Identity. What a powerful word. Just a word in the first place, to be filled with attitude. Many discussions in Scotland are meandering around that topic these days. Scots chew through an issue which is of global significance when they quarrel over how important their identity is, should be, need to be, must be, is allowed to be, and probably they are not even aware of it funnily. Of course, it’s now mainly about their identity and how similar to or different from their neighbours’ identity it is. I think, recent and even old questions on nationality are probably not so much about the borders of a country though, rather about the search for a stable identity in a community. And this is certainly not an exclusively Scottish quest.
I want to have a look at the personal nature of identity today. Oversimplified there are three big bricks which build the basement of an individual’s identity: self-perception, how other perceive the person, communication. Self-perception is a weird thing. We always tend to think we are not manipulable, but our self-perception depends extremely on what feedback we get from outside. Standing in front of a mirror singing “I feel pretty” after someone contradicted is much harder than doing it after flattery, for example. Of course, we have a kind of inner image of ourselves. We have our preferences, experience, ideas, emotions, reactions. But we always adjust them due to external input and feedback.
There’s where communication comes into play. The most important instrument is language, of course, so speaking, writing, reading have the biggest influence. Talking of face-to-face-communication, it’s more than that, of course, but we can neglect that when talking of the current discussions on nationalism in Scotland which take place on social media platforms and virtually therefore foremost. That’s not a surprise btw, only few people have the courage to stand for their opinions and beliefs with their face and their voice when the subject is contradictory, problematic potentially on top. Social media is a good way to give a new kind of courage a trial without risking too much, and it’s a democratic mean, empowering everyone to be heard or read rather. But that’s another topic.
Back to communication. We read or hear something, and if it’s close enough to our self-perception, it will catch our attention. Inner mechanisms make us ask in what way it has to do with us and what we think of it. If we get involved inwardly, we usually show reactions: a smile, a comment, a reply. Doing this, we adjust or establish our self-perception. And we take influence on how others see us which mainly builds on our reactions and how we represent our image. We get a feedback on this – ignorance is a feedback as well btw – and that’s where the circle gets round.
So what is identity about? It’s about how we see us, how others see us, how we communicate, and doubtlessly it’s much easier for us and the feedback is much more positive if we are surrounded by people who are not too different from us. Why so? Well, let’s imagine you are a person with pale skin and red hair and a fierce attitude, and you are living in a village where most people have dark skin, dark hair and a very reluctant attitude. This is nothing about nationality or culture or ethnicity, but you will naturally stand out because you look different and your behaviour is different. Correspondently arguable will the communication and the feedback be. You probably will speak out what you think and get the feedback that’s not okay, too much, cheeky, inappropriate. You will adapt your behaviour bit by bit and feel an inner tension because you cannot be yourself. And so on. Again: This is not about nationality or culture. It’s about differentness and (mis)understanding.
Knowing all that, it is evident that the closer and less different a group is, the easier it is to live one’s identity without huge adjustments. A national group is less problematic in that context than a heterogenic union of several states, yes. But honestly, a regional group is less problematic than a national all the same. Would you say people in Perthshire are very similar to people on Orkney? Or people in Edinburgh are very similar to people in Portree? That’s not comparable, you say, big city versus small town, rural region versus isolated islands? You are right, it is not comparable. And there is no homogenic Scottish nationality or identity, the units have to be much smaller if a joint identity is the aim, same elsewhere as well for that matter, be it Germany or Spain or Italy or China or Brasil. I cannot think of a homogenic nation as such.
If nationalism is an effort of clinging together I’d never judge it, but I actually do not think what many – not all, but many – people in Scotland are longing for is a stronger national identity, it’s rather about their own identity and how to find and strengthen it. But the wee world of an individual can be so stormy and scary, think of money troubles, a bossy boss, rebelling kids, failing relationships, life-threatening illnesses. The microuniverse gets too small then, and stability is provided by the bigger group. It’s about balance. It’s about courage as well. The courage of doing things in spite of what others say and think. A strong identity would be revealed if you, as a pale straightforward redhead, stuck to your personality no matter where you are and who you have to deal with. It might help some to say “I am Scottish, that’s the way we are” to establish their individual way. The courageous, though, don’t need a nationality or regionality to refer to. They are the way they are. They have found their identity and know that there are people who hate it – and others who love it.