Is humanity having an identity crisis?

Continuing their regular ‘conversation blog’, The New Ism’s co-founders Mel Young and Alex Matthews discuss our collective identity crisis, and what we can do about it.

Mel Young: These days we all believe that we are global citizens. We have no problem travelling around the world on holiday or on business, or acting globally on the internet. But at the same time, we seem to be more hung-up about where we belong and about where we come from. We want to be internationalist and nationalist at the same time. Is this duality causing an identity crisis for humanity?

Alex Matthews: Yes, I think it is. There are countless examples of how we seem to be increasingly separating ourselves into ‘tribes’, and refusing to countenance the opinions of those not in our tribe. In the UK, for example, we had, for a long time, ‘Brexiteers’ and ‘Remainers’, according to opinion on whether the country should remain in the EU. Those groups have morphed into more generalised ‘nationalists’ and ‘globalists’, but the discourse remains just as combative. Why do you think it is that we are so drawn to identifying with a specific group, and so averse to listening to anyone outside our tribe?

MY: I don’t really know. I am sure sociologists have a view. Animals run in packs or big families, for example, so possibly it comes from that. The tribe gives us security on one level. It does appear that modern media is encouraging people to pick one side or the other, with nothing in between. You are either left or right; red or blue, from one country and not another and so on. Once you have picked a side you are in it and there is no way out. Social media plays a part in this. If you read some of the anti-vaccination material available on Facebook, for example, it is vicious in terms of its assault on the way governments are handling the pandemic. Maybe they have a point, but there is no debate or discourse because it is like one tribe fighting another one. There is no middle road!

AM: Yes I think social media has a lot to answer for as it allows people to find one another and take sides – it’s incredibly polarising. And it so easily turns into an echo chamber – you can just connect with people who have the same opinions as you and block anyone you disagree with. 

MY: I don’t know if it is all about social media. Some people blame social media a lot and it is certainly an influence, but I think it goes much deeper. Some years ago, I was part of a panel discussion on the role of the media, and we got onto the subject of objectivity. It used to be that the media was impartial and that it provided views from both sides of any argument. One speaker said that was now impossible because objectivity in the media had gone. Newspapers, broadcasters and social media channels had political views, and you couldn’t get away from that. So, if you were in the right-wing tribe you bought a particular newspaper, listened to a certain radio channel and so on. These views simply reinforced your own understanding and politics and made it more imperative for you to stay within your own tribe. If there is no objectivity in the media anymore, then there is much less room for genuine discussion. 

AM: Yes the press is so tribal these days. I see it in myself – I would never dream of buying the Daily Mail, for example, and am often shocked by what I read in my parents’ copy of the Daily Telegraph! What I – and we all – should be forcing myself to do is to read those papers and try to understand those points of view, as that is when the different ‘tribes’ can start having more useful, productive conversations. 

In a new ism, I think we would need to take a long, hard look at the media. At the moment, as far as I understand, most of the media is owned by wealthy individuals, and the political leaning of the institution they own is swayed by the owner’s views and interests. Perhaps the media – and therefore society – would be less divided if it was driven by citizens rather than by the 0.1%. I’m not too sure how it would work, but perhaps you could draw more voices from different parts of society and create conversations that just don’t happen at the moment.

MY: I think the media is influential and there is plenty to discuss about its diversity and its power, but I still think the issue is deeper for humanity in a modern world. It’s not only about where we belong geographically, but where we belong in the modern global world. Religions, political beliefs, gaming and even football club support goes across borders and that becomes the tribe you belong to. But when we look at saving the world we become challenged: are we saving the world or our global religion or our village? The answer to that question will vary greatly from person to person and I think that’s what’s causing this identity crisis. 

AM: You’re absolutely right. But the problems that we are facing as a planet transcend any tribalism. They affect us all – climate change, resource depletion, inequality, poverty, and to address them we must rise above our tendencies to tribalism, and actively engage in discourse with people whose views we might find distasteful – because the solutions will have to work for everyone. At The New Ism, that is what we will seek to do – we want to bring people, particularly young people, together, no matter what their identity, where they are from or what they believe. The important thing is that they – we – all bring apply our ideas and our experiences to solving these huge problems that society faces. To look at it another way, perhaps focusing on the issues that affect us all is the path to solving our collective identity crisis…

Photo: Nadine Shaabana via Unsplash

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