Beware the Ides of Identity

Partha Chakraborty-
Partha Chakraborty

Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain, and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.

“Cogito, ergo sum”, wrote Rene Descartes in Principles of Philosophy as the fundamental, foundational even, the element of Western thought. As a layperson, I find the interpretation by Charles Porterfield Krauth most relatable and it goes as follows “That cannot doubt which does not think, and that cannot think which does not exist. I doubt I think, I exist.” More commonly, it is shortened to “I think, therefore I am”. In Upanishad, a parallel thought is expressed as Soham Asmi! [“I am what he/she is”].

I wonder if anybody actually tried to claim their identity with those words in any medieval royal court.

The generic image of a royal court puts the Sovereign up on a high pulpit slouching on a bejeweled throne resplendent in regalia, surrounded by a veritable menagerie of servile nobles, droopy-eyed and potbellied wisemen, mercenaries with bad teeth and twisted moustache, clairvoyants with serpent’s glance hidden behind swirling smoke, and, maybe, commoners. In such an august gathering who you are depended, for the most part, by the diktat of a single voice. With little risk of oversimplification, it can be said that the Sovereign defined, commanded, who you were – you could befriend of foe, noble or a commoner, mercenary or courtesan…or simply alive or dead.

The Lord sayeth so, therefore you were, or not. It did not matter what you thought.

It changed a lot, thankfully. It changed with the stroke of a pen. The Framers in the US, for example, stuck it to the Man with these famous words “We the People of the United States….do ordain and establish this Constitution”. Nowhere in these documents, it posits the powers are bestowed by anybody but themselves, implying. we are all bestowed with what may be called “Self-Sovereign Identity”; we alone define who we are, and, we do not have to seek a Royal Commission to establish ourselves.

Things got nuanced at that point as we got to define our identity that was not set in stone.

Every person has multiple identities and that is perfectly OK. My professional identity concerns my academic and professional accomplishments (lack thereof), and, maybe, snippets of my personal characteristics that overlap well with my work. For example, it matters that I have a doctorate from an Ivy League university and it matters that I have been steadfast in my zeal to be entrepreneurial for over a decade now, at times with abject failure and at times with good fortune. It may matter that I have turned entrepreneurial after a life-changing medical event only to the extent it shows my commitment. It may matter that I am a doting parent and a reasonable partner, only because it indicates a level of stability when everything else rocks my boat. My personal identity, on the other hand, is all about being that father and that husband, uncomplicated by, to the best I can, idiosyncrasies of professional demands except as a running commentary on the virtues of this American dream. On another axis, I have dual identities of an Indian and an American, co-existing ever so beautifully. On another axis, I have the identity of an immigrant with a pronounced legacy of being born of refugees. On another axis, I am proud to be a Cornellian as well as proud to be an alum of Indian Statistical Institute. My identity is a moving collage, if only because I say so. My identity at any point of time is a collection of events, memories, images, feelings, etc., that I – as Sovereign of my own self – have full control over, but the collection can change next time. This time varying nature of a self-defined identity implies that identity is always product of demand and supply, consciously or unconsciously.

With great power comes responsibility, true also for an identity. Am I being truthful? Am I being consistent? Am I using my better judgment? Am I modifying my identity to create an opportunity for myself? Am I forced to adopt an identity to respond to an adverse situation? The questions are many.

In a world hypersensitive about identity, repercussions of transgression can be immediate, without due process and merciless. And in this world, obvious own-goals are scored even when the intent is noble.

Cornell University created a class (PE 1641: BIPOC Rock Climbing) for Summer 2021 that explicitly limits attendance to people who self-identify themselves ethnically within a band. Even assuming that group is less well represented in rock-climbing, a win-win alternative would have been to aggressively recruit that community for a class that is open to all, something the university was forced to do after an outcry – it still did not change the name of the course, so the concession was clearly half-hearted.

Columbia University is organizing six “Multicultural Graduation celebrations” for specific groups to “provide a more intimate setting” for self-identified people to “reflect on personal growth and community experiences” for 2021 Commencement. Why only six? Why not let individual student associations take care of these celebrations? Why is it that Columbia, or Cornell, reverting to a “separate but equal” standard that has proven to be false, demeaning and value destructive? On the supply side, a recent egregious case happened at Smith College – a pricy private preserve by itself – when a private school educated student ruined lives of ordinary workers (including a janitor with 30+ years of service record), none whom did anything wrong, all because of she chose to run to the ground her misconceptions about the others, and because the college obliged. She could do that because she played one element of her identity to imply pre-conceived notions as to one element of the others’ identities. Really?

On the political front, we are just emerging from the nightmare of Trump regime, foisted on us by grievance of a large part of the population about Black and Brown people coming in and destroying “their” country, their way of life. I already wrote at length about them on these pages; I am not too hopeful that much can be done here.

Because identities are human constructs, it is time to impose standards, and expectations, so they do not become play-things to exploit on demand. That is too big a task for me to do here, and way above my pay grade. Here’s my suggestion to Cornell, my Alma-mater. Once a student is accepted, just forget about their identity outside of faith and gender; and only take cognizance of those two in the most spartan way possible. That does not mean you do not promote communities of shared experiences – let that be done by the hundreds of clubs on campus. The university is under no obligation to offer “multicultural” graduation ceremonies, the Commencement was precisely that for crying out loud. If you have to promote one, just one, identity, let that be of a Cornellian first. You will find that a vast majority of students come precisely because they want to look beyond their limited exposure a-priori.

I know I did. A BIPOC class would turn me away.

Beware the Ides of Identity. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it only gets more menacing, so keep it closed. Let us only highlight the few that bring us together, and celebrate them. Not pander to hundreds that can only tear us asunder.