Paul Verhaeghe – What about Me? 




A middle-aged man is being lashed to a wooden pallet with duct tape by four other men. One of his attackers draws two zeros on his forehead with a marker pen, another presses his genitals against the man’s face, the third sits on him with bare buttocks, and the fourth takes pictures. The group are clearly enjoying themselves. Everything is captured on film, and the victim is even given a copy of the clip ‘to watch at home’.

The scene of the action was an ordinary little factory in a small Belgian town. The man with the camera was a union representative. Quite a few people joined in; nobody tried to intervene. It later turned out that the bullying had been going on for years. In the days after the images were broadcast on television news, victims of similar incidents came forward with their stories. The first incident had happened in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium. But a week later it was the turn of Belgium’s Dutch-speaking community to be shocked when a case of bullying was reported in Flanders. A crane driver working for a steel concern had suffered regular humiliation at the hands of his foreman and the boss of his shift. They pulled his trousers down, scrawled obscenities on his buttocks, and tied him to a jeep and drove him around. Afterwards they posted the clips on YouTube. In the month that followed, bullying remained a hot media item. Various sources revealed surprisingly high figures: 10–15 per cent of employees are bullied. This calls for an explanation, and apparently there are plenty of them.

The first comes from the reactionaries. They claim that bullying is caused by the loss of social norms and values. In fact, that’s their explanation for just about any social problem — from the aggression faced by public-transport workers and the increase in child abuse to ‘thieving asylum-seekers’ and the harassment of teachers. Things were better in the old days.

A second group looks to the sphere of mental health for a cause. Violent offenders are ‘disturbed individuals’. A mother who abuses her baby is mentally ill, surely? It’s a reassuring thought. Experts testifying in criminal cases speak of ‘antisocial personality disorder’ (a recognised mental-health condition), and point to early signs of it in children in the form of ‘oppositional defiant disorder’. There has been a sharp increase in both diagnoses in recent decades, and that is less reassuring.

A third explanation takes the medical reasoning a step further: it’s a question of human nature, the hidden animal in all of us. The killers in Nazi concentration camps were just ordinary people, and psychological experiments show that almost anyone becomes a sadist under certain conditions.[i] Homo homini lupus est, man is a wolf to his fellow man.

Oddly enough, another explanation directly contradicts this view: people are essentially good, and it’s postmodern society that makes us bad. Take away all those violent computer games, and aggression will decrease sharply.

Evil — let us not shrink from using this word — certainly isn’t alien to us. Hannah Arendt made this painfully clear in her report of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, in which she spoke of ‘the banality of evil’. The notion of human depravity ties in with Christian teachings about original sin, while a more modern version invokes ‘our selfish genes’.

Both the view that we are inherently good and the view that we are inherently bad create the impression that there is an unchanging human nature waiting to manifest itself. That’s strange, given the quest for identity that is so ubiquitous in the Western world — the quest for ‘true’ norms and values. Apparently we no longer know who we are, and that is why we keep running to all kinds of experts, from psychologists to brain specialists and other soothsayers, to discover our true selves.

This book proceeds from a different idea. There is no inherent identity: who someone is, whether good or bad, depends largely on their environment. If many people have nowadays lost their bearings, that says something about our environment. Apparently it has changed drastically, and therefore so have we. We don’t feel happy about the situation — that much is increasingly clear.

Why should a psychoanalyst write about these issues? This book is rooted in my clinical practice. Like many of my colleagues, I’m convinced that the problems for which people seek help these days are not just increasing, but also that their nature has changed.

In an earlier book I wrote about the end of psychotherapy, investigating the link between mental disorders and social change. I have since become convinced that the impact of these changes is much more far-reaching than previously thought. The neo-liberal organisation of our society is determining how we relate to our bodies, our partners, our colleagues, and our children — in short, to our identities. And you can’t get much more disordered than that. I take my lead here from Sigmund Freud in his Civilisation and its Discontents. And just like Freud, I will not shrink from adopting clear ethical stances.

  1. Identity

In recent years, the discussion about identity has flared up nearly everywhere in Europe. Princess Máxima, the wife of the Dutch crown prince, got into hot water when she made the claim, in 2007, that there was no such thing as a Dutch identity. The True Finns are the third-largest party in the Finnish parliament. Belgium is being torn apart by Flemish nationalism, and elsewhere in Europe nationalist political groups are gaining ground. There is a straightforward explanation: confrontation with different identities, in the form of immigrants and asylum-seekers, and thus confrontation with different norms and values, creates uncertainty. Identity is not the abstract quality we vaguely assume it to be: we determine our identity by placing it alongside and, increasingly, contrasting it with other possible identities. Whereas identity used to be informed by predominantly local stereotypes (as in Belgians versus the Dutch, or the English versus the Scots), current stereotypes have become globalised and socioeconomic: it’s now the indigenous population versus ethnic minorities, ‘our’ Judaeo-Christian culture versus ‘backward’ Islam, or the ‘hard-working middle classes’ versus ‘scroungers’.

