Editorial: Embrace all your identities

By By Matt Homer

By Matt Homer

Are you a Mormon or a non-Mormon? A conservative or a liberal? White or a minority? Straight or gay? American or a foreigner?

Does one of these identities define who you are more than another?

Identity and its consequences was the topic of last Friday’s lecture by Nobel Prize-winner Amartya Sen. He spoke at Gardner Hall as part of the “Values and Violence” conference sponsored by the Tanner Center for Nonviolent Human Rights Advocacy.

Sen spoke about the duality of identity and characterized it as a “two-edged sword.” Of course, most swords are this way, but he explained this dichotomy in terms of “creative” and “destructive” powers. While the power of identity allows groups to unite and solve tremendous problems, it also leads to exclusion and hostility.

For example, the influence of nationalism in Japan paved the way for brutal expansionism but also produced dramatic economic recovery after World War II.

Sen could have also looked at our own community for another example. The powerful force of a common identity helped early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regroup and rebuild their lives after many of their neighbors believed they should be killed or driven out. Today, this religious cohesion is evident in the way that Mormons look out for each other. When a member of the LDS Church is in need of help, there is usually someone there to give it.

But there have also been “destructive” results from this common identity. If you have spent much time in Utah, you probably know a family who doesn’t allow its children to play with “nonmembers.” Or, for a more violent example, just consider the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, when a group of Mormons attacked and killed a band of non-Mormon pioneers traveling through Utah to California.

Identity is laced with both harmony and conflict–or, as Sen put it, the “creative and destructive are permanently linked together.” It produces a tension — between inclusion and exclusion, benevolence and hostility — that cannot be eliminated.

The solution, according to Sen, is not to eliminate our identities but “to recognize the plurality of our identities.” He believes that emphasizing one identity above others causes us to eliminate potential points of unity with those around us. This, in turn, can lead to extremism and hostility.

All of us maintain certain identities, and it’s probably a central tenet of human nature that we’ll prioritize certain ones over others. But this should not be an excuse for conflict or exclusion. If we recognized that our identities are a “two-edged sword,” we would take the first step toward stifling conflict. And by embracing all our identities, we can undoubtedly find something in common with everyone. Ultimately, it’s our choice.

Matt Homer