We Think People Like Us Are Like Us—But They’re Not Identity has many faces

Humans are social animals. We live together, work together and inter­ro­gate the world together. And the fruits of our indi­vidual lives, labor and study benefit all of us—not just the indi­vidual. But who exactly is “all of us”?

You’re One of Us Now

There are grand taxonomies, of course, in which we can state with sweeping certainty that we are members of the human race, the animal kingdom, life on earth. And even beyond that, it somehow feels perfectly adequate to call the Milky Way “our” galaxy.

That’s the easy part. The more chal­lenging clas­si­fi­ca­tions are the ones that are closer to home, the ones we feel an emotional connec­tion with. The taxonomies that don’t simply reflect what and where we are, but whose defi­n­i­tion we iden­tify with on an inti­mate level.

We may call ourselves Muslim, or Canadian, or black, or humanist, or gay, or musi­cian, or Trekkie, or vegan… the list goes on and on. And, impor­tantly, the fact that you cate­go­rize your­self as such matters. That’s because these simple words do more than denote an aspect of our char­acter or history—they iden­tify us a members of a commu­nity. If you call your­self a gamer, for example, that’s your member­ship ticket to a group of like-minded folks who are also “gamers.” Your self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion qual­i­fies you as a member of the group, and conversely your group member­ship justi­fies your self-imposed iden­tity.

In other words, you and all others in your tribe know that everyone in that tribe is “like us”—that’s the whole point.

The Power of Us

Even some­thing as trivial and incon­se­quen­tial as being color-blind (which I am) can serve this purpose. I do not see myself as belonging to a “family” or “clan” of color-blind people, but when I meet someone who shares this genetic trait, there’s an imme­diate sense of rapport. Whaddayaknow? You too! And hey presto, there’s some­thing that connects us.

This “us-ness” is incred­ibly powerful. You can stack it upon itself as often as you like. Heck, you may even be a black gay color-blind vegan Canadian humanist Muslim musi­cian Trekkie gamer! Knock your­self out.

As a side note, there are excep­tions to this free-for-all. Some of these group­ings define them­selves on the basis of an exclu­sivity that precludes member­ship of other groups. Religions are partic­u­larly good at this. You may have a hard time, for instance, being a Hassidic Jew and a Jesuit priest at the same time. But that is beyond the scope of this article.

The Limits of Us-ness

Here’s the thing, though. We juggle the member­ships to a multi­tude of us-nesses, iden­ti­fying with each one. As we saw above, for each of these iden­ti­ties, we assume that the rest of that group is “like us.” And indeed they are—but only for that partic­ular part of what makes you you.

Two people may both be polit­i­cally conser­v­a­tive and in that sense, each can say that the other is “like me.” But one of them may be Danish, and the other Kenyan. One of them may be Catholic, the other Hindu. In those and a myriad other senses, they are most defi­nitely not like each other. They don’t partake of the same us-ness.

Let me take myself as an example. I carry a Dutch pass­port, so other Dutch people are “like me.” But I was born in the Dominican Republic, which the vast majority of those other Dutch people weren’t. I am a writer, so other writers are “like me.” But, as you know, I am also color-blind. And most other writers aren’t.

In the end, n=1

No matter how deeply we feel connected to a group that shares any given us-ness, the fact remains that on an indi­vidual level, we will always be more unalike than alike. And no matter how vehe­mently we distance ourselves from another group whose us-ness we don’t share, they will always be more like us than we like to think.

We are all alike in that we are all different.

What really means to be “like you” is not your connec­tion to any one group of people who self-iden­tify in the same way. It’s the entirety of your partic­ular collec­tion of us-nesses that makes you unique, not any one member­ship card you may carry, however proudly.

So feel free to truly be “like us”. Be your­self. It’s a great club to belong to—membership: one.

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Image: “The Lovers” by René Magritte (museum)

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