The Paradox of Identity

On the human ability to separate identity from what that identity represents

In processing the very upsetting and very surreal news of the last week and a half—the brutal terrorist attack by Hamas and the subsequent Israel-Hamas war, news which has had a real and personal impact on me and my family—I’ve been reflecting on the concept of identity. And the other day I was reminded, of all things, of a thought experiment arising from Greek myth.

You may have heard of it. It’s called the Ship of Theseus. Imagine a ship in Ancient Greece that, due to regular maintenance, needs to periodically have its components replaced. After a certain time, every single part of the ship (from its ropes to its wooden planks to its sails) has been replaced. The thought experiment asks the question: Is this still the same ship?

The Ship of Theseus

Most people would say yes, although it’s hard to justify why. The thing is somehow still the thing, even if every part of it has changed.

In looking around at how humans make sense of the world, it’s surprising in how many places this idea holds true.

  • The cells in our body regenerate often, such that every few years, every single cell in our body has been replaced. Yet I am still me, and you are still you.

  • Countries maintain identity and culture even when none of the people who defined them are still alive, even if their governments have changed, their rules have been rewritten, and their politics have evolved.

  • Fans remain loyal to sports teams even when their players change, their owners change, or even their locations change.

  • Companies change their employees, their executives, their product lines, etc. Yet they still hold on to their brand identities, and customers still perceive them as being the same whole (despite a complete overhaul of the parts).

In each of these cases, the entirety of the thing may have changed. From nearly all perspectives, it should cease to exist as we’ve known it. Or, at the very least, it should take on new meaning. And yet, something persists. Namely, an identity persists. Despite the internals being completely redefined, the external perception of the thing remains constant.

What could the evolutionary reason for this be? Clearly, there is an innate aspect of human psychology that allows us to retain a perception of identity despite substantial (perhaps even total) revision of what the identity is meant to capture.

This concept is the foundation of what allows us to belong to be proud citizens of a country, or members of religious groups, or fans of a sports team. I call it the Paradox of Identity. We simultaneously categorize things in order to make sense of the world, but then allow those categories to become disassociated with the things they were created to represent.

Yet it’s not only an objective identity that we hold onto. We also hold onto the opinion we’ve formed of that identity. Whether positive, neutral, or negative, we continue to judge the whole just as we did when its parts were entirely different.

And this brings me back to the tragic news of the terrorist attack in Israel. Can’t we also say that the Paradox of Identity is a foundational element of racism and prejudice? Antisemitism, as an example, is a general disdain (or hatred) of “Jews”. But “Jews” is a general concept whose internals, boundaries, and meaning have evolved significantly over the centuries.

Let’s consider Hamas’s Charter (effectively the Constitution of the organization). Written in 1988, this is actual language pulled from the document (which contains many more such instances):

  • “Our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious.”

  • “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews)”

  • “[The Jews] were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there.”

  • “They were behind World War II, through which they made huge financial gains by trading in armaments, and paved the way for the establishment of their state.”

Who are the “Jews” Hamas was founded to fight and kill? Certainly that label includes me, despite the fact that I live in the United States, have never met a member of Hamas, and was a baby when Hamas was founded. But I share the identity, and it’s the identity they hate. And so by the transitive property, they hate me.

I’ll note that this Charter was revised and reissued in 2017, when some of the explicit language against the “Jews” was toned down. But on closer reading, it becomes clear that in most instances Hamas simply replaced the general “Jews” with a slightly less prejudiced “Zionist”, a term that is clearly meant to invoke antisemitism indirectly.

Who is the Hamas Charter intended to target? It’s not the specific people with whom Hamas disagrees politically. It’s not even a group of people. It’s an identity of a people. The Charter is a broad call to arms not only against a particular Jew, or against the Jews of the day, but against Jewish identity and anyone (past, present, or future) who takes on that identity. This includes the secular and religious, the old and the young, the living and the as-of-yet unborn.

An early edition of the book that helped popularize antisemitism: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

It’s through that context that I try to make sense of Hamas’s murder last week of over 1,400 (at least) innocent people. These were civilians slaughtered because of their association with an identity. The notion that the attack was a politically motivated one is flimsy at best. An uprising motivated by political strategy against a nation state or its government does not burn entire families alive in their homes. Like the events of September 11, 2001, this was not an attack motivated by politics but by hate disguised as politics.

Replace Hamas with any organization founded on hate, and replace “Jews” with historically marginalized or terrorized groups, and you reach the same conclusion: Racism or prejudice of any kind is an assault against an identity. This serves as the optimal setup for the haters. It allows them to find targets when needed (by simply finding people who they can link to that identity), while allowing them to dodge the paradox of shifting composition. If you’re a racist, you need not concern yourself with the individuals themselves, their politics, or the fact that they are entirely different people than the ones your predecessors hated. You can just hate for hate’s sake.

And this brings us back to the Ship of Theseus, and the fact that identities can be given meaning that extend far beyond their constituents. I’ve had to remind myself over the last week that good also comes out of mankind’s ability to see the whole as greater than the sum of its parts. But to be honest, it’s hard to stay positive in the wake of such tragic loss of life.