The various stereotypes have one thing in common: they serve to make us feel superior. We are more civilised, more intelligent, work harder, etc. In the mid-20th century, the Germans looked down on the Untermenschen, the Japanese looked down on the Chinese, the French looked down on the Maghrebis — the list is endless. Such classifications are almost always linked to external characteristics (such as skin colour, physique, and clothing), which can then be deployed in a naïve debate on integration, culminating in proposals to ban headscarves (the populist Dutch politician Geert Wilders suggested a ‘head-rag tax’). Conversely, if the differences aren’t sufficiently visible we take steps to fix that (by demanding the wearing of a Star of David, or the bearing of passports stating the holder’s race). The importance we attach to these external characteristics is a measure of our own uncertainty: remove them, and the distinctions suddenly become practically invisible. Identity is internal.

This makes it a lot harder to study; we really want to see those differences. In the present age, when explanations for all human behaviour are sought in the interplay of genes and neurons, one might expect to look there for more light to be shed on the internal aspects of identity. As usual, we forget that this was tried a century ago, using craniometry — measuring skull circumference and capacity — to establish nice, clear distinctions between races and their identities. A taboo now lies on such research, a legacy of fascism, when Nazi scientists pretty much defined ‘race’ along such lines. Whatever the case, the conviction that identity can be found somewhere inside us has proved to be extremely persistent.

I take a completely different view. If we want to understand the nature of identity, we need to approach it by a different route; not in the timeless depths of our genes and brains, but in the flickering screen of the outside world, which acts as a constant mirror of identity. So the best thing is to start with the equally timeless question of who we really are.

Who am I?

Gnothi seauton, know thyself. This command was inscribed above the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, whose priestess, Pythia, was famous for her prophecies. Since the days when people flocked to consult the Delphic Oracle, we have never stopped looking for our own inner core. We may have replaced the priestesses and soothsayers of ancient times with psychologists and, more recently, neuroscientists, but their answers, too, remain unsatisfying. This quest reveals a curious paradox: on the one hand, we cherish the conviction that our self always existed and will always exist; at the same time, we need to consult someone else, preferably an expert, to find out what ‘really’ makes us tick.

That we have an eternal, unchanging self is extremely debatable; the fact that we turn to someone else in our search for it is, by contrast, extremely plausible. Our identity is not an immutable core hidden away in the depths of our being. It is, rather, a collection of ideas that the outside world has inscribed on our bodies. Identity is a construction, and that can be proved by something closely resembling a scientific experiment: adoption.[1] Take an Indian baby from the Rajasthan village of her birth, have her brought up in Amsterdam, and she will acquire the identity of an Amsterdammer. But if you entrust her instead to a couple from Paris, she will become a Parisienne. If, when she grows up, she goes in search of what she thinks of as her roots, she is going to be disillusioned: they simply don’t exist, and in the country of her birth she’s likely to find that she’s just as alien as any other woman from Amsterdam or Paris. More alien, in fact, because her appearance (skin colour, hair) suggests a bond with the local people that isn’t there. We must conclude from this that our psychological identity is shaped by our surroundings. If ‘I’ had grown up in a different culture with parents belonging to that culture, then ‘I’ would have been completely different.

Identity has more to do with becoming than with being, and it’s a process that starts right from birth. All over the world it follows the same pattern, pointing to a genetic basis. It used to be called identification; since the discovery of mirror neurons, the preferred term is ‘mirroring’.[2] The earliest stages of this process are plain: a baby cries because of its wet nappy, and, as if by magic, Mummy appears. She makes comforting noises and asks, ‘Do you need a clean nappy then?’ She talks to the baby in a special, high-pitched voice, and exaggerates her facial expressions.[3] The importance of this simple interaction, repeated in a hundred different ways, is enormous. We learn what we are feeling and, more generally, who we are, by the other showing us. And we almost all develop an intimate conviction that someone else will come and solve our problems — because that’s what used to happen, right? Reaching maturity involves letting go of this conviction, yet when we’re exposed to acute pain or danger, we still spontaneously call for Mummy. Not for nothing is separation anxiety, the fear that the other person will abandon us, our oldest fear, just as the oldest punishment is to be banished from the group, to be put in the corner with one’s back to the others — the didactic precursor of banishment.

Moving on from hunger and nappies, the messages from caregivers to children soon become much more complex and wide-ranging. We are told continually from our infancy what we feel, why we feel it, and how we should or shouldn’t deal with these feelings. We hear that we are good or naughty, beautiful or ugly, as stubborn as Granny, as clever as Daddy, etc. At the same time, we’re told what we can and can’t do with our bodies and those of others (‘Sit still for once!’, ‘Leave your little brother alone!’, ‘No you can’t have a piercing!’). All this combines to define who we are, who we should be, and who we should not be. And the point of departure is still the body, around which the other (e.g. parents, society) drapes these different layers of meaning.

Described in this way, the construction of our identity sounds both simple and incredible. If that was all there was to it, we would all become what our environment dictated, and wouldn’t be able to influence this process at all. And that’s obviously not the case: right from the start, our identity is a balance of tensions; we are torn between the urge to merge with and the urge to distance ourselves from the other. That’s because, alongside and intermingled with the initial process of identification or mirroring, there is also a second process at work: a striving for autonomy, and thus for separation from the other.

