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Opinion | Jan 7, 2019

Who Am I?: The Crisis Of Identity In A Scientific World

For the past three days, I have been reflecting over what it means to be a Christian. I have already written about how being a Christian and understanding the Christian notion of salvation births human beings who are incredibly humble and selfless. In this article, my focus is to answer the question: “Who am I? I examine the moral and social implications of our response to this question on the moral map of society. I use the notions of ascribed identity and achieved identity as entry point.

As a ‘Zongo boy’, I have some physical marks on my face that unmask the complexity of my identity. Most people who meet me for the first time, mistaken me for a Northerner (a group I would proudly identify with). And because I speak Hausa (a language I grew up speaking), many identify me as a Muslim. The conflation of Hausa and Islam is because itinerant Muslim Hausa traders were among the earliest propagators of Islam in Ghana. There are those who also think I am antisocial. For such people, they assume my entire life is all about books. There are equally those who think I can never woo a woman, including the reverse.

But I am not deeply concerned about how others seek to construct my identity. What I am particularly concerned about is how I relate with basically two types of identities – ascribed identity and achieved identity. Ascribed identity is the kind of identity that is self-evident: identity that I did not work for. This includes the fact that I am an Akan, male, have thick hair, slim, and chocolate in complexion. I did not consciously choose any of these attributes. For example, I did not choose my parents and place of birth. I also did not choose my siblings.

However, there are some qualities about me that I chose. These are called achieved identity. I decided to choose to learn English. I decided to continue to stay in Maamobi. I decided to choose my friends. I choose the countries I travel to. I choose the political parties I join. In the end, my education is a choice. My political party affiliation is a choice. Even so, both ascribed and achieved identities have a tapestry that determines how I live and function in society.

In prescientific societies, the emphasis was more on ascribed identity, as opposed to achieved identity. In other words, the answer to the question: who am I? is answered from the prism of my sociality. My ascribed identity automatically connects me to other people like me. There is no way I will see myself better than those who share the same ascribed identity with me. I will hardly look down on those who are exactly like me. I seek the interest of those who are like me. Self-assertiveness is sacrificed. Instead, self-denunciation is enforced. Also, I have a strong sense of community. Hospitality is strong. Respect for members of my group is never compromised. I seek the collective good of members of my group. This leads to emphasis placed on collective ownership and collective happiness. In sum, this sense of sociality is expressed in the Ubuntu philosophy, as captured by John Mbiti: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore, I am.” The Akan express this in a proverb, “When man was thrown down from heaven, he fell into a community of human beings.” According to the eminent Ghanaian philosopher, Kwame Gyekye, “Communitarianism immediately sees the human as inherently (intrinsically) communal being, embedded in a context of social relationships and interdependence, never as an isolated, atomic individual.” This social structure shapes socialization in prescientific society, where complementarity, as opposed to competition is cherished.

In a scientific society, we move away from the collective instinct of ‘primitive’ culture to individualism. In scientific society, emphasis is placed on achieved identity. Individuals are encouraged to be creative. They are told to be assertive. They are told to compete for success. They are also told to look into themselves to construct their identity. There is a strong emphasis on individual ownership and self-worth. Personal happiness is held high. Human rights are constructed from the point of view of the right of the individual. René Descartes, a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist, captured this very well, when he said, “I think, therefore I am (Cogito, ergo sum).”

It follows from the above that the type of identity would inform the moral landscape of a society. From the point of view of ascribed identity, the individual leans on the god of the society or the pantheon of gods to derive morality. The common experiences of the group also shape the moral predisposition of the individual. Folklore – myths, fairytales, legends, riddles, puzzles, and dilemma tales – become the means of establishing values and ethics. Ascribed identity also produces a sense of awe for nature. It produces a sense of wonder, which leads to worship. The powerlessness of an individual makes him easily amenable to group ethics. To disobey collective values leads to social exclusion. Morality is defined in absolute terms, not the whims and subjectivity of the individual. At the ascribed identity level, morality is based on the philosophy: “If it is good for the group, it is good for me” or, “what is good for the community, is good for me.”

