“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
― Toni Morrison
Who are you?
I was fourteen when I first found myself in an online chatroom. A/s/l, they asked — early Internet slang for your age, sex, and location. It was never personal information. No one was interested in names. No one cared about what you looked like. You were free to be anonymous as long as you provided a small token of details from which the rest could be inferred. Your interests were apparent from the category of chatroom you joined while your avatar gave away any other small pieces of personality. The concept of anonymity was still years from making sense to me yet the obliviousness to physical identity came as natural as the breath. Claiming you were a fourteen year-old boy from India seemed repetitive and quickly became dull. Eventually I was painting myself to be something far more interesting.
One day I would be a 75 year-old living in rural Mongolia who had just purchased his first computer after selling 25 of his favourite sheep. On another, I would be a divorced mother of three, fresh out of prison, looking for advice on everything from makeup to homeschooling. You get the idea. Identity on the web is as literal as fiction. It could be as entertaining as you wanted it to be each time you were asked your a/s/l.
Regardless of how you chose to portray yourself, your personality was a central component to how each story was laid down. Regardless of how honest you were, most assumed you were disclosing truthful information. Their minds drew lines from one point of data to the next, forming a small outline that, with time and patience, would be superimposed with a concrete layer of acceptance. Once you had reached that stage, you had Frank Abigale’d their behinds. The chatroom was now yours for the taking to explore every niche of human capacity, everything you could get away with as an imaginary identity, at least until bedtime.
The online world is a drop in the bucket. With anonymity, there’s no discrimination. No one can judge the unknown. On forums such as Reddit, getting a new identity is as easy as coming up with a new username. There’s no one to question your motives, judge you by the colour of your skin, or ban you based on your age because no one can be privy to information you do not want to share. There are problems with this approach but the pros probably outweigh the cons. The point is, you don’t age on the Internet, you have no gender and you have no country. Your username might change, your communication will mature over time, your choice of subreddits may drastically shift depending on your interests, but you will never age. You could pretend to be a different gender based on the day of the week. With Tor, you no longer even had to worry about your Internet service provider knowing your true location.
Yet, like real life, people can and do judge you based on certain criteria. Online, credibility is based on reputation — call it Internet points, karma, the number of followers, likes, etc. To some online services, these signify your commitment to your role. Like seniority in a real life occupation, Internet points signify how long a profile has been around. The Reddit karma system which was primarily developed as a reward mechanism also serves as an easy way to distinguish between credible profiles and inflammatory and digressive posters — trolls. If you post worthwhile content, you get upvotes — points! On the other hand, if people don’t like what they see, you get downvoted — you lose points. Unlike the virtual world, physical age plays a very important role in real life in determining your credibility. It gives people an easy excuse to ignore your opinions depending on how old you are while giving way to cultural cliches such as respect your elders or tradition is sacred. One of the harshest — kids are stupid might almost seem like a mathematical axiom but ignores certain aspects of the child that are seldom found in adults such as the ability to quickly master languages or adopt new skills.
A/s/l in the offline world is very much like the Internet. The major difference is that it’s much easier to catch someone lying. As an Indian teenager, I could never pretend to be a 75-year old Mongolian even with the best makeup advice. Yet, there were other ways to pretend. At the time, I thought of myself as shy but I could still stir up some confidence when I had to talk to strangers. I only had to pretend to be charming, smart, and interesting. Society even had my back. “You can be anything you want to be when you grow up,” they told me at school. “Always dream big,” they proudly added. Years later, I realized all these statements only translated into, “get a bigger salary.” So, yeah, they were pretending too. Eventually I came to the conclusion that everyone was pretending. Everyone I interacted with had a story to tell. They all had a big bag of words that they used to confidently describe themselves. Most interesting of all, they all took the story they told themselves and others very, very seriously and would happily clock you in the mouth if you merely hinted at anything otherwise. Like calling someone out in the chatroom for their alleged fakery, painting someone as a liar in real life was akin to assault. But my conclusions weren’t based on some impulsive thought. They were carefully considered observations. The wall of pretense we erect is not even a conscious decision. Almost always, it is based on years of cultural indoctrination.
Who are we?