In that first process, we assimilate the messages of the other, both the positive (‘You’re so patient!’) and the negative (‘You’re so slow!’), so that they become part of our identity. We become identical with them, in a very literal sense. We correspond with the message that comes from the other. Identity and identification have the same etymology, deriving from idem, Latin for ‘equal’.

This contrasts with the second process — a desire to be separate, to be distant from the other, to resist and reject those messages. And this opposing urge is accompanied by a fear that the other is treading too close on our heels, perhaps even creeping under our skin and, as it were, taking us over. This fear of intrusion — meaning ‘to thrust in’ — is the inversion of the original separation anxiety, when we wanted to be as close to the other as possible.

Separation and the corresponding quest for autonomy are as important for our identity as identification because they allow us to develop an individuality through opposition. This process starts quite early on. Every parent is familiar with the ‘terrible twos’, that phase when a toddler starts to be difficult and to show its own will (‘Don’t want!’). It’s no coincidence that this happens when he or she simultaneously discovers two new words: ‘no’ and ‘me’. This resistance flares up again during puberty, in all its hormonal intensity, this time accompanied by the illusion of independence (‘I’ll decide that myself!’). At this stage, it amounts to opting for alternative constructions of the self, and thus for different identification. Identity is always the temporary product of the interplay between merging and establishing a distance.

The mirror that our environment holds up to us determines who we become. Of course, this process doesn’t just happen automatically; it can only work properly if the other views us with the eye of love. It’s no coincidence that the philosopher Hegel traced the origin of self-consciousness back to the gaze of the other. It is through that gaze, monitoring or loving, that we know that we exist. The word ‘respect’ is very important here: it literally means ‘the act of looking back at’, re-spicere. A child who does not grow up under a loving gaze and who experiences only indifference is cast adrift: it has no foundations on which to build. Only when a child is loved and supported can it grow up to become a stable individual. The Flemish and Dutch words for ‘to love’ reveal two significant aspects of this process. The former, graag zien (‘to see gladly’), shows the importance of the gaze; the latter, houden van (‘to hold’), the crucial nature of care.

To put it another way: we don’t automatically assimilate words and ideas. For that to happen a certain relationship is needed, which comes down to a mixture of love and hate. Freud shows how those two are intertwined: we want to merge with the person we love (‘I could eat you up!’), but we’re also sometimes fed up with them. At such times we not only refuse to take the other’s lead, but we actively reject them (‘You make me sick!’).

These two fundamental tendencies would seem to be typical of every living being: we want to be part of the greater whole, and at the same time we long for independence. As far back as the fifth century bc, the Greek philosopher Empedocles wrote of two elemental powers that held universal sway: Philia, Love, and Neikos, Strife. Freud saw these as two primal urges: the life instinct, Eros, which seeks to dissolve in love, and the death drive, Thanatos, which aggressively seeks separation. Sameness and difference, in other words.

What about me?

The latter drive, the urge for autonomy, is nowadays regarded as a desirable, even necessary characteristic. Dependence is spineless; you must make your mark, stand up for yourself, do your own thing. Whenever I lecture on identity and mirroring, my listeners invariably protest. I have a self, don’t I? I’m different from my brother, even though we had the same upbringing. I’m not at all like my colleague, yet we grew up in the same culture. How do you explain that? And what about heredity? What about genes? Why don’t you talk about that? Surely our brains determine who we are?

Leaving aside for a moment the inherent contradiction in these two arguments (‘I am original and make my own choices’ versus ‘I am the product of my brain and genes’), I shall first examine the current conviction that genes and the brain determine practically everything about us, including who we are. There can be no doubt that the human brain is the most typical feature of Homo sapiens. One of its main characteristics is neuroplasticity — that is, the ability to alter in response to certain environmental factors. This trait has greatly contributed to humanity’s success as a species: put us in just about any environment, and our ability to adapt will enable us to survive. Studies show that the brain is far from ‘finished’ at birth; it still needs to develop in many ways, with environmental factors playing a decisive role in this process.

If we apply this to psychological identity, it seems logical that the brain structures which are largely in place at birth (the hardware) determine the process whereby our identity (the software) is built up. Without mirror neurons, identification can’t take place, but what is mirrored depends on our environment. Moreover, that environment has a very demonstrable effect on the physical development of the brain, which goes on for years after birth. Your brain is important for your identity, but its content is provided by the outside world.

The only correct scientific conclusion is that we are the product of constant interaction between our brains — or, more broadly, our starter kit of genes, neurons, and hormones — and our environment. And, right from birth, it’s very hard to distinguish the contribution made by nature from that of nurture. Even brain structures can be modified by external factors. In the final analysis, claims such as ‘we are our brains’ mean the same thing as ‘we are the product of interaction between body and environment’, but that’s somewhat too nuanced a message for this day and age.

In a previous book, I discussed the current tendency to ascribe everything to physiological causes, with the emphasis on genes and the brain. It offers a handy excuse in the event that we go off the rails — it succeeds the ‘unhappy childhood’ argument as a way of excusing deviant behaviour. Such excuses are indeed all too easily made, but this should not prevent us from posing a different question: why is it that now, apparently more than ever, we so very much want to be absolved of blame? In other words, why, as soon as something goes wrong, do we somehow feel accused? I shall come back to this later, when I discuss the modern myth of the perfectible individual, with the crushing responsibility that this implies.

