Identity is a complex and delicate web, almost invisible, it takes time to create, it can withstand great stress, but severing one of its threads can make it collapse irremediably.
Local identities are precious and make up for the richness of world’s cultural diversity, essential to the vitality and continuous evolution of our societies, which depend on interaction between diverse expressions of humanity.
Local identities are to a great extent defined by traditions, taken out of their context and continuity these lose meaning and become an obstacle to progress. What’s left then is a fossilised series of habits, soon needing to defend themselves against change.
Finding a balance between preserving the positive aspects of tradition, the cohesion and sense of belonging these give to social groups, with the need to integrate and identify with modernity is a difficult task.
The process of modernisation encourages people to shed their identities in favour of new ones imported from the cultures that are perceived as winning models or desirable examples of modernity, also, identity and traditions don’t travel too well, a serious concern in a fast changing globalised world defined but the migration of large numbers of people who end up living together in great cities.
Scores of young desperate and poorly educated people leave their countries in search of a better life. Most have an image in their minds that has very little to do with the reality they will find, if and when they reach their desired destination. Their sense of identity is inevitably profoundly shaken.
Leaving a family behind is not only traumatic for the individuals involved, but contributes to the breaking up of a social fabric that is the result of centuries of continuous evolution, something that isn’t easily replaced nor recreated elsewhere.
The image that western societies have sold to the world is a partial and misleading one. One early example are the advertisements the British circulated in the 50s in India and other countries soon to regain independence. These ads presented a rosy and inviting picture of England, designed to attract people to emigrate and supply the much needed workforce. It made sense at the time, but reality often didn’t live up to expectations.
The host countries are generally guilty of a congenital inability to foresee the problem arising from immigration and mixing of cultural identities, as they tend to assume their superiority is undisputed and their model of a society is ‘the right one’, mistaking the provision of jobs and services for integration instead of concentrating on the deep educational effort that is essential to mutual understanding.
Two opposite tendencies are common with emigrants, one of abandoning one’s own traditions in favour of those of the host country in an attempt to integrate, the other to cling to them as an essential anchor to identity.
Distance and time often betray the emigrants, leaving them with a memory of the original land and customs that is obsolete and removed from reality. Returning to the place of origin they can’t recognize it and often fall in that space in between where one doesn’t fit with the identity of either the adopted country or the original one.
Often the first generation immigrants are too busy adjusting and surviving to be concerned with real deep integration, in private they stick to the familiar rules, food, religion, family habits; in public they do their best to conform.
The second generation generally strives to integrate, at times disowning their original culture, perceived as backwards.
Further generations may start feeling out of place, looking for roots, and sometimes end up misunderstanding these, falling for populist calls to a purification of customs, and this is the fertile ground for some of the extremist attitudes we have witnessed at the end of the XXth century. Looking for the lost identity they go gathering fragments, collecting memories and symbols. But these are more museum pieces than living cultural elements, only some can be revived and made part of the new reality, providing some reassurance that is so necessary to the human being’s sense of belonging.
Identity is a universal need, lacking one resulting from the natural evolution of customs within a place and social group the individual tries to construct a new one. Belonging to a religion or an interest group, supporting a sport team or a political party, are all part of this process of identity building.
Linguistic and historical knowledge are fundamental to the successful integration of different identities. The proficient knowledge of a language is however not sufficient to fully understand the subtleties of a character. Linguistic misunderstanding leads to deep discrepancies and misinterpretations, these seriously hamper the coexistence of different identities.
The teaching of History has traditionally been used to shape people’s perception of the world and their sense of identity; this applies throughout the ages and across cultures. If rich Language and objective, above-the-parts History could be taught in depth and from a young age chances are that the world would be a more peaceful place.
The ignorant man is a fearful one, afraid of anything he doesn’t understand. This fear of the ‘different’ easily turns into aggression. It has always been too easy to blame ‘the other’ no matter who this is. Throughout history the same expedient has been used whenever the need arose for fomenting public opinion and creating reasons for conflict based around identity.
The 80s slogan “one world one image one channel” proved right.
A web search for “MTV cultural global influence” returns 32.400 links to a variety of sites; most of these lament the negative influence of the monoculture promoted by MTV. Travelling across the globe reveals everywhere the same forest of satellite dishes, and young people whose appearance, behaviour and language are based on the same model, a form of artificially manufactured cross-cultural portable identity.
In an ideal world governments, both in developing and developed countries, would invest in preserving identities and disseminate impartial information as a means to foster peaceful and creative societies.