Culture is a weird one. The average American and Indian of the 1950s could be considered living centuries apart from each other. The Indian, most likely an illiterate farmer barely making ends meet, could not dream of life in the American Golden Age — minimum wage that could pay for two cars and a mortgage. He could not conceptualise the existence of luxuries such as refrigerators, ovens, swimming pools and shopping malls, hospitals and discotheques, or the ability to travel the world on tips earned while bartending. The average Indian farmer desired healthier bulls, better harvests, regular rainfall, obedient wives for his sons. But then, as much as now, drastically different cultures still overlap in certain ways. The Indian farmer, much like his American counterpart, looked to his neighbour to understand himself. If the Jones next door bought a fancy new car, everyone living in the neighbourhood wanted something better. If the Kumars next door threw a huge wedding for their son, inviting everyone from the closest twenty villages, the Chopras dreamt only of throwing a larger party next year. The collective psyche of each culture is only a reflection of the common individual. But cultures, either homogeneous or otherwise, are only an echo chamber. They consciously or subconsciously produce edicts, rules and regulations that each individual integrates as part of their own personality. Whether it’s capitalism good, communism bad in the American psyche, or India good, Pakistan bad in the Indian. From economic policy-making and government initiatives to television programming and pop art, everything must adhere to cultural norms and traditions. Unless it fits the identity of the collective and follows a cultural narrative, it will be discarded.
Take the never ending list of Indian god-men and celebrities who are routinely treated as infallible figures worthy of worship. Devotees are often so unflinching in their faith that they are willing to overlook overwhelming evidence of rape, murder, exploitation and extortion. This is not unique to India. Charismatic personalities have sway over swaths of people all across the world. Whether it’s Trump, Duterte, Bolsonaro or Modi, the ability to pander to the masses and speak to the cultural norm is more important than competence at one’s job. Trump gave voice to a collective that was scared of immigrants taking over their jobs. Years later, his ineptitude would lead to one of the worst administrative failings in American history and the death of over 200,000 people in the course of the pandemic.
In many countries, questioning one’s cultural norms is akin to treason. Similar to questioning a person’s opinions, questioning the integrity of a political ideology leads to terrifying situations. The BJP’s rise to power in India has been followed by the arrests of intellectuals, academics, students, poets, and doctors for voicing opinions against the party. This is quite the routine for authoritarian governments. In the 1950’s, Mao Zedong’s government in China persecuted and killed half a million of its educated populace before launching the Great Leap Forward, a project that aimed at transforming China from an agrarian economy into an industrial power. While it looked great on paper, it led to the greatest famine in history and resulted in the deaths of at least 20 million people. This failure politically weakened Mao. In response, he launched another program to weed out and eliminate dissidents, killing another million in the process while leading to the destruction of thousands of Chinese cultural artifacts. What was the outcome of this violence? It only strengthened Mao’s hold over the masses. His personality was now a cult.
To call humans sheep would be unfair because sheep are never pushed off a cliff by their masters. Human societies, on the other hand, are rife with power dynamics, deep hierarchies, discrimination, and violence. Yet, each of us identifies as a good person. We can rationalize why we are good, therefore we must be good. No country in the world would ever think about labeling itself as a force of terror, cruelty, and animosity, but we can easily call another any number of names. We look to our family, friends, and society to support and reinforce these views — call them nationalism, patriotism, freedom, equality — regardless of how accurate or even relevant these views are.
Oscar Wilde said, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
Our identity does not quite work in favour of our individual or collective happiness. We associate a feeling of national pride towards statistics, numbers, and symbols. Rising GDP is popularly correlated with the “wealth” of a country, but many forget that this number just smashes together a country’s total economic output over a period of time without distinguishing between “good” and “bad” economic activity. Even the man who came up with the concept, Simon Kuznets, was of the opinion that the number had nothing to do with individual well-being.
