Fear not, I am not going to get all existential “on yo ass” (a much less successful restaurant concept than the superficially similar Yo! Sushi). This is largely down to the extreme superficiality of my knowledge of the subject, not so much a veneer as a monomolecular layer laid down through some form of knowledge-based epitaxy.
Nor shall I dwell for too long on the flaws in the whole concept of identity which neuroscience seems to feel duty-bound to expose. I have read a fair bit of neuroscience (as opposed to no Kierkegaard whatsoever), but feel they rather miss the target when attacking either the sense of self or of free will. The seem to demolish places where I had never believed either of these things resided, as even a moment’s self-reflection should surely have made obvious (without the need for surrounding folk with incredibly powerful magnets to excite some cranial hydrogen atoms before watching them being slowly overcome by boredom once more).
No, I shall – very much in keeping with the raison d’être of this blog (now on its 450th post) – stick to more trivial matters.
The nature of identity does seem to obsess both those who govern us (or would like to) and those who bring us the soi-disant news. There have been two major areas of identity-based uncertainty that I have noticed in recent weeks – those of being British and being a man. As I can personally tick both boxes, I felt at least somewhat qualified to comment – though, frankly neither of these particular areas of identity have ever caused me the slightest anxiety.
Our politicos do seem very keen to define what it means to be British – which I often feel is more of an attempt to define what isn’t so that those lacking this apparently vital essence can be blamed, disparaged or deported (preferably at enormous cost). It does seem to be very much of a piece with the Manichean nature of so much public discourse – everything is either good or bad, left or right wing, causes or cures cancer (to name but three examples). I’m pretty convinced life isn’t like this. I like to think that all my qualities, both good and ill, at best exist somewhere on a scale between their best and worst possibilities – and, worse, move around on that scale over time. Whilst I am clearly generalising from a sample of one, I suspect other people are much the same. I’m sure we all have elements of Britishness – wheresoe’er we might happen to hale from – and elements of things not British. This is probably true for almost any even remotely sensible definition of what it is to be British – not that a government is ever likely to produce such a definition.
The need to define being British seems to have gained additional zest with the potential departure of the Scots from the union of 1707. So far as I know, I lack any Scottish roots and so no-one will ask me – which is just as well as I have no real idea which option is the better. I suspect disentangling a union which has persisted for 307 years will be an extremely non-trivial (and so expensive and painful) exercise – but merely because something is tricky does not mean it should not be attempted if it is the right thing to do. On the other hand, I suspect more local government is a good thing – if only from the frustrating experience of working for a vast multinational where the seat of “government” seems impossibly remote from my day-to-day working life. Still, this blog is not trying to persuade folk north of the border to vote one way or the other. Our politicians, of course, do not take this approach and campaign with some vigour either for or against divorce. Living a long way south of the border, I tend to see significantly more of the NO campaign – which does seem to have been successfully infiltrated by the YES campaign and is basically doing their work for them. Certainly, if I were Scottish I would find the work of the NO campaign a pretty convincing reason to leave. I like to imagine that the YES campaign has a similar impact on boosting the desire to stay. If so, perhaps both campaigns could agree to shut-up and save their money and allow people to make their own decisions. Or perhaps the money could be invested in an independent body which would dispassionately lay out the pros and cons of leaving in the hope of producing a better informed electorate. I believe flying pigs are very good at this sort of analysis.
There also seems to be a continuing debate about what it means to be a man. Apparently, my fellow holders of a Y-chromosome are suffering an identity crisis. It would seem that treating women slightly less disgracefully than heretofore cuts right to the heart of masculinity. Or maybe it’s the ready availability of power steering and parking sensors? I’ve never really felt defined by my ability to treat those of the distaff gender as second class citizens and I certainly hope I’m not defined by my ability to parallel park (as this ability, if it ever existed, has almost totally atrophied – actually, I did once do it astonishingly well but I’m pretty sure that was a fluke as it was more than 20 years ago and has never been repeated). Then again, I may not be great example of manhood: I have very limited interest in sport, regularly cry in public (though, fortunately, usually in conditions of poor lighting) and have eaten (and enjoyed) quiche. Still, I am pretty clearly a man – biologically speaking at least. For example, I can count to 21 when naked (though these days I do need my glasses to make accurate use of my toes) – so I reckon how I live must be at least one representation of masculinity. So, if any possessors of a Y-chromosome are reading this post in a state of gender crisis I am more than happy to share my tips on how to be a man in 2014. They are also welcome to read this post’s 449 siblings for some evidence of my life as a man in the early 21st century – though this does create the worrying prospect of my mimetic clones slowly spreading through the population.
Talking of clones, on Friday night I went to the Nuffield Theatre to see A Number by Caryl Churchill. An interesting and pleasingly brief play about cloning and what it might mean to have genetic copies of yourself wandering around. The protagonists seemed to find this quite a disturbing prospect – but I would relish meeting a clone (of myself, obviously): (A) to see how path-dependent this version of me is and, much more importantly, (B) to find someone who would understand and laugh at my jokes.
So, send in the clones!