Notes on Practical ethics #4 Cultural personal identity

It is well understood that we all are defined by our personal identity. The information that personal identity does not ultimately matter will not change that, and not knowing that our individual personal identity will end seems to be the easiest information we all learn to ignore early on in live. Very small children do not have a real personal identity. It seems as if personal identity is something that we discover, develop and/or learn. At a certain age, personal identity is being probed and framed, which is the age when most little children literally become a character. There are several reasons why this will surely not change even in the distant future, because it is part of our evolutionary development. In other words, personal identity is something we first have not, and then we have it. However, several people realise that their personal identity is indeed fleeting, which is not only the insight of the Buddha, but also Derek Parfit.

There are other people who could even flee into a world of non-identity. There is a prominent example Martin Pistorius. He was trapped for years in his own body, unable to move a muscle, and alter people in his surrounding that after years in a vegetative state, his consciousness had returned. In order to evade the agony of being trapped in his own body, he vanished into a place where “nothing existed”. Yet while he described this to be a rather dark place, he was also able to vanish into a world of phantasy. Cultural identity is equally such a place of phantasy, because it is not about who a person is, but about who we are as a united group, interacting with each other. Cultural identity would not make sense if you are alone. Cultural identity can be thus seen as a construct that helps us to belong, and create some sort of unity among a group of people. In the past, this unity was often inherited, yet today in a globalised world, there are many cultural groups that are not inherited. The world grew more diverse, and there is a larger recognition of many different facets of cultural identity. Culture is what makes us diverse and enables societies to thrive. Yet culture cannot be defined as a homogeneous entity, but instead builds on diversity within nested groups. For example may certain traditional houses be built following a localised culture within the construction, but there are often deviances or diversities. This is why art is so central to our lives, because it is “”when our senses are at their fullest” (Ken Robinson). Equally can art in a cultural context allow for a strong emotional unity. Many people find at the end of their own personal identity a great consolation that their culture goes on, and hence their contribution to this very culture will be preserved.

Cultural identity is therefore highly relevant, not only because of the emotional gratification to belong, but also because cultural identity can thus help people to make more sense of their personal identity, or the lack thereof, i.e. when we feel united. If we would have no cultural identity, and because we have no personal identity, we would have practically no identity at all. This would be clearly a societal problem, because people are ,as was outlined above, not able to live within parts of their development without any form of identity within the foreseeable future. Identity is an important part of our development stages during adolescents, and without such steps people would be lost and confused at this age, and probably also later.

However, we shall bot forget that some of the worst atrocities in the history of people can be associated to cultural identity. It is however not the exclusion of people that do not belong to an identity group, that is the actual problem. Instead it is the actions that may arise out of the exclusion of “others” from an identity group that is the true problem. Consequently, cultural identity should never enable members of a group to take negative actions against other people. This is in itself a very difficult assumption, not only because it would be hard to achieve. More importantly would it potentially elevate cultural dimensions onto the status of religion in a secular state. This is not my intention, yet I believe it is important to raise this issue as it would otherwise allow for critics to make the argument to raise concern. After all, culture is also about believes, and can be about values. Most would agree that culture should also not violate legal boundaries, and this matter is a description of many problems that rose in western democracies as part of the cancel culture and culture wars. Since culture builds on values and is set in the real world, it can also be about rights, and often is also about duties.
Starting with the latter, culture is often conserved by duties. These often follow a certain rhythm or are otherwise embedded into the calendar, or may be an action taken under given circumstances. For instance have many cultures certain actions that are taken in case of a solar eclipse. Such cultural actions often give an interpretation or coping mechanism to reality, and we all know many examples that are celebrations. To this end, culture can clearly give meaning to live. Duties within cultural rhymes or habits are thus often a privilege.
One of the most controversial points is the relation between culture and rights. While it should be clear that there needs to be a right for culture, which is the case in many countries, it is often less clear how to deal with cultural actions that violate rights or norms. For instance do many traditional cultures to this day catch whales, despite a global recognition of their protection status. Many controversies arise out of such contradictions between local cultures and laws and norms outside of the respective cultural hemisphere. Here, global responsibility should make the difficult negotiation to balance local culture and global responsibility, which is however in many cases a difficult task. Global initiatives such as the IBPES have highlighted the importance of preserving indigenous cultures. Their preservation could be compared to the cold war, when for instance during the Cuba crisis the world was literally a push of a button away from total annihilation. Equally, many indigenous cultures and first nations are one step away from perishing, and many have already perished. Their fate is not different to our potential fate during the cold war, because what is gone will not come back, and as their culture is smaller in extend, it is even more fragile. More research as well as legal and civil action is needed to preserve these cultures, and due to the dramatic situation it is clear that we need to increase our efforts. This thought cannot be more but a mere starting point.

To conclude, cultural identity could be seen as a starting point, and not an end in itself. Culture is dynamic, interconnected, and ideally flourishing. While many cultures have emerged over the last centuries, many have also emerged, and care needs to be taken to preserve them. More research and action is necessary to embed diverse cultures into the global community. However, as long as people grow up thriving to explore their own identity, and as well as people find meaning in their diverse cultures, cultural identity can be a beacon to belong.