Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
-- DianaSidakis - 26 May 2010

Identity: Sameness or Difference

Identity is sameness; sharing its root with identical. Etymologically, the formation of the word is unclear. Possibly “identity” developed from contracting the phrase idem et idem (same and same), or from transforming identidem (over and over again) into a noun. Philosophers and mathematicians use ‘identity’ to indicate qualitative or numerical sameness. However, in common usage, ‘identity’ parallels its use in psychology and the social sciences, where identity references the qualities that make an individual unique. Law makes use of both meanings of “identity,” drawing on both sameness and difference to structure relationships and power.

The basic unit of modern legal identification is nationality. As Benedict Anderson wrote in Imagined Communities, “nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time.” Yet, as Anderson argues, nationality is a cultural artifact-- “an imagined political community.” This imagined community was made possible through technology: “the convergence of capitalism and print technology on the fatal diversity of human language created the possibility of a new form of imagined community, which in its basic morphology set the stage for the modern nation.” The emergence of nation states, and a shared national identity among anonymous strangers, was made possible by technology. For instance, Anderson describes the “extraordinary mass ceremony” of the consumption of the daily newspaper: “the newspaper reader, observing exact replicas of his own paper being consumed by his subway, barbershop, or residential neighbors, is continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life. . .creating that remarkable confidence of community in anonymity which is the hallmark of modern nations.” A shared language and shared daily experience, stretching across not just the community of a village but a community of thousands, was made possible through print technology and created the groundwork for national identities.

The concept of national identity can seem so natural as to be obvious and necessary to society. Yet the margins reveal the power structures and inequalities implicit in this ordering. Stateless persons and refugees are the most obviously marginalized by a global political structure dependent on nationality for identity and legal status. To be stateless or a refugee is to lack the state’s protection for the most basic economic, social, civil, and political rights. While the discourse of human rights is framed to make such rights universal, politically, these rights are protected and provided by the nation-state. To be stateless or a refugee is to be excluded from the long term protection of these rights. Estimates of stateless persons and refugees vary. The UNHCR estimates that there are twelve million stateless persons worldwide and 10.5 million refugees.

There is limited international legal protection for the stateless and refugees. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has a right to a nationality.” The Convention on the Rights of the Child states that every child “the right to acquire a nationality.” The Convention relating to the Status of Refugees protects refugees against discrimination and refoulement and requires contracting states to protect refugees’ right to employment, social benefits, and freedom of movement. The Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons echoes these protections.

Yet, despite international legal protection and even UNHCR monitoring and protection, stateless persons and refugees lack these legal protections. In the United States, resettled refugees have been indefinitely detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement for failure to apply for lawful permanent resident status within a year of their arrival. Since legal counsel is not provided to resettled refugees, many miss the required application date and are subject to arbitrary detention. In Greece, the protection against refoulement of refugees is regularly violated as asylum seekers are forcibly returned to Turkey, or, if they are detained in Greece, they are kept in inhuman and degrading conditions. International legal conventions are limited in their ability to affect not only domestic national policy, but the practical implementation of those policies. National borders arbitrarily limit individual human freedom while consolidating existing power structures. As long as identity is pinned to nationality, human freedom will be limited by borders.

The political philosophy of cosmopolitanism echoes this notion: “all inhabitants of this world of ours should not live differentiated by their respective rules of justice into separate cities and communities. But that we should consider all men to be of one community and one polity, and that we should have a common life and an order common to us all, even as herd that feeds together and shares the pasturage of a common field.”

Cosmopolitanism has been advocated as a form of education: a method to better learn about ourselves, a way to solve problems that require international cooperation, and a way to realize our moral obligations to the rest of the world. As an educational project, cosmopolitanism is about teaching people to feel allegiance to a worldwide community of humans, rather than a specific religious or national community. Potentially, the emergence of technology may begin to render certain concepts of nationality obsolete. Cheap technology, in the form of mobile phones, has already altered markets by increasing access to information. Access to broadband networks can raise rural income in developing countries. Technology changes not only the economic, but also the political and legal development of a place. As the ability to communicate and the corresponding access to information increases, it is hard to imagine a world where capital can continue to travel with fewer restrictions than humans. As technology established the groundwork for the establishment of national identities centuries ago, today’s technology can establish a shared global human identity. While technology can be used to limit and control people, the emergence of cheap technology seems to offer a way to bring “identity” closer to its root; a sameness in humans that is to be politically and legally respected, rather than a split and arbitrarily defined individuality.

I think this is extremely interesting and very promising. The challenge it raises is one I have thought a good deal about and am still only learning to approach. Indeed, we should be able to think about the effects on human identity that will or could result from the expansion of human interconnection. What is happening to humanity now is the largest thing that has happened since the adoption of printing. We should be able to understand what we are going through as an event in the history of consciousness, and relate it to the other great patterns and structures in our narrative of human identity and self-understanding. Not only Anderson, then, but Freud, Marx, Burckhardt, Elias, Carlo Ginzburg, Hayden White, Keith Thomas, Norman O. Brown, and hundreds of others have contributed to our understanding of the broad reach through which we sail down into the whirlpool that is our era in the evolution of humankind.

But even grasping precisely how our common self-understanding is being effected will take generations: for now, all we can do is to choose between making theory awaiting results, or committing ourselves to propositions based on our incomplete understandings and struggling to affect a process so immensely larger than we. My choice, as you understand, is commitment to the forward reproduction of the traditional understandings of "freedom" that emerged from the Enlightenment, with all the turmoil and internal self-contradiction that involves.

Your essay asks about the effect of pervasive universal interconnection on humans' conception of humanity: whether we can expect the evolution of a common self-understanding that imagines the truth, namely, that in our vast multiplicity, we are one. On the scale of time with which international humanitarian law deals, surely not soon. And on the scale of time necessitated by the history of consciousness, yes eventually, unless extinction itself is sooner on the schedule.

But this is too abstract a question against the background of your specific practical concerns. You've embraced the two endpoints of the time scale of the inquiry, from what is happening to humanity as an episode in its entire history to what is happening to refugee children in the Mediterranean basin at the present hour, with nothing in between. There's only so much that can be said in 1,000 words, of course, but you could have compressed both the refugee law example and the discussion of Benedict Anderson in order to have put something in between. After a world in which Bono or Jolie embraces a refugee child on YouTube? and becomes a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, what does the Net really do? Or better still, how do we help it do what it should do?


Webs Webs

r4 - 17 Jan 2012 - 17:48:23 - IanSullivan
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