A Cult of Identity

Identity is everything.  It, and the actions it initiates, forms the fundamental underpinnings of American society — our values, our beliefs, and more importantly, our associations.  These identities, which craft the basis of our being, are nothing more than prey for the politicians who vehemently abuse them for their own gain.  Exploit one’s identity, and politicians can coerce the citizenry into providing the votes they so desperately need to thrive.

Identity was once a critical component of both our well-being and political functioning.  Now, its hyperinflated state of self-felicitating indulgence threatens to fundamentally undermine the political system as a whole.  Ever wonder why media bubbles, “fake news”, and extreme levels of polarization exist?  Look no further than the Cult of Identity.

On its own, identity provides an invaluable service for society.  Identity permits us to separate ourselves from the “crowd”, to define what differentiates us from the masses.  Our identities help solidify our conception of self, be it through our talents, our passions, our actions, or even our attitudes towards others.

Our identity is our “first impression” to the world.  When meeting new people, we may converse through small talk or shared activities; however, in reality we are sharing identities.  In this way, individuals can navigate through a sea of identities, scanning for those that most closely match our own.  From there, individuals forge associations of identities — friends, in layman’s terms.

Now, with both people and information at our fingertips, users can actively seek out groups that match their idealized identities.  You can find TV shows, music, even models that all perfectly match your persona.  Better yet, everyone will know what you picked.

While identity garners merit on its own accord, the ability to craft an identity is immeasurably more valuable.  Think of the value of networking.  In order to pursue a particular opportunity, qualifications alone do not suffice.  Successful applicants must network, exuding a less-than-honest identity of themselves that best matches the group of identities at that opportunity they wish to join.  Furthermore, identities must be maintained.  As any public relation firm will confirm, one’s personal value can directly change with changes in public perception.  One mistake, and the value of your being can drop dramatically.

Now, in the 21st century, identities no longer stem from live interaction alone.  With the advent of social media, anyone with internet access has the ability to promote their identity for the world to see.  And with all those identities strewn across the Web, manipulation becomes all the easier.

Whereas in the past identity took time and effort to modify, social media makes “identity makeovers” a breeze.  Rather than proving to others the tangible changes you’ve made to your identity, users can now project these purported changes through their social media accounts.  Want to appear stronger?  Post a photo of yourself working out.  In love?  Post melodramatic stanzas about your significant other.  The changes are simple, effortless, and instant.

More importantly, these changes are often nothing more than fraudulent contortions of one’s real self.  With social media, users now can filter their identity, showcasing only the best and most prestigious facets of their personalities while stashing the more negative aspects alone in the dark.  Look no further than the Instagram photos of anyone studying abroad.  From their photos, followers likely see nothing more than fancy clothing, fancier drinks, and an astonishing lack of anything remotely related to the schoolwork they came there for.

From these factors stems an undeniable falsehood that exists now in its strongest form.  Individuals can now create an online persona that so drastically deviates from their real identity that it becomes akin to a separate identity altogether.  One that can easily be exploited.

With over 80% of the US population now on social media, false identities have run amuck.  Even worse, these identities are far more accessible than they ever were.  Anybody can now see you online.  You are no longer limited to the cozy confines of your social or professional group, as your being now stretches as far as the bounds of the internet.

Distance no longer provides an obstacle to association.  Before social media, individuals could only associate with those they knew personally, even if not in person.  Now, with both people and information at our fingertips, users can actively seek out groups that match their idealized identities.  You can find TV shows, music, even models that all perfectly match your persona.  Better yet, everyone will know what you picked.

Users have now succumb to the compulsion of reinforcing their own pseudo-identities in order to strengthen them.  With accessibility now ubiquitous, anybody can comment on your actions or posts, either positively reinforcing what you’ve done well or deriding you for going “off-brand”.  It is now imperative for you to follow the group identity you so desperately wish to coexist with.  Otherwise, that identity will strike you down, leave insulting comments on your actions that don’t quite fit their mold, tearing your identity down while fueling theirs.

Just as users do with their personal identities, social media users may now actively falsify whichever political identity they wish to choose.  In the realm of media coverage, readers now have the ability to choose the media outlet that best promotes their political identity while explicitly excluding those that undermine it.  In this sense, filtering information sources exacerbates the problem of your own filtered identity.  By narrowing the scope of information one receive to only those that conform to one’s erroneously-narrow minded world view, your personal identity in return becomes exceedingly narrow.

Additionally, individuals online may “check up” on your statement and actions.  If you promote a political cause or cite an article from a news source that deviates from the political identity you claim to support online, users will call you out on your apparent hypocrisy.  For example, if you wished to write a post in support of lowering taxes — traditionally a Republican platform point —  while claiming to support the Democrats, users will likely lambast you as a “traitor” and a “monster” in order to strengthen their appearance to others as true Democrats while harming your image.  It’s a vicious cycle of polarization, and it’s exactly what political scientists are afraid of.

Especially in the wake of our most recent election, the US political landscape is now more polarized than ever.  In Late Show host Stephen Colbert’s post-election monologue, he cited a Pew statistic claiming that more than 4 in 10 individuals fear the opposing party’s policies pose a “threat to the nation”.  Why?  It’s all about reinforcing identities.