So ‘we are our brains’ doesn’t entirely exclude external influence, but what about our genes? Our environment can’t change them, except on an evolutionary timescale, which takes centuries at the very least. Here, too, the scientific picture is much more nuanced than people tend to think. External factors can, for instance, affect gene expression — a field known as epigenetics. Moreover, the link between genes and behaviour is extremely complex, though you’d never guess this from the newspapers. Hardly a day goes by without a jubilant announcement suggesting a direct connection between genes and traits or conditions. (‘Gene for autism finally discovered!’) One gene gives you brown eyes; another, blonde hair; and yet another, schizophrenia — they are a hand of cards that determine your luck. In reality, things are somewhat less clear-cut. And when it comes to complex phenomena, a more-or-less direct causality — in, say, the case of eye colour — is completely lacking. Take that most studied of psychiatric disorders, schizophrenia. The current thinking is that it has a hereditary component involving a combination of at least ten genes. The presence of that combination increases the risk of this severe psychiatric disorder by 15–20 per cent; the rest is down to external factors, one of the most important of which is being born in and growing up in a big city.

Applying this to our identity, I believe that genes can be seen as the hardware that determines and limits our software; the specific content of that software is another issue. As far as identity is concerned, the most important factor in the genetic hardware is without doubt language, which typifies human beings. We know that the ability to acquire language is innate, but interaction and imitation are crucial: children who grow up in isolation do not learn to speak. The language a child learns depends entirely on its environment. Moreover, the specific nature of that language (each having untranslatable concepts, from Weltanschauung to joie de vivre) and the way that language is used in the family in which a child grows up will strongly colour its thinking, including the way the child thinks about itself. Take the fact that various non-Western languages have no equivalent for the word ‘individual’ or ‘personality’: this ensures a completely different context when growing up and acquiring an identity.

Brain and genes provide the hardware and thus set the limits within which the software is written, software which in turn has the power to influence and even modify that hardware in certain respects. Is there then nothing that is completely unique? Is a baby indeed a blank page, a tabula rasa that can be entirely moulded by its environment? Every parent knows this isn’t true. Anyone with experience of newborn babies knows that each child has something unique about it as soon as it is born. That ‘something’ is hard to define: an alert look, a sustained attentiveness, or a readiness to interact. It has much more to do with certain traits (introverted or extroverted) and tendencies (quick or slow, persevering or easily deterred) than with content. The mirroring that follows from parents (‘You’re so pigheaded, you’ll come to a sticky end!’ or ‘She’s a strong character just like my grandmother, she’ll go a long way!’) reinforces these tendencies, as do the stories that keep being repeated (‘Right after she was born, she looked at us and then round the whole room. She’s been curious about the world from day one!’). We can’t pin down those unique traits, though I don’t doubt their existence. At the same time, I’m convinced that they are moulded by the environmental response to them.

This brings me to the individual aspect of our identity. We are indeed unique, a one-off combination of everything that has been passed on to us by our parents and our environment. And that varies considerably. Parents respond differently to different children for a whole host of reasons: a first child isn’t treated the same way as the baby of the family; parents who are busy making a career have less attention to spare; marital breakdown can skew family dynamics. Growing up in the same household doesn’t mean that children are all mirrored in the same way. On top of that, there’s the painful fact that not all children are equally loved by their parents — something that a child is all too keenly aware of — and that, too, shapes the individual nature of each identity. Finally, there is the child’s own uniqueness: besides those indefinable inherent characteristics it starts off with, each child makes its own choices in the interplay between identification and separation, choices that have a knock-on effect on subsequent choices, and so on and so on.

We are all unique because we have been exposed to different mirrorings and have made our own choices. And yet to a degree we are all identical, because the mirrorings of particular groups and particular cultures are to a great extent shared.

Body versus group

If, during a job or performance interview, we are asked to describe our identity (‘List your five best character traits’), our answer (‘Resilient, flexible, broad-minded, team player, good self-awareness’) will very much reflect the dominant expectations at a given time. A more honest answer would probably combine personality traits with social data (such as family, village, country, professional group, sport, and political affiliation Tellingly, the former always have to do with the body, with emotions and instincts.

Back in the first century, Galen, the most famous physician of antiquity, concluded that temperament and health were influenced by an excess or deficiency of bodily fluids. His theories about the four different ‘humours’ or temperaments are still reflected in our language, and thus in our thinking: choleric (too much yellow bile) stands for hot-tempered and irritable; sanguine (too much blood) for fiery and energetic; phlegmatic (too much phlegm) for calm and unemotional; and melancholic (too much black bile) for sombre and pessimistic. Temperament is viewed in terms of characteristics, which tend to describe the way in which people react to others (such as obstinate, dutiful, accommodating, rebellious, exploitative).

