We often define ourselves based on the way others see us. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We are not our nationality, or our skin colour, or our job title. We are a human essence. The more multi-cultural our world, the less we will be defined by our outer traits, and the more we will be acknowledged to be our most inner, essential self, writes Janne Teller.
When I first saw the French-Moroccan artist Yasmina Bouziane’s self-portrait as a modern Beduin photographer (‘Native Photographing, the signature picture, Reluctantly Untitled #6’), it instantly struck me how the photo regarded me just as well. In her staged hand Yasmina’s lense takes aim at the audience, the camera is turned 180 degrees: The art sees the one who sees.
All the while I was contemplating a humorous, identity-exploring, modern colonial portrait, I myself turned into nothing but someone watching that very photo watching me. I must assume that the photo’s frame of reference is nothing but itself. It cannot fathom anything about me except for my looking at it, which further implies that seen from another photo, I’ll be someone else; I’ll be a person who regards that other photo. And I’ll turn into yet another, when I move my gaze onwards to a third photo.
Isn’t it similar with human beings: Who we are in the eyes of the other, depends more on the capacity and frame of reference of the person the eyes belong to, than who we actually are?
But who are we then, if the eyes of the other cannot be used as a basis for calibration?
Human identity, to my mind, can be divided into three distinct strata: Outermost, the one others perceive us as, which I’ll here call the coat; in the middle, the one we define ourselves as vis-à-vis our surroundings, the clothes, that means all the external identity parameters we attach to ourselves, nationality, culture, institution of religion, job title, home zip code, car horse power, civic status and groups we belong to, social media presentations & follower/following etc, all what Freud would call our persona; and innermost, our real, unfeigned being, the one we are beneath all the identity clothing and coats, our inner nakedness of person, our essence of being.
By our essence, I mean the combination of human characteristics that lie in our nature and those abilities and values we have accrued through our lives, i.e. our authentic I, or what with an old-fashioned concept could be termed the expression of our soul, our personality. Am I a kind person, or a belligerent one, am I independent or pliable to authority, am I generous, trustworthy and reliable, or am I irresponsible, disingenuous, stingy? Am I curious or closed-minded, am I courageous or cowardy, humorous and optimistic or serious and cynical, strong or weak? Am I both at different times: then, when am I what?
But in all of the myriad patterns of expression it can take, the essence itself remains one and the same.
Similar human essences will take on different outward form depending on our external identities – our clothes and coat - particularly our cultural and social identity. But in all of the myriad patterns of expression it can take, the essence itself remains one and the same.
As an example, one can imagine a polite person greeting another (pre-covid). The Frenchman will kiss you on both cheeks, the polite English person will shake hands, and the orthodox Muslim will place a hand on their heart. Each a particular and distinctly different embodiment of the very same essence of politeness.
The three strata of identity functions like an identity pyramid. Ideally, the lowest part, our true self, ought take up most room, with external identities as a fine, flexible layer above, and at the top, like the very tip of the iceberg, the others’ eyes that see us. Such a combination of our definition of self, would anchor us within ourselves, and ensure that we weren’t commanded by skewed ideals of how we would like to construe ourselves, or more importantly, become overly dependent upon or even tyrannised by the eyes that see, the eyes of the other.
But we live in a globalized mass and social media world where most people are goaded into defining themselves almost exclusively upon how they are perceived in the eyes of the other. Our identity pyramids have been turned upside down: we see ourselves more and more, and thus increasingly also turn into, that which others regard as our being.
Since the dawn of our species, human beings have naturally to some extent defined ourselves through the eyes of the other. Whilst our consciousness of self in earlier times was dominated by the local vicinity, however, today it is so by a global platform. What others earlier would perceive us as depended on our actual presence, role and deeds in the near physical environment. Today that perception depends largely on the presentation of ourselves through a long-distance screen of mass and social media. The internet makes up such a large part of our current interactions, that the context in which the individual can and must delineate themselves, our modern neighbourhood, has become one humongous global unit. An entity in which it’s almost impossible to make a real mark, to be somebody - without going to extremes.
