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October 15, 2019 / Congau


What makes us what we are? We are many things – anyone could make a long list and include any number of trivial details that presumably would add up to form an integrated person. Anything from favorite breakfast to shoe size could be mentioned and we might leave it to the person himself to decide what he finds more relevant. We are expected to respect this exercise of self-identification. Who are we to tell how others feel about themselves?

But are we really doing people a favor by accepting every claim they may make about their own identity? Of course, it is a sensitive issue for them and it might be wise to react with respect to whatever they choose to tell us, but we should be allowed to privately doubt their account of themselves and we certainly shouldn’t obligated to defend everything they say in the name of tolerance. They may be plain wrong.

What is more, people change their self-perception. As new trends and movements swipe their world, their image of themselves tend to be adjusted. If we assume that they are always right about themselves, we will reach the odd conclusion that they physically change when their ideas are changed.

Perception of ethnicity is an example of this. Surveys typically ask people what ethnicity they belong to or identify with, but the answers you get to that question could only have a psychological value. It hardly says anything about any physical reality. Sometimes we seem to observe an increase or decrease in an ethnic group that only reflects that it is now more or less acceptable or fashionable to belong to the group in question.

We should of course be very careful to dismiss people’s self-identification offhand, but some healthy skepticism is certainly called for when what we are searching for is something real and not just perceived.

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