When all is said and done, we are divided between our body and that of the other. Our body generates impulses relating to pleasure and pain, but it is others who teach us how to deal with them — partly because they are the focus of very many of those impulses (such as sex and aggression). This starts when we are cared for during infancy, with our mother, or more generally, our parents, as the first speaking and correcting mirror. The identity of a newborn baby is bound up with the fantasies and fears of its mother, provoking in her a constant flow of identity-conferring messages, even before her child is born. Compare the two following reactions. A pregnant woman who often feels her boy kicking inside her can either think, ‘Seems like a lively little chap, that’s good!’ or ‘He never lets up — he must already have ADHD! What on earth will he be like when he’s older?’ As soon as the baby is born, his behaviour will undoubtedly have similar labels slapped on it, shaping his identity and self-image.

Messages of this kind don’t just spring from nowhere. The expectations that parents have about their children are also obtained from mirrors: those of their family and the culture in which they live. In the first instance, this is the family narrative, which often takes on mythical proportions — Freud speaks in this context of a ‘family novel’. Most of us grow up with stories about grandparents or even great-grandparents, whose successes and failures are frequently linked to family secrets that can only be spoken about in whispers. In this way we not only learn our origins, but also hear about the hopes for our own future, even the tasks we are expected to fulfil, and we are given a place in the line of generations whose story we will later pass on to our own children. Children have an appetite for such stories, and from an early age are fascinated by the links between generations — ‘Yes, your granny’s my mummy; I’ve got a mummy too, you know! And Uncle Mark is my brother, just like Philip’s your brother’ — connections that they are very keen to comprehend. When parents or grandparents get out the family album and start to tell stories, children are riveted (‘Tell me again about when Grandpa was a soldier’). And this fascination isn’t confined to children, as the popularity of genealogical research shows. We might just as well call it ‘identity research’.

Family stories are embedded in a wider culture and history that shape our identity yet further, in terms of both form and content. And form, here, has to do with the body. Three generations ago, a love of sport meant watching cycle races or football matches, pint in hand and cigar in mouth. (It was seen as a largely male hobby.) These days, we all go to the gym, and men are expected to preserve a youthful physique, while women are supposed to look anorexic, but with breasts. A government job used to be highly prized; these days, it’s looked down on, but one day it’ll no doubt become attractive again. Our appearance, self-perception, and social mores are entirely determined by the messages that we receive.

The stories and ideas that are passed down to us by our families, the social class to which we belong, the culture of which we are a part — all these things combine to form a symbolic order, the Great Narrative shared by a larger group, resulting in a more-or-less common identity. More or less, because as soon as you enlarge or reduce the size of the group (family, village, province, nation) identity shifts. It is always underpinned by a ‘true’ story, whose origins are vague and mythical. Dutch identity, for instance, is traced back to the tribe of Batavians who pluckily resisted the Roman invaders, while the roots of Flemish identity are associated with the civic guilds that defeated the French nobles in 1302. The lack of historical evidence for these stories, which are largely romantic fiction, does little to undermine their strength. Quite the reverse, in fact. They are just that, stories that colour our identity.

The importance of these shared stories is great, because it is through them that we obtain answers to existential questions. What is a ‘real’ man or a ‘real’ woman? What should their relationship be? What is the place and significance of career and parenthood, and does that differ for men and women? What should our attitude to authority be? How do we deal with physicality, sex, illness, and death? In our search for answers — which are of course never definitive — we have recourse to the symbolic order, what I call the ‘narrative whole’. This encompasses religion, art, and science, each of which informs those answers in its own way — ways that are often mutually contradictory.

The fact that there are many answers, often very different in nature, means that different identities are possible. Ideas about what manhood or womanhood entails vary greatly, depending on whether you grow up in Amsterdam, Mumbai, or Tokyo. But even youngsters who come from the same city will receive quite different answers, depending on the neighbourhood and social class in which they are raised, and therefore develop different identities. The fact that there are different narratives, producing different answers, introduces a certain element of individual choice. And the richer the culture, the more answers — and thus identities — people can choose from.

Self-confidence, self-respect, self-hatred

The way in which we acquire our identity (identifying with and distancing ourselves from the other) explains certain experiences that initially seem curious. Take that unsettling feeling which we sometimes have of suddenly wondering, Is that really ‘me’? Am I ‘real’? Do I match with ‘myself’? Those moments of self-alienation betray a deep realisation that our self is indeed of external origin. Arthur Rimbaud expressed this in a line of verse: Je est un autre, which literally means ‘I is another’. There are also times when we feel very torn and inconsistent: we think this, but also that, and we are troubled by the way our actions can seem at odds with our picture of ourselves. Taking over identity-conferring messages from different others invariably creates a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces don’t quite match up. That’s why we are perfectly capable of having a dialogue with ‘ourselves’. I can be angry, pleased, or disappointed with ‘myself’, because the ‘I’ that is judging ‘me’ is based on a different identification from the ‘me’ that is being judged.

