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  • Writer's pictureJacob Hansen

Our Western Identity Crisis

So I recently was watching 2 of my favorite thinkers and social commentators (Douglas Murray and Jordan Peterson) having a conversation (specifically 19:30-23:00) and it inspired some reflection on the nature of identity.

What are you?

You probably answer that question with various answers. I know I do. I am a child of God, a husband, a father, a business owner, a Latter Day Saint, a conservative, a man, a white person, a heterosexual etc. etc. These and other things make up my sense of identity. Everyone has these lists of labels that give them a sense of identity. To identify something is to distinguish it from something else. But in a personal sense it’s an important tool. In life there are a myriad number of “games” we play. Our identity defines the role that we play in these games of life.

Note: A “game” in this sense is a set of interpersonal interactions involving trying to achieve a purpose with norms implicitly agreed upon by the participants in the game so that the game can achieve its purpose.

So just as my identity as a catcher in the game of baseball gives me a guide for where I fit in the game of baseball and what my expectations are in that game, so too is my identity as a business owner a guide to my role and my expectations in the game of my business as well as the game of career and generating an income in the society I find myself in.

My identity functions in two ways: It signals to others what part I am playing in a particular game so they know what they can expect from me, and it gives me a sense of my place in the world and my purpose in it. You can think of the “social fabric” that conservatives talk about as the conditions that exist in a society where the game is clearly defined, peoples parts in that game are understood and thus the game is being played successfully and achieving its purpose.

Our Social Games

This framing also helps us understand the social/political divides we face. The conservative vs progressive divide on a broad level can be viewed as a discussion between those who are more cautious or less cautious about changing existing games. So while I may be considered a wild progressive in relation to the games being played in Iran, I am an ultra conservative in relations to the games being played in San Francisco. As Jordan Peterson frames it psychologically: It’s a discussion between order and chaos, which in either extreme is bad.

So why is this relevant?

It seems pretty clear that western societies are in the midst of an identity crisis on both the macro and micro levels. Identity labels as basic as man and woman are no longer clear. But this goes far deeper than discussions about transgenderism. Almost every institution and social identity label in the west is increasingly finding itself in question. Why is this?

I hypothesize that in western society it’s because the grand narratives (usually rooted in religious ideas) that have shaped the big social games we play are being deconstructed at an ever increasing pace. Western society has been very good at tearing down religious belief systems but they have not been so good at replacing them and these belief systems played an important role in ordering society. Some have been so naive as to think that religious belief systems only do harm to society. While it may be true that belief systems can be toxic, we now are witnesses to what happens when you lack grand narratives that ground the purpose of the games we play and our roles within those games.

Such is the condition of modern western life, a world overflowing with material abundance but rife with depression and anxiety as we confront our lack of purpose, narrative and a meaningful role to play in a bigger picture. So far as I can tell this is the great crisis facing the west and the social discord are the symptoms of this deeper crisis.

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