With the industry already monetized, it presents far too valuable a communication mechanism for both users and businesses to ever be dethroned.  So what can we, the people, do to slay the cult of identity plaguing us all?

If you want to be perceived as liberal in today’s political climate, you must conform to every facet of the Democratic platform, no exceptions.  If you fail to do so, a liberal in the interest of promoting his own image will deride you and your opinion as a national threat, initiating the cycle of promoting one identity while destroying another.  This may explain why nuance in politics no longer exists — every political issue is now either wrong or right, left or right, with us or against us.  Nuance is weakness to the fake-identity connoisseur.  With it, the illusion of his internet presence crumbles.

Polarization in this form receives ample reinforcement from news media’s increasing embrace of social media advertising techniques.  As stated previously, readers can actively choose which sources best match their identity, retweeting them as a confirmation of said identity.  But how do readers find their choices?  Advertisements.  Social media outlets like Facebook can monitor your browsing habits, distilling them down to a near-binary political affiliation.  You can see all this in action too!  If you are a Facebook user, simply follow these instructions to discover what political party they believe you are.  

From there, media outlets like the NY times and Washington Post can microtarget individuals that best match the core demographic they seek, feeding them already-filtered information that only accelerates the problem.  To be fair, microtargeting on its own isn’t inherently evil; even we at the Michigan Review use microtargeting to more directly interact with our U-M student body.  However, such contortions of information and suffocating polarization serve a greater evil, playing directly into the hands of political candidates.

While they try at great lengths to prove otherwise, politicians loathe cooperation — especially near an election.  Cooperation fails to inspire loyalty, allowing potential voters the opportunity to switch parties based on which issues they deem more important at the time.  In our two-party system, candidates must avoid cooperation and embrace partisanship by inspiring passion for their party while seeding hatred for the enemy.  What better way to do this than through polarization and fighting?

Online fighting breeds passion for those ingrained in their already-hyperbolized political identities.  Once users become passionate, they take sides; rather, they take parties.  With lines in the sand already drawn, campaigns no longer need to exude the same level of effort to convert a now-smaller pile of undecided voters.  Essentially, the struggle for identity has done much of the work for them.  Further, members of the parties themselves, rather than the elites that run them, can spread indoctrinating pablum to further reinforce their party’s message, helping campaigns all the more.  r/The_Donald anyone?

Social media as a medium of communication is here to stay.  With the industry already monetized, it presents far too valuable a communication mechanism for both users and businesses to ever be dethroned.  So what can we, the people, do to slay the cult of identity plaguing us all?

While it may seem trite, the solution lies in you!  We must all resist the urge to present our best self to the world.  We are a people of flaws, flaws that should be embraced rather than suppressed.  With that said, we must reject the fanatical self-promoting images our peers place online and solve the collective action problem that plagues us all.  Many of our online friends are playing the exact same artificial game as we are — a game that is better left unplayed.  Otherwise, our well-intentioned yet disingenuous actions play directly into the hands of politicians that directly influence our livelihoods.

If you wish to live in a world devoid of incessant polarization, one where ideas can be shared free from unjust reprehension, put down your phone and open your mind.

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About Jake Thorne

Jake Thorne is Editor-in-Chief of the Review, studying Honors Political Science and Economics at the University of Michigan. He has been an active contributor to the Review since 2014. He can be reached at jnthorne@umich.edu
  • Dan Walden

    Not a bad start, I think, but there’s more to unpack here. You cite lowering taxes as something that will get a person scorned by the Democratic Party, but I think the suggestion lacks nuance: Democrats are most often in favor of lowering the tax burden on the poor and shifting it to higher income brackets. They tend to oppose, or at least to be deeply skeptical of, tax increases that disproportionately affect the poor, like sales tax hikes, while being in favor of tax increases that affect primarily the upper classes, like capital gains, estate, and upper-bracket income taxes. A more salient example would be the recent tensions over Heath Mello’s position on abortion, which exposed a divide between Democrats who feel that there must be no compromise on the issue and Democrats who feel that there should be room for divergence on individual planks.

    Ultimately I’m not sure that the definition of “identity” that you develop in here is entirely coherent. Certainly the tension between the need for collective action and the need to be true to one’s authentic convictions is a given in political action, but I wonder how many people actually have “Democrat” as part of their identity. I certainly don’t: I’m far to the left of the Democratic Party on most issues, although I often end up voting for them. Does that make “Democrat” a part of my identity, even though it’s not something I either personally acknowledge or try to perform?

  • Interesting article.

    But, isn’t it curious that no one has been able to define “identity” … well … at least not until the dawn of the discovery of DNA sequences. Now, fortunately, we are able to return to an objective definition of identity.

    Difficulties have arisen precisely because the dual concepts of “who we are” (true identity as per definition) and the way we live or express that identity (our jobs, choices, preferences, lifestyles, history, language, etc, etc, etc) are amalgamated and confused.

    This is why “identity” causes so many problems. To gain clarity it’s necessary to separate these two issues. Identity is fixed; how we live it or express it is fluid (and open to a dishonest portrayal).

    For more on the topic, why not follow The Identity Series (running online to the end of 2017) on http://ourownidentity.com