In the case of achieved identity, individuals formulate their own ethics. They determine what is good and bad by their own intuitions, emotions, and rationality. The emphasis is on negative freedom (to use the expression of Isaiah Berlin). Morality is defined on the basis of individual preferences. In fact, individuals are encouraged to challenge conventions (post-structuralism). Morality is also relative and a personal choice. Consequently, morality is constructed on the authority of the individual, as opposed to the group. It is at this level, that the Ghanaian humorous saying, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison,” makes sense.

On the basis of the construction of identity, two groups are produced: conservatives, who defend the ideals of the collectivism, and liberals, who defend the ideals of individualism. From the point of view of achieved identity, libertarians, like John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, were very influential in shaping the morality of the individual. John Stuart Mill articulated individualism as follows:

“Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compels all characters of fashion themselves upon the model of its own.”

Mill was also interested in ensuring that individuals do not harm others, hence his statement: “there must be complete freedom to do and live as one pleases – up to the point where one’s conduct directly and palpably harms identifiable and non-consenting persons.” But the general assumption of Mill is that anything goes, except when it offends another person. Jeremy Bentham was rather on the extreme end of the spectrum. He argued that the individual should be free from restraint. The individual should be free to be what he/she wants to be.

The logical implication of moral construction, formed from identity construction, will determine my position on contentious ethical issues like abortion, homosexuality, bestialism, polygyngy, euthanasia, human cloning, premarital sex, extra-marital affairs, cohabitation, trans-sexualism, trans-genderism, pornography, including child pornography, child slavery, forced labor, ethnocentrism, racism, malecentrism, and corruption.

To find a solid and convincing response to the above moral dilemmas, I have to answer the question: who am I? I answer this question by appealing to my ascribed identity in Jesus Christ. As a Christian, I did not choose Jesus Christ. He chose me (I John 4:19). My Christian identity is, therefore, ascribed identity. As I have been saying in most of my writings, compared to all other religions, it is only Christianity that teaches that salvation is by grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is only in Christianity where salvation is an ascribed identity, rather than achieved identity. In other words, in all other religions, devotees are expected to work out their salvation (achieved identity). It is only in Christianity that God works to bring salvation to those He has elected from eternity past (Ephesians 1:4). It is only in Christianity that has a savior who ended His mission with “It is finished,” to indicate His salvific mission on behalf of the elect (John 19:30). It is also in Christianity where a savior renounces His right to bring salvation to the sinner (Philippians 2:6-11).

My Christian ascribed identity has implication for my moral choices. I consider myself indebted to my creator who saved me out of His sovereign grace. I renounce my self-assertiveness to His absolute control. I consider myself His servant (I Corinthians 7:22). I live to please Him, not myself (II Corinthians 5:15). I live to love Him, not my inclinations. I seek what makes Him happy, rather than what makes me happy, primarily because, having saved me, he knows what is best for me (Romans 8:28-39). Since He saved me, His rules become my rules; His laws become my laws; I delight in what He delights in, and I give up my right to His right. I identify with other Christians, equally, regardless of their race, ethnicity, culture, and gender. I become selfless, because (much as I live on earth), my ultimate goal is ‘other-worldly’ rather than ‘this-worldly’ (Colossians 3:2). This is because we share a common ascribed identity in Christ. I hate what He hates, and love what He loves. I am able to pray, “Your will be done on earth” (Matthew 6:10).

In the end, I have absolute values to respond to the ethical dilemmas of the post-scientific world. More importantly, since Jesus Christ forgave my sins (out of love), I easily forgive those who wrong me and love those who are not like me. Since I did not purchase my own salvation, I feel obliged to tell others about the joy in the Lord. More importantly, I delight in Him.

Who are you?
Charles Prempeh ([email protected]), African University College of Communications, Accra

Charles Prempeh
Charles Prempeh, © 2019

This author has authored 128 publications on Modern Ghana.
Author column: CharlesPrempeh

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