I’m Jean Valjean. Actually, this post is not about Les Miserables; I just thought I would create a fake segue from last week’s post to this one. That line is one of the best moments in the musical, though.
This morning the topic of faculty convocation at my institution was “The Modern Identity Crisis.” We do realize that this is now the postmodern era, but the title was a reference to a paradigm shift that occurred during the Enlightenment. Broadly speaking, in ancient and medieval times, you were born into a certain family, class, and trade, and you didn’t worry about discovering who you were really meant to be. (So that question in A Knight’s Tale, “Can a man change his stars?”–nobody was really asking it at that time period. But they also weren’t listening to classic rock. That movie is a fantasy, in case you weren’t sure.) But in the modern period, the question of individual identity became paramount, and it’s only become more confusing as the world has become simultaneously more diverse and more homogenous.
In this post, I want to point out a few recent manifestations of the drive to self-define that may appear silly or harmless, but that are actually quite telling and potentially powerful. One is the proliferation of assessment tools, ranging from research-based psychiatric tests to three-question quizzes on advertising webpages (“What’s your guest bathroom decorating style?”), designed to help us categorize ourselves and others. Young adult literature fans very seriously discuss the implications of being in a particular Hogwarts (and now Ilvermorny) house or a certain faction in the dystopian world of Divergent, and each of these fandoms offers a variety of official and unofficial tests and quizzes for determining where one belongs. Many people, including myself, never tire of talking about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicators and the rampant memes that lead us to identify ourselves with characters from various worlds (The Lord of the Rings, The Office, the Bible) based on MBTI. We give these assessment instruments so much power that they are almost like a postmodern version of divination. Instead of looking to stars or tea leaves to tell us how are lives are going to turn out, or how to make decisions, we look at our personality types.
Our self-defining statements can also create limitations on who and what we are willing to be and do. Some of these statements give us excuses for our perceived weaknesses (“English people don’t do math,” or vice versa); others allow us to feel superior to others (“Academics don’t watch football”). And some of these statements, especially when made and believed by children and teenagers, can actually create deep-rooted habits that can shape the quality of a person’s life (“Nerds don’t do physical exercise”).
I’m not trying to be dire or dour. I think it’s fun to discuss these things (as long-time readers of my blog know, I’m a Hufflepuff, and I’m also an ISFJ), but I’m afraid too many of us are limiting ourselves because we’re letting our categories determine our destinies.