Growing up many of us are taught ‘do not judge a book by its cover.’ This saying is a simplification of a complex and important concept - that external characteristics are often misleading, and that because of that fact you should base your opinions of someone on the totality of their character, not just one thing you know about them. Put another way, if you base your opinion about someone on one aspect of their identity, especially what's on the surface level, your opinion is far less likely to be true.
Identity is an important idea - arguably the most important idea out there. If we spend our lives asking questions, the most important questions we ask are about ourselves. Identity is necessary to give others a sense of who we are. We’ve decided it should even be necessary, at times, to prove who you are, for example, to purchase an age-restricted product like alcohol, enter a government building, open a door to your job or board a plane. Identity is everywhere because it is us and each of us are it.
As I am writing this, bring your mind to consider the identities you have. Maybe you coach a local sport, your coach identity, or maybe it's how you present yourself at work, your professional identity. People are rarely the same person at work and at home. Your spouse would think you were taking work home or your work might think you are being unprofessional. Those are identities you can change. Some you cannot. Your age, your sex, your natural hair color, these characteristics, and the ways we are identified are linked to who we are in the eyes of other people. They become components of us, part of our relationships and our political lives, and ultimately our story in life.
And because these identities make up who we are, putting them into someone else’s control can change who we become.
What happens if your identity is outside of your control? What happens when your professional identity becomes known to those who know your coach identity? What if someone was able to know who you were with one group and that you acted differently with another? What if those identities, those things we cultivate and manage become known, managed, and connected by something bigger than us? This could be your employer. This could be your search engine. This could be your government. What happens when your hidden identity - the one you browse “Incognito Mode” with, is known to others?
And in the Digital Age, where virtualization and anonymity can mix, identity has become critical. When you log in to a platform, check your email, or turn on your phone, your Digital Identity is used to make sure it’s you who is getting access. Companies allow you to access virtual worlds, use services that rely on secure access, and keep “accounts” private as long as you are willing to create an account and log in.
We like to think we are who we choose to be. Whether we are known, or unknown, our actions are owned by us. In society our known-self becomes a reputation; the same can happen to the anonymous-self. But these reputations are judged by the audiences you’re associating with - your social network online, or in person. What happens when that line fades?
Look back. Look in. Look forward.
Over the course of history, identity created culture while at the same time also created nightmarish suffering. It has acted as a binary for a long time - you were either part of a country, or not; either part of a religion or not; either part of a race or not. This binary approach is identity boiled down to its most basic level: in or out.
This has been the basis for suffering for millions. Religious persecution, racism, or ethnic-based atrocity, the list goes on and on. One thing remains true throughout: it's binary; you’re a one or a zero - in or out. Just like cancel culture is today: devoid of nuance.
So what if you were described by one characteristic? You like basketball - you’re in; you like hockey, you’re out. You like Politician A - you’re in; you like Politician B, you’re out. Every person you know likely puts different values on each of these preferences or interests. That is because this is the basis of friendships. You present your identity (or who you pretend to be) so that people let you into the group. At the same time, this leaves you out of another group.
In a way, this use of identity strengthens social ties and allows people to develop shared interests. This creates the opportunity to participate and shared experiences. We begin to self-select our preferences based on our identity. A very simple example of this is the news we watch: CNN for the left, and Fox News for the right. This creates discussion within the groups, a shared narrative based on identity.
This is why we get two different conclusions from the same set of facts. People identify with a side and draw similar conclusions: the referees let team A win; peaceful protest or violent uprising; the election was stolen or it wasn’t. The use of identity becomes a very persuasive tool because naturally, we want to be connected to those who we related to, who we identify with. But this becomes a dangerous point; it takes nuance out of the conversation. Nothing is binary when it comes to a discussion - there needs to be nuance. If there isn’t the two sides won’t overlap. You’re either a one, or a zero, either one my side or not.
Binary Identity in a Digital Future
No one aspect of your identity defines you as an individual. You are complex, complicated, and unique. You are not simply the sports team you root for, your favorite food, or your political affiliation. Those traits and many more make you the unique individual you are. This fact has enabled society to grow because we’ve accepted nuance for years as a tenet of polite society. But the digital age has set us back.
In an analog system, your identity is more readily assessed by a combination of factors.
But in a digital system, made up of binary language, ultimately, somewhere in the logic layer of whatever system you are using, your attributes are either a 1 or a 0. There is not a fabric of identities woven together with a texture others can use to understand your content and your context, the whys behind the whats. There is no chance to use the totality of someone’s character, their story, and why what has happened to them to lead to the analog concept of forgiveness.
In a digital world, there are only the "whats" to go on.
We are the Digital Generation. And our reliance on these tools has made us much less likely to see the gray than to judge someone based on a 0 or a 1.