Anger or satisfaction with ‘ourself’ can become lasting, leading to self-hatred or self-love, low or high self-esteem and self-respect, and so on. The fact that all these words incorporate the word ‘self’ supposedly indicates that the self comprises certain essential, innate characteristics. ‘That man has high self-regard; he’s very sure of himself’, we say, or ‘His wife has low self-esteem; that’s always been her problem.’ We forget that such characteristics are determined by the way others observe us and interpret our behaviour. The other determines the way in which I think about myself. Characteristics like self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-respect are better understood in their original context of ‘other-confidence’, ‘other-esteem’, and ‘other-respect’. That is to say, the extent to which others trusted, esteemed, and respected you as a child is reflected in your self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-respect as an adult. And this in turn determines the way in which you relate to others. Depending on what you were told when you were assembling your identity, you are either certain of yourself, confident in your dealings with others, and sure of your own superiority; or, conversely, you are timid, ashamed of yourself, and shrink from interaction with others, convinced that they think you worthless. To use psychiatric jargon, people in the latter category suffer from pronounced social anxiety.

In social relationships, we assign higher status to certain others, notably authority figures and people of the opposite sex. The latter even shape the way we develop our gender identity. My masculinity is determined by how I have learned to perceive femininity. If I see women as the source of all evil, bent on tempting me to sin, I will become a fearful, severe man who projects the battle to overcome his own lust on womankind. If I perceive women as soft and caring but dominant beings, I will become the man-son forever striving to escape their clutches in a bid for autonomy. And so on. This ‘and so on’ demonstrates the doomed nature of efforts to define the essence of ‘man’ and ‘woman’. They mainly serve to preserve a certain social order and are no more than a collection of prejudices. Women are stupid and weak, men are intelligent and strong, so women don’t need to go to university and certainly aren’t capable of holding positions of authority — it isn’t so long since this definition of manhood and womanhood was generally held to be valid.

General beliefs of this kind have everything to do with the second important other with whom we establish a more-or-less lasting relationship, namely the other as authority. Our attitude to authority figures forms an important part of our identity. Critical and rebellious? Submissive and supportive? Aggressive and competitive? This, too, is something we learned in our relationship with our parents as the first authority figures. Traditionally, authority is vested in the father. This is a hangover from the patriarchal system common to most societies, where men were assigned authority to use as they saw fit, as the representatives of God and King. And the different ways in which fathers assert their authority has a knock-on effect. Children of harsh, critical fathers retain their fear of authority as adults. Abuse by a father makes all authorities suspect. Fathers who are honest and upright inspire confidence.

The relationship with the other as a representative of the opposite sex, and the other as authority figure, determine two important (and interwoven) strands in our identity. Authority figures tell us in the first instance what we can and can’t do with our bodies and those of members of the opposite sex, and which pleasures are sanctioned and which are not. In Bollywood films, kissing is taboo; in our society, a woman who has more than one lover tends to be looked at askance, whereas a man with a string of girlfriends is seen as successful. All this feeds straight into the debate on norms and values, meaning that our beliefs about these matters are fully part of our identity — in the classic Freudian terminology, our Super Ego (or conscience), alongside and opposite our Ego (the self).

Who should I be (and who or what not)?

Identity consists of a collection of characteristics that have been assigned to us by the other. Together, they form a more-or-less coherent package of ideas about where we come from and where we’re going. At the same time, they also tell us how to behave towards our bodies and towards others, both as members of the opposite sex and as authority figures. The body stands for a wide range of issues, from our external appearance to eating and drinking, sexuality, pain, disease, and death. Do you like to sit down and eat communally, or would you rather eat alone on the sofa, in front of the television? Do you eat at fixed times, or snack throughout the day? Who do you want to have sex with? Yourself, another — which other? From what age? Is it okay for ten-year-olds playing at doctors and nurses to force a five-year-old to join in? What do you do when you’re ill or in pain: do you tough it out, or immediately reach for painkillers? When are you ill enough not to have to work? Who should society look after? Should we be able to make decisions about our own death?

The way in which someone handles these questions will be regarded as ‘typically him’ or ‘typically her’. It is seen as inherent to their make-up, part of the label that they have been given: weakling or go-getter, nymphomaniac or prude, Burgundian or Calvinist, etc. And this tendency to define characteristics in the form of value judgments is nothing new. Not so long ago they were couched in the form of virtues such as caution, justice, self-control, perseverance, charity, or as cardinal sins such as pride, avarice, lechery, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. This prompts a conclusion that may sound surprising: our identity isn’t a neutral assortment of personal characteristics, but has everything to do with the norms and values that we have (or haven’t) espoused. So the current social debate about norms and values is nothing less than a debate about identity.

Every identity stems from a coherent ideology, a term that I interpret very broadly as a collection of notions about human relationships and ways of regulating them. History shows that ideologies are often devised in opposition to other ideologies, resulting in an us-against-them mindset, and distinctive norms and values that determine the identity of a ‘true’ socialist or a ‘typical’ Catholic. In other words, the difference between ideologies and their attendant identities lies in different interpretations of what is regarded as the ‘normal’ or ‘right’ attitude towards the body and towards the other. A freethinker will tend to view illness and death quite differently from the ways a believer does.

