Law in Contemporary Society

(De)Constructing Self Identity

-- By KristineSaul - 27 Feb 2009 (Amended 17 April 2009)

Introduction: Sticks and Stones?

“It’s not what you are called you, but what you answer to” is one of my mother’s classic lines.

  • Seems funny that you didn't proofread it.

My mom ascribes to the Holmes line of thinking that things are what they do and names are virtually unimportant. To know what something is, one must ask what it does. The concept appears basic on its face but the fact that this idea has been reiterated time and time again in the Saul household speaks against the simplicity. We can try to argue that names and the opinions of others should not matter in how we self identify but ultimately, our perceptions are colored, at least in large part, by the names and notions of other people. So if words DO matter, why the need to defend against them? Perhaps the advice my mother proffered is less a denial of the power words hold and rather a tool to cut through the meaningless words that detract from the essence of who we are.

  • You meant "subscribes." Malapropisms create an unconscious doubt in the reader's mind: if she doesn't know what the word means and she uses it anyway, what else may she not really understand that she's confidently telling me? This is a dangerous impression for a lawyer to create, which is why it's very important to check one's usage carefully.

  • I'm puzzled already. The realism in your mother's proverb is that it concentrates attention not on what is said, but on what you do in response. The proverb's point is that until you "answer to" words, giving them a meaning by responding to them in one way or another, their effect is indeterminate. You can turn a hostility into a joke by making others laugh at it. I don't think that's what your last sentence means, but I can't tell.

Identity as a Sword and a Shield

Societal roles are both a sword and a shield. While these classifications can be oppressive and stifling on one hand, they also provide comfort, stability, and structure that we are not comfortable enough to depart from. We are born into roles and whether we play the position we are given or move into another does not change the fact that we assume a role nonetheless. Society takes different characterizations – race, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic bracket, etc. – and generates opinions accordingly. Though each of us are comprised of more than what meets the eye – a love for chocolate, an inherent sense of humor, a kind soul – even these characteristics are a result of societal qualifiers. We are social beings and the importance of the interactions with and words of others do have an effect on the people we become. At minimum, who we are is reactionary to who we are perceived to be. The concept applies whether we are a powerful leader who takes pride from being viewed as a force to be reckoned with or an ex-convict that continually fights for a second chance in a cynical society. The views of others construct the context with which we ultimately view ourselves.

  • You meant "a reaction." Reactionary does not mean "reactive." See above.

Identity Example

I can use myself as an example to illustrate my point a bit better. Depending on the situation, I can be viewed as anything from a good kid who has lived life on the “straight and narrow” to a classic case of affirmative action in the educational system to “the Angry Black Woman”. Whether any of these classifications are accurate is less important than the person I have become (and am becoming) as a result of these perceptions. I have found comfort in some of the opinions of others and worked to live up to some of these views. Being a good daughter and a well-rounded student are examples of roles that I am both perceived to hold and actively play. Perceptions that I do not ascribe to may not directly comprise how I self identify but indirectly affect the person I have become. Though I am not determined to live my life negating categorizations I take issue with, my awareness of these alternate views of Kristine have evolved into discernable traits and characteristics. Whether these reactionary traits have led to insecurities about my intelligence or undeterred (and sometimes defiant) strides toward my goals, these forces have worked their way into my identity as well.

  • Now both "ascribe" and "reactionary" are misused in the same graf.

  • Consider the marked sentence. What is the "though-ness" about the sentence? You are "not determined" or "determined not" to do something (namely, negating characterizations)? Let's suppose you actually mean "not determined." That would mean this "negating characterizations" is optional. So we have "though ... negating characterizations" is optional, alternate views have evolved into discernable traits. Why is that "though"? And is that what you really mean anyway? I think you mean that you try not to spend your life refuting bad or dismissive things people have said about you, but even so you notice that some of your behaviors seem unconsciously designed to respond to unfair offhand criticism or expressions of bigotry. If I understand your idea rightly, it is a response to your mother's proverb (we may unconsciously "answer to" statements or behaviors by others that we believe we are actually ignoring), but once it is stated clearly it isn't obvious how to make use of it.

Maybe Mothers ARE Always Right

So one thing is clear: words do matter. The next question that arises is the extent to which words ultimately matter.

  • What is the difference between mattering and ultimately mattering?

The significance of words cannot be denied but perhaps that was not the point my mother has been trying to make. Ultimately, what determines how important something is to you is…you. Words do not act on people to the degree that people act on words. We decide how deeply we allow words to penetrate and how those words shape our identities. Rather than internalize all that is said to and about us, we need to sift through the litany of names, classifications, and words thrown at us daily and be selective as to which ones warrant a reaction (be it positive or negative).

  • Yes, that's the idea her proverb contains, it seems to me, as I said.

Identity as Purpose

Though identity is an ongoing process and struggle, to have one is to have a place in society. Identity provides a feeling of belonging and purpose that we constantly strive toward. It separates us from all the other animals and anything less than that is unacceptable. Identity affords the necessary distinction between us and everything else on this planet. We may try to untangle self-identity, group identity, and societal identity as separate notions but in essence, they all perform the same function: purpose. Identity creates a feeling belonging that we refuse do without.

  • I'm not sure what this passage means. What is the alternative to having identities?


In sum, words DO matter and they can hurt just as much as any stick, stone, or fist. Societal perceptions of who we are cannot be completely divorce with how we ultimately see ourselves. Whether we assume the role we have been given or exist in a stark reaction to it, society’s impact on one’s sense of self is ever present. The recognition of the power of words, however, does not undercut the essence of my dear mother’s point. Words have the value that WE create and to save ourselves from constant pain and heartache every time a negative word is thrown our way, we need to develop the ability to filter out the inessentials. Words do matter but not all of them are consequential. Despite the complicated and oppressive nature of social identity, it still provides a level of undeniable comfort to be more than just units of organisms. Though society’s role in our self-identification is continually salient, we ultimately decide the words that speak to individuals we aspire to be.

  • So what does this conclusion conclude? "Despite the complicated and oppressive nature of social identity, it still provides a level of undeniable comfort to be more than just units of organisms." And indeed we don't have that alternative. So it's a little difficult to figure out where that leaves us.


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r6 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:10:31 - IanSullivan
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