Saturday, 9 March 2013

Identity and Place

I have been looking for sometime now at ideas surrounding identity not only in regard to myself and Northern Ireland or Ireland but more generally. I have been trying to get to grips with these concepts in much wider more inclusive modes of thought.  A firm belief of mine lies in the fact that people are naturally Tribal, often without realising that this is the case and all our difficulties stem from this Tribalism.  While differences are being celebrated even though there may be no apparent negativity, similarities are being forgotten and I really think we need to find some sort of balance between having an identity of our own while being accepting of the identities of others, including the lower classes and even the criminals within our own society.

I started off by using my knowledge of History and Geography to look for areas where humans have experienced displacement and conflict due to differing National identities.  While the closeness in the demographics of the Northern Irish situation are fascinating and somewhat very close to me personally I think that there are so many regions and peoples which should be looked at. Palestine and Israel, the Tyrol region of Italy, Rwandan Genocide and Catalonia in Spain are just a few of the places and scenarios I looked at to try and get a more global sense of these Tribal principles.  When you stop seeing people from different places as being somehow distinct and different you can then begin seeing how the mechanics of identity in the different regions of contention which creates a much more balanced view of what identity actually means to Human Beings despite  National, Cultural and Social differences and it really gives an overall sense that we are not as different as we perceive.

I have been embroiled in this continuous study for quite a while now and by chance a good friend of mine, Sophie Rasmussen, got a friend of hers, Maj Hasager, to come to Belfast with an exhibition about Identity and Place which is on until the 11th of April in The Red Barn Gallery.  The exhibition, which opened last night (Friday 7th), tackles the identities of generations of Palestinian people who were displaced during the creation of the Israeli state in the late 1940’s.  I found it refreshing because rather than focusing primarily on the conflict itself it looked more at the feelings of those involved.  Especially interesting were the supposed identities of many of the families of the Palestinian refuges, some of whom are still refugees even after all this time.  You get a real sense that by being displaced these people have completely lost their sense of self and are harking back to and identifying more and more with the places that their grand parents and sometimes great grandparents were ejected from over half a century ago.

Then today a group of us went on a tour taken by Sophie around Belfast to look at some of the social and cultural changes as well as new ideas that are being helped along by King Street Arts with regard to future regeneration.  The group was very diverse with as many people not from here as from here and we did a workshop afterwards in ‘Place’, which is in Fountain Street, if you get a chance to visit ‘Place’ do, it is an amazing project which would warrant much more attention than it is currently receiving.  I would urge more people to get involved in this type of thing.  The way our society functions is to a large degree based upon Individualism, our communities are eroded by this concept and how we live our lives is often very selfish and insular.  More needs to be done by all of us to stop things heading in the wrong direction because working only for the good of yourself and your family is not making things any better and being driven by nothing other than going out and socialising every weekend is doing absolutely nothing to advance society.

Our fascination with the past is something which is evident in Northern Ireland to a large degree.  I think there are kind of identity crises which happen in regions where two groups of distinct peoples find themselves living side by side.  It is almost like the presence of the other group creates a kind of insecurity which results in an over emphasis on peoples expression of their identity.  The recent issue with Flags in Belfast illustrates this perfectly.  People who are not of that community are confused as to why there is all this fuss over ‘a flag’, but it isn’t just a flag it is a very important and symbolic expression of that communities identity.  The Republican community, just like the Loyalists, are very driven towards expressions of their identity which take in Flags and Symbols and Marches. The past is also a very prevalent and regarded aspect which gives Loyalists and Republicans a real sense of who and what they are and most people who are not from either side cannot comprehend how or why these people would want to behave in such a way.  This inability by the rest of society to understand is making the problem here worse because we are simply pushing these people not only further away from mainstream society but further away from one another, in essence we are helping them to realise that all their fears are true, that they are not like us and they’re not like each other.  All of us need to be more inclusive not only in our actions but in our thinking because although we don’t care to admit it we are all part of one fragmented collective.

The wider branches of both the Irish and British communities here are as much a part of the conflict even though they may not realise it.  For instance moderate Catholics who avidly follow GAA may see this as being harmless but it is a direct identification of their Culture just as similarly minded Protestants would be more likely to follow the Ulster rugby team or Irish league Soccer.  Why am I even mentioning this some might wonder but how a person asserts their National identity is very important because it has wider implications as to where we are as a collective.  Though many moderately minded individuals may not harbour animosity toward the other side they are, by their very inclusion and participation in their own culture, adding to the general polarisation because those who are less moderately minded can see their Cultural expression as somehow threatening.

So much of the focus we have tends to be largely on how we are going to live together and how we are going to share this space but the crux of the problem is never really looked at.  A lot of people here simply refuse to speak about the troubles and this is unhelpful.  I remember during the troubles if you tried to speak about it certain pubs you would actually be told not to!  This is not going to change over night and if you really want change I am afraid you are going to have to change your own attitudes, you should maybe start with the misplaced belief that it has nothing to do with you because if you live here it has something to do with you, it’s about all of us and how we all interact collectively.

For those of us who believe that because we’re not Sectarian it is not our problem there is also an overriding notion about how Sectarianism manifests itself and what people who are Sectarian should and should not be doing.  We judge people by their actions as well as by who and what they are but we often completely overlook the fact that these people didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to start rioting.  Civil disobedience in this country is part of our way, I am not excusing it, I am merely looking at it realistically and rationally.  The polarised nature of our two War like communities here comes directly through History from a time when the whole of Europe was at War often with itself, people are quick to disregard History but it needs to be studied and understood and the present also needs to be put firmly in the context of the past or else we will never truly get to grips with our shattered country.

For most of Britain, Ireland and Europe the modern age is currently relatively calm and even, at times, prosperous but we are too quick to forget that it wasn’t always this way and indeed it will change again in the future.  Places like Northern Ireland seem to get stuck due to the demographics which end up playing out, when polarisation of peoples becomes a reality it is not something which can easily be tackled with rational and right thinking alone, we need to more accepting of the Social and Historical mechanics which made the conflict possible because these aspects are still present. 

If people would only look at History and the rest of the world they would become aware that the difficulties we face here are no different to the difficulties being faced everywhere, we are not unique.  The problems human beings are having are being faced because of peoples natural Tribal instincts and knowing that will change how people see conflict.  This is why differences need to be focused on less and that requires all of us to stop seeing ourselves as being somehow superior just because we are of a particular National Identity or Religion or Race. 

I do believe though that if we could sort out our own identities the rest would follow and while this may seem obvious and simplistic you have to think that it may not be as obvious as it would appear else we would simply not be having the difficulties that we are. 

Change begins with each of us and if we are not willing to change then how can we realistically expect others to?

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