Though they differ in terms of their content, ideologies share a number of common characteristics. Attitudes towards the body, for instance, always come down to attitudes to pleasure. Ideologies have quite different norms and standards for regulating pleasure, and also differ in the strictness with which they enforce them. Here in the West, for example, rules about diet have almost entirely disappeared, and we look down on cultures that find it necessary to impose all kinds of prescriptions about food (such as kosher or halal stipulations). In our moral superiority, we tend to forget that just about every Western woman is on a permanent diet and that eating disorders are rampant. We are winning the battle against smoking on all fronts, but we have lost the war on drugs. In the West, regulation of sexual matters is confined to setting an age of consent. In the East, child marriages are not exceptional, and in the South, female genital mutilation is still practised. Man and woman are equal, but in China and India, two of the most populous and (increasingly) economically important countries in the world, women are still second-class citizens.

All ideologies regulate access to pleasure, but differ greatly in the way they do so. And they have one last thing in common: each thinks its own doctrines superior, dismissing those of others as backward or decadent.

Aggression and fear

The relationship with the other is based on various shared or contrasting factors, such as gender, social class, skin colour, and clothing. Visible differences express different identities, reflecting disparate values and social relationships. A man in a tailor-made suit creates different expectations from a 30-year-old in a T-shirt and baggy jeans. Someone who too closely resembles us makes us want to distance ourselves, in order to differentiate ourselves. And when someone is too different, we either want to make them like us (integration) or we want to be like them (if you can’t beat them, join them).

Our identity is pre-eminently determined by this balancing act between merging with and distancing from — that is, between identification and separation. I am who I am because I belong to this group — and certainly not to that one. The more I can reject another group, the ‘different’ other, the more I feel a tie with my own group, the ‘same’ other. When group cohesion diminishes, identity becomes weaker and more chaotic, and aggression within the group, against the same other, invariably increases. Politicians intuitively exploit this fact: when popular rebellion threatens, create an external enemy, a different other, and the ranks will close again. Ancient Jewish law prescribed that a goat — a scapegoat — be symbolically loaded with the sins of the community and sent into the desert on the Day of Atonement.

Establishing a healthy balance between sameness and difference is enormously important, both in society as a whole and in our own personal relationships. The difficulty of this task is illustrated by the current populist focus on topics such as integration, tolerance, and racism, which boils down to attempts to impose sameness or difference. (And if any one is tempted to think that this is all about Islam, I suggest they take a good look at national Belgian politics over the last few years, dominated by bitter disputes between the Walloon and Flemish communities.)

From a psychoanalytical perspective, identity-forming can go wrong in two ways, both leading to aggression. If identification, or sameness, is taken too far in a society, a uniform (and often uniformed) group arises, headed by an authority figure who makes sure that aggression is given external focus by targeting another group. There are, alas, all too many examples of this in history. Ironically enough, Freud described this mechanism with great accuracy in his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, some ten years before the Nazi movement came into being, perfectly illustrating his theory.

Conversely, if the focus comes entirely to lie on separation and individualism, group forming suffers, leading to competition, social isolation, and loneliness. In the jargon of my profession, this provokes narcissistic aggression against the mirror image that we perceive in the other, creating a cycle of dissatisfaction and envy. Since this aggression is directed at others in the direct vicinity, it doesn’t take much for violence to ensue.

A society in which differences are too great is as flawed as a society that imposes total uniformity: both breed violence. History is full of examples, from the French Revolution to the disturbances that are currently flaring up in European suburbs (merely a taste of what is to come); in the language of ideology, such aggression is called class warfare. The fact that violence can also result when differences disappear or are denied makes less intuitive sense to us, partly because we have less experience of it.[4] These days we behave more and more like an assortment of individuals without a common tie.

A society is deemed successful when it achieves a healthy balance between sameness and difference, diverting aggression into less-dangerous outlets. Football is indeed war, music does soothe the savage breast, Mardi Gras allows licensed misbehaviour, and sending ritual scapegoats into the desert isn’t such a bad idea. This insight needs to be cherished: every group, or more broadly, every society, needs a safety valve to deal with inevitable aggression. Without that safety valve, every group sooner or later creates actual scapegoats, and sacrifices them on the altar of its anger — bullying is an example of such a practice. From this point of view, football is a small price to pay.

Identity is ideology

We aren’t born with our identity — far from it — but we are born with a range of abilities and tendencies. Who we become depends on interaction with the other, or, more broadly, with the environment and culture from which we adopt or reject identity-conferring messages. The process of interaction with the other continues throughout our lives; our self is never complete. After we reach maturity, changes to our identity are rarely spectacular: they become a matter of nuance, of slight shifts and modifications. Yet when you are 50 you are not the same person you were, say, at 25, especially if you have meanwhile become a parent or grandparent. In a stable environment, identity changes gradually. A sudden upheaval — as, for instance, in the former Eastern-bloc countries — creates a radical break with the past, leading to rapid change. This applies just as much to individuals. Radical breaks with the past, typically after an accident, serious disease, or trauma, bring about radical changes. In such cases, someone is no longer ‘themself’.