Reality has been overtaken by perception. Familiarity has been overtaken by fame: We don’t believe we exist, unless many say we do. Renown becomes mistaken for recognition of existence. Perhaps, right here lies the key to the seemingly pathological need for fame or even notoriety of our times. If we look at the hunger, the almost deadly craving, for stardom – no matter what for - it is astoundingly evident that the modern society no longer offers any kind of formula for existential acknowledgement of our being, other than that of prominence.
The problem with the identification with the external parameters, or worse the eye that sees you, is that it gives rise to a highly precarious false loyalty.
The problem with the identification with the external parameters, or worse the eye that sees you, is that it gives rise to a highly precarious false loyalty.
If, for example, you consider your authentic self inherently linked to being Danish, any criticism of Danishness will seem akin to a condemnation of your person. You will feel compelled to defend anything that Denmark and ‘the Danes’ do as right, no matter if your ethics, and thus your inner human essence – if heard – would think the absolute opposite
The one who identifies their inner self with his or her external parameters (clothes and/or coat), will find themselves stretched between their loyalties to each of these parameters, be it nationality, culture, religious, political or other group affiliations, educational institution, football fandom etc, and can no longer think independently. He can’t afford the recognition that what this or that one of his identity parameters stands for, or has turned into, is in the wrong, as this will also make his very own person amiss.
Instead of letting the external identity parameters adapt to his inner essence, he has to let his essence yield to the movements in his external parameters. His own authentic being is hollowed, creating a vacuum which undermines his inner convictions, skews his sense of right and wrong, and weakens his true character, making him increasingly susceptible to manipulation by others. He’s no longer an individual, but an echo; an echo of the external labels to which he has attached himself.
The false loyalty strips him of the capacity to objectively evaluate and thus also, in situations where this may otherwise have been possible, to influence the developments in those particular external parameters. Were he to undertake an unprejudiced evaluation vis-a-vis his authentic values when confronted with changes in the external identity parameters (which he, rightly or wrongly, considers himself in no control of), his sense of self would appear fatally threatened.
If one wants to avoid ending insufferably spread-eagled by the shackles of such false loyalties, the only option is on the basis of the true values of one’s essence to create one’s own axis of identity. Instead of cutting-a-heel-and-toe while attempting to fit one’s essence into whatever development in the external identity parameters, to continuously adjust the external identity, or at least one’s view on the parts that cannot be changed, to one’s personal axis.
Cultures can be seen to function identity-wise like a beehive with legions of similar-looking, though disparate, cells at each layer.
Most mono-cultural persons live within one such identity-cell defined by distinct walls of normative parameters, like manners, language, traditions, history, religious practices, and national glorifications. Life within an identity-cell has its fixed shapes and codes, which everyone knows and adheres to, or which at least make up the baseline related to also for any resistance, if someone were to choose rebelling into other ways of behaving. Life in the world’s many different mono-cultural cells may take distinctly different forms, but the mono-cultural individuals within each cultural cell, all make use of the same normative definition of identity: this is how we eat, how we communicate, how we celebrate, how we (particularly our women) dress and behave, how we bring up our children, this is our history, our myths and traditions, what we believe in.
The bi-cultural person, in Europe most often a first or second generation immigrant, will be split between two distinct cells, two sets of norms, which it may be difficult or impossible to align. But she will know that one set of norms are used in one of her cultural cells, and another set of norms in the other cell. She will know how to adapt her behaviour however different, in order to navigate as herself in either cell (here we kiss on the cheeks, here we shake hands). Since both cells utilize the same normative definition of identity, she will often be able to achieve some kind of double-bound identity commensurate with her attachment to each of the two sets of norms and cultures.
It should be noted that even within a homogenous mono-culture, many people do move between culture cells, perhaps in different work or social cultures, from countryside to town culture, or just divorced family children switching between their different homes. But mostly these moves are to neighbouring or nearby culture cells, not to whole different layers of the identity-cube. Behaviour and dialects may have to be adapted through so-called code-switching, but it doesn’t call for a more radical change of the entire general cultural framework and language.
Since the multicultural person continuously moves across various layers of culture cells, she is constantly confronted by different sets of external identity parameters, representing differing forms of the same human essence.
The multi-cultural person, meaning a person having three or more different-layered cultural cells to actively navigate, will no longer be able to define themselves based on any normative identity, as too many mutually contradictory norms are at play. She doesn’t hold one, but many national and cultural histories, often more religions or at least religious cultures, and can no longer automatically assume that a certain manner or gesture expresses an associated well defined human essence.
