even if they are not always sure what it is. This fact alone makes it important.

An overall definition? If I gave one, I would almost certainly invite reproof for ignoring this aspect of the concept or that. If you twist my arm, I would say identity is about repulsion, something that allows me to say this is mine, not yours; ours, not theirs; deserving of my/our loyalty, attachment and respect, and, by implication, to discriminate others.

RB: What are the factors behind the contemporary understanding of identity?

FC: Identity, or better, the assertion of identity, is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. Not that in the past thinkers have not grappled with questions of identity from various points of view, such as logic and epistemology; however, in the twentieth century, the specialised concern of philosophers became an issue everyone had to deal with. The European Enlightenment, and the American and French revolutions it inspired made individualism, autonomy, self-accountability and equality the ideational foundations of a new social order, which wasn’t God-given but created by the people themselves. These are principles if no illusions that have not been realized in many places, but as normative values they became more effective in the twentieth century. People feel compelled to have an identity or to commit themselves to one. This is especially true in Western societies, from where the concept spread around the world. Without an identity, you cannot be a citizen. The state cannot tax you, draft you for a military service, or enforce compulsory schooling for your children. You cannot partake in the political process (vote), own property, or enjoy any other civil rights. In short, in order to function properly, modern states require a unique personal identity for each citizen, which it is obliged to respect and protect without discrimination.

Nowadays, we tend to take it for granted that these provisions hold for everyone. However, if we just recall the Holocaust and other recent genocides; if we review the civil rights movement in the US and what it has accomplished only since the 1950s; if we remember that Swiss women gained voting rights in 1971 and the Apartheid regime in South Africa came to an end in 1994; and if we know that under Japanese law, compulsory education does not apply to children of foreign nationalities; if we take all of these into consideration, it is evident that equality for human beings has been a long time coming. In fact, it has not been realized in many ways, which is the principal reason why “identity” has migrated from the individual to the collective level.

This is where repulsion makes itself felt as a constitutive force of identity. “Because I am an X, I am entitled to enjoy these privileges, rights, and advantages.” “Being a Y, or being branded as a Y, I also want to enjoy these privileges, rights, and advantages (and maybe others).” From here it is a short step to “being an X, I don’t want my daughter to marry a Y, live next to a Y, or have anything to do with a Y.”

But isn’t being proud to be an X, Y or Z a perfectly normal and a good thing? This cannot be affirmed without qualification. Identity is a double-edged sword, supporting discriminated individuals by enabling them to associate with a group, on one hand, and dehumanising multidimensional persons by reducing them to unidimensional Xs and Ys, on the other.

RB: Are they different from any past understandings of identity?

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