Since identity-conferring messages come from the other, individual identities within a group (from family to nation, with language as a binding factor) show a marked degree of similarity. In that sense, it is possible to speak of group identity, as in references to ‘Liverpudlians’, ‘the Welsh’, or ‘the British’. And collective identities, too, are formed by interaction, albeit in a broader setting and on a greater timescale, and are never completed or static. By way of illustration: nowadays, German identity conjures up a vision of efficient and disciplined types with engineering degrees and steel-rimmed spectacles, in who the Prussian lurks just below the surface. This stereotype is a legacy of the two World Wars. In films like Die Hard, the well-organised villains still speak German. Meanwhile we have forgotten, as have modern Germans, that in the 19th century the stereotypical image of a German was part pipe-smoking farmer, part poet and philosopher — in other words, a completely different animal.

Content-related changes of this kind are macro-social; they concern the evolution of society. Our way of typifying individuals according to their identity and their relations with others can also be used as a tool to understand societies. For the sake of convenience I will discuss this issue in polarised terms: full versus empty, open versus closed, unstable versus stable.

Ideally, societies provide their members with a rich and varied store of narratives to draw on as a starting point for their own identities. A ‘full’ society has ample cultural resources for those seeking answers to existential questions. Its ‘empty’ counterpart has only an impoverished and scanty supply; the mirror it holds up reflects a stereotypical image. A society that heavily censors cultural expression and presents its members with a standard narrative produces stereotypical individuals. Taken to extremes, societies of both types can induce characteristic identity disorders. In the case of the former, a society can be so full of ‘itself’ that megalomania results — take the British during the Victorian era, with their ‘Britannia rules the waves’ mentality. In the latter case, individuals mean nothing; people are nobodies. This gives rise to the symptoms typical of depression — take the Russian ‘soul’ of the Eastern-bloc era, empty and anaesthetised with vodka.

Open and closed societies have another significant feature. In an open society, different narratives are allowed to coexist, giving people more options to choose from. As a result, they tend to develop a more open mind. In closed societies, people must make do with a closed narrative, in which everything that is different is shunned as bad and threatening. Compare Dutch society during the Golden Age, when just about every Enlightenment thinker came to Amsterdam, with, say, a rigidly orthodox Dutch Protestant community of the mid-20th century. Taken to extremes, open societies produce a hysterical personality that constantly has to adjust to the latest hype. Closed societies, by contrast, induce classic obsessional neuroses. Like people who are phobic about germs, its members try to keep the outside world at a distance and have as little to do with it as possible.

Finally, a society can be stable or unstable. This largely depends on the power of the dominant narrative — the more robust it is, the more stable exchanges and thus identity-forming will be. Too much stability can lapse into authoritarian rigidity, with the risk of developing the ‘authoritarian personality’ postulated by the cultural philosopher Theodor Adorno. These days, there is little risk of this, as we are shifting to the other side of the spectrum. In the absence of a clear narrative, as in today’s protean society (or ‘liquid modernity’, as the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called it), a kind of ‘liquid identity’ has come into being. Beyond a certain point, this liquidity results in borderline personality disorder, when unstable identity causes a constant seesaw of emotions.

This brings me to the most important conclusion of this chapter: identity is always a construct that derives from an interaction between the identity holder and the wider environment. Identity can be classified as full or empty, open or closed, stable or unstable. Its core is formed by a more-or-less coherent set of norms and values going back to notions and ideology shared by the group, or — to put it in professional jargon — the larger narrative of a particular culture. If that set of norms and values changes dramatically, the identities that are tied to it will invariably change, too, evolving in the direction of the new narrative with the new norms and values.

Identity is all about ethics.

[1] In an ideal scientific experiment, you change a single factor while keeping the rest of the setup as identical as possible. For instance, you take two cuttings of the same tomato plant and cultivate them using two different types of fertiliser. The difference in yield will then be attributable to the fertiliser, not the plant. In the case of adoption, one can compare people who have been taken from the culture of their birth in infancy and brought up elsewhere with peers who remained in the original cultural setting. Differences can then largely be attributed to the culture in question.

[2] If you pull a face at a baby there’s a good chance that it will copy you. This is down to the recently discovered mirror neurons in our brains, which equip us to imitate the behaviour or, more broadly, the thinking of others. A baby is a sponge that absorbs all the information provided by its parents, and mirror neurons have a big role to play in this process.

[3] ‘Marking’, the exaggerated way in which mothers, especially, communicate with babies using mirroring facial expressions, has a clear function: it allows babies to distinguish between what the mother is feeling herself, ‘I am not unhappy’ (no marking), and the feelings that she suspects her child has, ‘You are unhappy’ (marking).

[4] The idea that mirroring and sameness are a source of aggression is lacking in contemporary theories about bonding, though this idea is to be found in the older Lacanian studies on the mirror stage. Another contemporary elaboration of this notion has of course been conceived by René Girard with his mimetic theory. A good introduction can be found in van Coillie.

[i] The best known is the 1963 experiment by Stanley Milgram, in which, after a certain amount of prompting, ordinary people gave dangerous electric shocks (or so they thought) to individuals taking part in what they had been told was a ‘learning experiment’. Around ten years later, Philip Zimbardo carried out his Stanford prison experiment, in which students took their roles as guards so much to heart that it became an Abu Ghraib avant la lettre.



Translated by Jane Hedley-Prôle