We look to our history to understand where we came from without realizing we have many incomplete pieces to an enormous puzzle. Many contemporary Indians would associate themselves with the iconic Indus Valley civilization and think of the core of their cultural and religious identities as unchanged for thousands of years. However, the morals and the values carried by the average Indian today — monogamy, marriage, vegetarianism, holidays and celebrations, rites and rituals — all stem from thousands of years of mingling with the outside world. What we define as violent invaders and conquerors today have played an important role in shaping our culture into its current form. Not only did the Mughals contribute to our aesthetics and our lexicon but they also brought with them mathematics, science and philosophy. Global trade helped carry the Indo-Arabic number system (the numerals 0 to 9) to Africa, Europe, and eventually to the rest of the world. The British brought their own legal and judicial systems, passed down from the Romans, the railway infrastructure, and a bizarre penal code which sought to divide the subcontinent culturally, morally, and geographically according to their own prudish Victorian attitudes.
Hinduism, a major global religion today, has its roots in the Vedas, a collection of manuscripts believed to have been written by ancient sages at least a thousand years before the birth of Christ. The Vedas described the lives and spiritual pursuits of the priestly class, the Brahmins of ancient India. Before being written down, they were orally passed on from teacher to pupil. The Vedas described the lives of gods, rites and rituals, spells and incantations, all of which have their roots in even earlier animistic traditions, or the worship of animals, plants and nature — a theme common to the birth of nearly all religions. These texts were central to the agrarian communities that inhabited the Indus Valley. However, one might be hard pressed to call this Hinduism. These ancient traditions later branched out into numerous schools of thought such as Samkhya, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Yoga, Mimamsa, and Vedanta, each with their own unique set of philosophies.
Due to the geographical scale of the Indian subcontinent, the diversity in language, culture, and race, the ideological descendants of Vedic traditions were in the hundreds, if not thousands, and were regarded as a way of life by those who practiced them. The word ‘Hindu’ was simply used to describe people living near the Sindh, a river that flows through the northwestern part of the subcontinent. The word had nothing to do with the individual beliefs of these people. The modern form of Hinduism developed in the 18th century through reformist movements started by Ram Mohan Roy who wished to rid Hindu traditions of superstition and promote rational and ethical ideas about the religion. Thinkers such as Dayananda Sarasvati, Paramahamsa Ramakrishna, and Swami Vivekanada, would develop the idea of a unified Indian continent and seed missionary movements that brought Hinduism to the shores of Europe and later, the United States. Savarkar, who used the term hindutva to describe ‘the quality of being Hindu’, brought on a politically-charged connotation to Hinduism. This was further fueled by the Indian Independence movement that promoted the idea of ‘India as a Hindu nation’ before the eventual partitioning of the subcontinent along religious lines.
It is a topic of much debate whether an organized and unified Hindu nationalist identity that brought the sheer variety of the subcontinent under one banner to overthrow colonialism would have naturally evolved without the presence of the British Raj. More importantly, the idea of a ‘Hindu nation’ starkly contrasts the cultural openness of the early inhabitants of the subcontinent, and their acceptance of hundreds of cultures and different belief systems, which is ironic considering the foundation of Hindutva is based on the myth that India has always been a country for Hindus.
What are we?
Does my cat know he’s a cat? Do animals know of themselves? What about viruses and bacteria? You might say no to all of these questions and state that the ability to know oneself is unique to homo sapiens. The correct answer is debatable but not really the point I am trying to make. What if I asked you what you made you believe you were human, or conscious, or even real? There is good reason for you to believe in all of those things because you might think it’s ridiculous to believe we are just deterministic machines running on genetic code. Surely, we must have free will. Surely, we must be the most intelligent byproduct of evolutionary pressures. Surely, we must be the only creatures capable of stewarding the Earth. Surely, we must be correct about the things we know and accept as fact.
How comfortable would you be if none of these were true? I won’t attempt to answer these questions here because these are an entirely separate discussion but my point is that we believe we are a number of things only because we have identified with these beliefs for a good portion of our lives. Like the Ptolemaists who believed the Earth was the center of the Universe, or Creationists who believe ‘the Earth is 6000 years old and dinosaur bones exist only to test our faith in god’, there may still be numerous misconceptions of reality that we accept as common fact. Regardless of what these beliefs are, it’s critical to understand that our beliefs are our identity. Through many years of indoctrination, people on opposite sides of the Korean Demilitarized Zone still identify as human beings, but their world views are starkly different. One might defend the ideals of capitalist society while the other might think his leader is god and gladly give his life to protect this belief.