Since the multicultural person continuously moves across various layers of culture cells, she is constantly confronted by different sets of external identity parameters, representing differing forms of the same human essence. Any attempt at identification through external forms or markings, will soon lead to the utmost consequence of the false loyalties: a splintering of the self.
So as not to end up with a chaotically fractured personality, the multicultural person has two options for identification of self. She can define herself based upon superficial globally recognizable variables (the overcoat), so that all the different eyes that see will always perceive the same: i.e dressed in international designer labels, listening to internationally known music, fan of a certain type of global TV-series or social-media influencer, and user of multi-nationally well-known products, art etc; in short, definition as an everywhere instantly recognizable type. This offers the reward of outward consistency. But unfortunately, it is an empty frame of identity, which over time will tend to get hollowed out, because it’s stitched together by flimsy external patches, that can’t make up for the lack of substantial meaning or local real and tangible anchoring.
Luckily, there is another option: definition of identity based on the human essence.
This means giving up on any normative identification, and instead to identify fully with and through one’s inner being, no matter which form this may have to take on at shifting time and place so as to tune in and communicate with the norms in the different culture cells one may step into.
The multicultural person inescapably has to act differently in each distinctly different cultural cell. But it leads to no splintering of the self, as all the particular behavioural patterns are simply disparate expressions of the same inner essence.
Mono-cultural individuals within each culture-cell, like for example Danish-origin Danes, tend to relate to other people mainly through the eyes of their own set of norms. They have never been required to separate form from essence, and therefore read the actions, gestures and the manners of other people in the light of which essence these people would express in their own culture. Variations in form come often to be mistaken for divergence of human substance.
There is a mechanism to truly see each other, and through that to overcome the comprehension void to the culturally extraneous, to be found in the essence based multi-cultural definition of identity.
For the outlander, the mono-cultural eye is therefore immensely reductive. The mechanism to comprehend the outlander’s ‘otherness’ is lacking. The deviation of coat remains all that is perceived. The mono-cultural identity definition’s dependency on the capacity of the eye that sees, therefore also leads to foreigners and immigrants almost automatically scrambling together on an outer rim in any culturally homogenous society. Additionally, perhaps to assist one another, maybe sharing the language, culture and religious frame of reference, the foreigner will be fathomed as an individual with endlessly more nuances and depth amongst other outlanders, particularly of his own cultural blend, than when moving amongst any local mono-cultural people with whom he does not immediately belong.
It doesn’t have to be like this. There is a mechanism to truly see each other, and through that to overcome the comprehension void to the culturally extraneous, to be found in the essence based multi-cultural definition of identity.
In the meeting amongst multi-cultural persons, there is inherently always a zone of doubt about how to go about things, how to greet, how to address one another, how the genders relate, how and in which order to eat what, how and what to celebrate, how to mourn. Unless opting for engaging in the superficial space of the instantly recognizable overcoats, the multi-cultural individuals can’t help but meet with their culture-code bared, as in a room without walls; an encounter of the human essence of the one with the human essence of the other.
There is no mutual set of norms and codes to shroud behind. One person will not instinctively know what is socially more or less admissible for the other. Nor is it possible to gauge or classify one another based on external identity parameters (who has gone to the better school, whose accent is socially finer or snobbish unacceptable, who lives in the right zip code, belong to the ‘right’ section within the religion, dress more correctly, or eat the right food), because you don’t know each other’s scale. What matters is solely who you really are, not the form, but that quality which the form portends. If your gestures are an expression of friendliness or not, if you are in essence sincere, responsible, trustworthy, funny, intelligent or whichever one might appreciate as human characteristics in another person.
This is not to disavow the importance of social codes. On the contrary, social conducts are paramount for human beings to associate and function together in any society. These outward patterns just should not stand in the way for the comprehension of one another, as they do when form and essence are considered one and the same, when the mono-cultural deportment becomes a barrier blocking the true meeting with individuals of any other culture.
When instead, we understand conduct as an expression of human essence rather than equal to it, the wall is torn down and a translation of the language of the gestures and actions can ensue. It is in the zone of doubt that opposites can meet. It’s in the zone where we extricate the human essence from its form that we see the one who sees us.