Ramana Maharshi said, “The only language able to express the whole truth is silence.” So, treat my breaking of the silence here with these words as an attempt to convey at least a partial glimpse of the truth.
Many of the pressing ailments in modern societies all over the world are all too obvious to need pointing out explicitly. Whatever be their legion, it is my view that all those ailments spring from one primary source – “lack of self-knowledge”. How so?
We hear these days of identity politics being on the ascendancy. And, many are quick to point out where that road leads. What is identity, anyway? Surely, it is nothing but a form of self-knowledge, that is, my conception of who I am. That could be in terms of my age, gender, caste, religion, nation, race, etc. What identities we cling on to as being our more authentic selves form our conception of who we are as a person.
But, how can one live without identities? We cannot. So, what we need is true self-knowledge that will reveal our ultimate identity, which will be an answer to the question “Who am I?”
Each of us answers the question “Who am I?” both to ourselves and to others, differently. Moreover, these answers keep shifting over time based on our experiences in life that shape us into who we feel we are at any given point in time.
If my identity thus keeps shifting over time, is it meaningful at all to talk of who we are, because given sufficient time when we are queried again we may totally deny our earlier understanding of ourselves and swear allegiance to an altogether different persona. This conclusion is supported even by science these days. Epigenetics says that the genome is being constantly shaped by the environment so that different genes are turned on and off, leading to differences in the way the genome gets expressed in the phenome. Thus, the phenome takes on entirely different characteristics with changing environment, and given our range of perceptions, it is only the phenome that comes into our calculations of figuring out who we are. However, we do find that most people do get fixated on their identities howsoever formed, particularly by the time they reach middle age, after which it becomes that much more difficult to change one’s perception of oneself.
That being the case, one’s attention has to be drawn to this fact that one’s identities are fluid and at the mercy of ever-changing circumstances. Once one is sensitized to this fact, then one might be better motivated to find out who one really is, and thereby not get fixated on any one identity as being an iron-clad version of oneself.
How, then, do we sensitize people to this fact?
That would seem a million-dollar question, but it does admit of an obvious solution. This is possible only through dialogue about the fluid nature of identities or the lack of basis for rigid identities. We need to reach out to everyone at all possible strata of society, howsoever we categorize those strata, and figure out ways and means of tailoring the message to them in terms they can understand.
To put it more concretely, we need to devise templates of dialogue that will guide whosoever we want to train to carry out this mission of deconstructing the identities of people in their dialogues with them.
To get to those practical manuals containing templates of dialogues, we need to first have a sound theoretical basis for writing them up. This theoretical knowledge is not that hard to come by in this day and age of advanced knowledge in all fields of human enquiry.
For instance, physiology can be used to point out how we are reacting differently to different circumstances in concrete fashion. This could be done by showing how hormones get released, regulated, etc. to external stimuli and how they in turn control our responses and moods etc. To undergird this understanding one can be made to understand the epigenetics paradigm to show that even genes do not define or fix one and one’s dispositions and behaviours change depending on one’s circumstances.
Neurology has enough case studies on how one’s personality and beliefs change depending on disease, injury or surgery to the brain. There are studies showing how a tumour growing in the brain can radically alter a person, even to the extent of turning one into a murderous psychopath. Plus, there are plenty of very innovative and creative studies that have shown how one’s perception of reality and identity can be manipulated, e.g., the ‘rubber hand illusion’. Personality changes also occur in neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The taking of some antipsychotic medications sets right one’s deranged perceptions of reality, including one’s place in it.
Psychology and psychotherapy can be turned to for figuring out what evidence and stratagems can be adopted to show the falsity of fixed identities. It may even be possible these days to conduct some simple experiment on themselves to show how their conceptions of themselves can change under certain laboratory conditions or carefully controlled real-life simulations – already, there are studies which have been done along these lines, priming effect being one of them.
Social psychology has enough theoretical and experimental fund of findings that can allow us to develop modules to convince us that our identities are very much fluid as outlined above. For instance, Sharif’s study of group attitudes to one another being shaped by conditions under which they operate.
Philosophy can be drawn upon to show the thinking that has gone into figuring out about one’s personal identity, starting from Locke onwards, and ending up with say Derek Parfit. The issue of free will can be talked about via Benjamin Libet’s studies and the other studies it spawned in the field.
Parapsychology can be drawn upon via its findings about out of body experiences, near death experiences, past life regression studies, premonitions etc., to show how crude we are in forming our identities based on gross physical and sociological variables. And its close affinity to religion can be pointed out.
Spirituality of the Advaita variety can be gone into via name-and-form analogy to show that all differences between people and hence all identities are in fact illusory.
A lot of work needs to be done in gathering the knowledge from different disciplines about how to debunk identities along the lines suggested above. But, it is a start to know that such an enterprise can be undertaken. It only needs execution.
After that has been accomplished, one sets out to develop all sorts of methodologies, arguments, lines of reasoning, modes of presentation, etc., tailored to different groups of people that will be addressed, from school and college children to blue collar and white collar workers, or howsoever the whole population is best stratified to deliver these dialogues to debunk the solidity of one’s identity.
Once, the deconstruction and demolition of one’s identity is done, I am confident that one would have formed a correct t picture of one’s true identity as being no different from that of others, or at the very least they would have developed a certain epistemic humility to stop from rigidly throwing one’s lot behind an iron-clad identity.
After all, it seems natural that one loves, is caring about, compassionate towards oneself and everyone else that one feels belongs to one’s own group identity, starting from family and other kinship-based groupings to ethnic, caste, religious, racial, and national clusters. So, once we have shown the reasonableness and sound basis for identifying with the whole of humanity, then one would have eliminated most of the causes of conflict.
I am not saying that this is some panacea, but where there is love, care, and compassion towards others, we will strive our utmost to relieve the pain and suffering in others, nay, we will strive our utmost that others are not put to any inconveniences that one would not wish upon oneself. This then forms the rational and logical basis for the moral imperative encapsulated in that golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
To be sure, though Jesus enunciated the golden rule some two thousand years ago, it has not led to any great amelioration in the human lot. The reason for that is it has been issued as a commandment without offering any supporting justifications. But, we have seen above that once we can convince the whole populace that “others are very much like us” howsoever different they may seem if we go by superficial appearances, we can get people motivated to follow the golden rule as being a wise and rational rule. Once the golden rule is followed, it is only a matter of time before the golden age sets in where (wo)man loves (wo)man and there is peace and harmony all around. Some problems may yet remain, but those problems we can set out together to find solutions to.