There is no distinguishing between one’s beliefs and oneself. Our beliefs form our habits, which in turn form our personalities. We live our lives from the point of view of our beliefs; a home forged from our own subjective interpretations of the world. We hold ourselves accountable to our identity; define ourselves with tokens of adjectives, layers of tradition and symbolism, while in the meantime, we fight to preserve every shred of it, and live the rest of our lives in a struggle to cultivate it. We try to keep it sacred, unique, and immutable. Otherwise, we ask ourselves, what is the point? We work tirelessly to make sure we’re not just another cardboard cutout while raking in trophies, certificates, photographs, children, exclusive club memberships, Internet points — anything to expand our fairytale legacy; anything to suppress our natural mortality and increasing vulnerability. We judge ourselves not through the motivations, beliefs or struggles of others; we judge others based on ourselves. Identity is a relational web. It is a comparison sheet we use to analyse our place in the world. It helps us weave a meaningful story to answer difficult questions such as: What am I? When did I begin? What will happen to me when I die?
No one is born religious. No one is born to identify with a particular piece of land. No one is born to identify with a particular political party. No one is born as a specific identity. We are all simply products of indoctrination. Every single day, from the moment we are born, our education begins — not towards an ideal of truth but towards survival. The agenda of the education system is only a reflection of the culture it inhabits. Perhaps only science can claim the ability to course-correct and steer its way towards better models of the universe. Humans, meanwhile, are not so flexible. Between years three and four, most children start forming opinions about the world and themselves. I am this. I like that. This young identity is shaped through an education system whose primary objective is passing exams, failing which the child is immediately labelled as stupid. The child is routinely compared with their classmates, labelled any number of things — shy, honest, hardworking, problematic, unmotivated. Their place in the world begins to solidify. The child, in most cases, assimilates these assessments as accurate characteristics about themselves, never questioning their validity.
Over the course of a lifetime, many layers of identity are crafted and worn, one on top of the other. Our identity has an appetite. It must consume knowledge and meaning or risk starvation. Some may be consumed by this hunger, turning into narcissists and megalomaniacs. Others might see through the illusion. Regardless of its intensity, one’s ego has a powerful grip on one’s existence, so much so that the two might never be able to separate. Most people might never manage to leave their opinions behind enough to provoke a different perspective because the need never makes itself apparent. Most people have internalised their beliefs about themselves to the point where they are defined by them. People tend to stick with people who think like they do. They fall into a loop of self-compliant views and confirmation bias that only perpetuates every single erroneous belief. Eventually, this simplistic view of the world and the self becomes hardwired and impossible to outgrow. Anything that challenges these hardwired beliefs is first ignored as fake news, but eventually, it brings forth an increasingly agitated response. The stronger the hold of identity, the greater is its tendency to fight back against change. People might call themselves vegan, Neo-Marxist, jazz aficionados, liberal, Muslim, pan-romantics, Indian first, Maharashtrian second, [enter artist’s name]’s biggest fan. They might have good reason to suspect these words as truth. Regardless of their accuracy, these are just layers of identity, to be worn as per the demands of the situation, like seasonal clothing.
Our identity is life itself. It is the very antithesis to death. These are polar opposites: creation and destruction. Identity forges meaning while death snatches it away in an instant. While the pursuit of meaning is a lifelong endeavour, ageing is a paradox. Ageing in the modern world is the contradiction between wanting a longer life as well as infinite youth. A trillion-dollar anti-aging industry that only seeks to postpone the inevitable, is testament to this fact. In the meantime, all we are left with is the pursuit of polishing our individual story. Some might cherish the annual event that signifies the day they were born, while others may hate it, resenting the lives and achievements of others associated with a smaller number while casting everyone else into a basket of irrelevance. Perhaps this is why the shadow of anonymity offered by the Internet is such a comforting place to live. But whether offline or online, my a/s/l is whatever I want it to be, as long as it gives me the joy that I seek and the comfort I need to go on.
There is no point in living in a cage of dubious and limiting self-beliefs. I am not suggesting you could fly simply by identifying as a bird. I am merely suggesting identity is an emerging phenomenon. It is a continuous carving and remodeling of the ego. It evolves in response to the environment because identity is a tool for survival. With that knowledge, at the very least, it might bring you a step closer to staying open to new ideas and possibilities. Just don’t take yourself too seriously.