Do you have an inner core, or are you constructed from your relationships?
In 1999, I attended a short course titled “Self-managing leadership.” In our small group, each of us identified our purpose in life and figured out how to achieve it. I found this quite valuable but didn’t like one part. In one workbook manual, there was this passage:
“The only way to build true self-confidence is to go back to the roots, the innate. Never forget who you are deep within. Your innate values are your true personality. Allowing the innate to emerge is a ‘volcano process’. Allow your real self to emerge.”
I didn’t like this idea because I had tried to shed aspects of my previous self when I was more ambitious, competitive and self-centred, and create a different one. Innate values – no thanks!
I also remember starting new jobs, moving from one sort of group to another, and adjusting to a different social dynamic. Was this a single me, my core self, behaving differently in different circumstances? Or does it make more sense to say I’m a different person depending on what’s going on around me?
Brian Lowery is a psychology professor at Stanford University. In his book Selfless, he presents the case that no one has an independent self. He argues that our inner feeling of continuity, of being an autonomous individual traversing through life, is in many ways an illusion. He says, instead, that each of us is made up of our relationships with others, and without these relationships there would be no “you” at all.
“I am asking that you consider the possibility that your self is a flux of interactions and relationships and your feeling of your self is created in that same flux.” (p. 30)
I thought, what about those reclusive individuals who like nothing more than curling up with a book? To be sure, while growing up they had relationships with parents or caregivers, but thereafter they seemed to be on their own — except that reading books is having relationships with the authors via their words and the connections created by those words. Lowery illustrates this by asking his readers to wiggle their little fingers, just to show that action is possible at a distance, a writer connecting with a reader.
So is the internal, self-directed self entirely an illusion that should be replaced with the social self created by relationships? My preference is to think of each approach to the self as a way of understanding the world, helpful for some purposes and less helpful for others. Even if you would rather believe in an unchanging inner “you,” it is potentially illuminating to think in terms of an interactive “you” that constantly adapts to its social environment, indeed is constructed from its environment.
In Selfless, Lowery provides an accessible tour of ideas and implications, using personal stories and engaging examples, all backed up with references from research in psychology and beyond. I found Lowery’s examples thought-provoking.
Each one of us is located socially through a variety of categories, for example White, woman, teacher and daughter. One of Lowery’s key points is that we can assert specific identities but ultimately our identities are created and imposed by the people around us. He uses the example of Rachel Dolezal, who for years was committed to the cause of Blacks in the US, identified as Black and was treated as Black by those around her — until it was discovered that both her parents were White. Then she was rejected by some, not all, in the Black community, and condemned by many Whites. How can her experience be understood?
Lowery notes that racial categories are not inherent in genes or physical appearance. Assignment to an ethnic group is carried out through social processes. If you self-identify as White but have a very dark complexion, many in the US will automatically identify you as Black regardless of your preference. Racial categories exist socially, and sometimes legally, which is an institutionalised social process, prior to any individual trying to assert their own category. When others accepted Dolezal as Black, that was what she was. But after being exposed for not having Black ancestry, her social definition changed. She was no longer accepted by all in the Black community even though she was Black according to her inner self.
Lowery lists three main approaches to identity. One is that it is a personal choice; this was Dolezal’s view. A second is that it is determined by birth, through genetics or ancestry. When people believe identities are stable and derive from genetics, then Dolezal is threatening because her case suggests racial identity could be a choice.
The third approach, preferred by Lowery, is that identity is based on relationships.
“Whatever you believe about Rachel’s identity, the strength of the negative response to her is telling. People care about the integrity of group boundaries. It really upsets people when they think others are pretending to be something they’re not, especially when it threatens the integrity of a group they belong to because a threat to the integrity of the group is a threat to the social world the group’s members built and inhabit, and a threat to the selves of people in the group.” (p. 130)
Lowery applies his social-self perspective to another controversial issue, gender. He adopts the view that sex is determined by biology whereas gender is a social identity. When you are brought up as a girl or a boy, most others encourage you to behave and appear according to stereotypes corresponding to your sex. Because your relationships create your sense of your own identity, the resulting gender identity becomes a deep-seated facet of your self.
However, for some individuals, their inner gender identity clashes with their social gender identity. In recent decades, in some societies, it has become more acceptable to change gender, but doing this can clash with others’ expectations, and because expectations help construct the self, this is a prime arena for tensions. Anti-trans prejudice can be generated by the threat trans people pose to others’ senses of their selves.
