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July 6, 2013 / Congau


Identity. I have never understood that word. That is, as it stands by itself as a pure dictionary definition, the meaning is clear enough, but when people pronounce that word, throw it around and decorate themselves with it, I can no longer follow.

The word is derived from the Latin “idem”, which means “the same”, and the adjective “identical” in fact means “the same”. You may say: “Those two objects are identical” meaning “they are the same”. That is, they are in fact one and the same object.

“Obama is identical to the president of the United States” meaning “Obama and the president of the United States is the same person.” Using the noun “identity” may prove a bit more difficult, but not necessarily. “Obama’s identity is the president of the United States.” (Awkward but correct) “The identity of the thief was proven” > “John was the thief” > “John and the thief was the same person.”

It thus seems that establishing an identity means to describe the same in another way, and that appears to be a pretty straight forward procedure. It is a matter of fact and verifiable (or potentially verifiable). I can understand a fact.


But often when the word is used, I just can’t catch its meaning. Apparently the speaker is not talking about facts, but about feelings. This is my identity, someone states: I’m an American or I’m a Frenchman. I’m a flying Dutchman, a Mohican or a Spartan. He is allowed to say that, and no one should dare to press him for proof. Well, if he is American or French, he could produce his passport, but that would be a tangible fact which is usually irrelevant for his outburst of feeling. If someone says he is a Zulu, we are supposed to accept it as an emotional expression of identity even if neither he nor his ancestors have ever set foot in Africa.

What does identity mean, then?

Two people who are almost identical, two identical twins, if you like, may be said to have completely different identities based on some whimsical personal choice. But then the word “identity” becomes meaningless.

Originally asking for the identity of something meant asking about what something really is. Now it doesn’t even indicate what something seems to be or hardly even a psychological fact. You can pick and choose your identity and it would be rude to question your choice. What is it then?

Identity has no meaning, it seems.

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