Behaviour that clashes with sex stereotypes is also problematic: the girl who plays with trucks, the boy who plays with dolls. In some male domains, like the military, being called a girl, or a sissy, is an insult. This is just one way sex-role stereotyping is enforced and selves are shaped.
If gender is created by relationships, then changing one’s gender requires forging new relationships. By changing one’s own appearance and behaviour, others may respond differently and a new identity forged. On the other hand, to assert a different gender identity without making efforts to change appearance and behaviour may not be enough to persuade others to accept the different identity. If the self is socially constructed, self-identification alone is not enough.
“The possibility of a mismatch between people’s sense of their identity and others’ view of them points to what’s at stake in defining social groups. It’s nothing less than who we are and can be.” (p. 143)
Do you identify with a country, perhaps the one where you live or the one where you were born? Many, perhaps most, people do. Where does this identification come from? It’s not obvious because, in a population of millions, it’s not possible to have a personal relationship with more than a tiny percentage of other citizens.
Yet it makes sense to think of one’s sense of national identity as growing out of relationships. When the people you know identify with the same nationality, this rubs off on you. The media helps, with “national news” connecting viewers to remote events assumed to be of relevance to every member of the national group.
Nationality is a potent identity, enough to make some willing to die for it and others willing to kill those who threaten it. It can foster antagonism towards “aliens” who are deemed not to have or deserve it.
Lowery cites Benedict Anderson’s illuminating idea that a nation is an imagined community. The community of a nation exists not in everyone getting together in a meeting or shared meal but in the minds of members. The “national self” is created through relationships with others, direct and indirect. No one is born with a sense of nationality.
Lowery’s perspective of the social construction of the self got me thinking of areas he doesn’t discuss, and one of them is whistleblowers, those employees who speak out about corruption, abuse and dangers to the public. For their efforts, they are often subject to reprisals, including harassment, reprimands and dismissal. This experience is devastating. Not only do many whistleblowers suffer financially and health-wise, but often their understanding of the world is overturned. Prior to blowing the whistle, many were highly conscientious employees who believed in the system, including that people who do the right thing are treated fairly. Suddenly they learn that by doing the right thing, they are targeted for attack. This is deeply disorienting. In terms of self, their previous relationships with co-workers, bosses and outside authorities are shattered. Some survive by adopting a new identity, that of whistleblower.
In Whistleblowers Australia, we have repeatedly seen that whistleblowers benefit from meeting others who have gone through the same sorts of experiences. These new relationships create a new self, a new identity, that enables coming to terms with a traumatic transformation of life conditions.
After an employee is labelled a whistleblower, many co-workers stay away because they are afraid for their own jobs, afraid of the taint of disloyalty. The result is ostracism, the cold shoulder, which research shows is incredibly hurtful. It is the breaking or withholding of relationships, and hence directly strikes at the constructed self.
In another context, think of solitary confinement in prison. It is one of the cruellest punishments, precisely because it prevents the maintenance of relationships. It literally destroys the self.
Campaigners for a different world are constantly dealing with the use of relationships to create people’s sense of identity. You might imagine that people will attend a meeting or rally about climate change because they care about the issue. Researchers, however, have found the most common reason for attending is relationships. For a person new to the issue, it’s often because a friend invites them to come along. They are exposed to evidence and passion about climate change but just as importantly, by attending they foster a new self-identity, as someone concerned about the issue. After becoming involved, they learn more about climate issues. And they forge friendships that can keep them involved.
Climate activists sometimes call those who question or reject evidence about global warming “climate deniers,” which is derogatory, implying they refuse to accept overwhelming evidence. Using the term “climate denier” can help build solidarity among climate activists but there’s a downside to applying this label to others: it can help solidify the identities of those with doubts about climate science and policy. They might start looking for evidence to support their imposed identity as sceptics.
Ideas about the self as constructed by relationships have been around for a long time. Brian Lowery in Selfless presents these ideas in an especially accessible and attractive way, especially by applying them to some of the most contentious contemporary issues. As well as race, gender and nationality, Lowery also addresses freedom, death and the meaning of life.
You can learn a lot about issues important to you by forming a relationship with Lowery himself. For this, you don’t need to meet him. It’s enough to read his book.
Brian Martin, firstname.lastname@example.org