Identity, Attribution, And Affiliation: Some Thoughts

     Apologies, Gentle Reader, but the immortal words of Becker and Fagin,in I’m about to do it again:

     My self-imposed exile wasn’t for any particular purpose. Maybe it served one even so.
     —No maybes about it, Al. You are not who or what you were. You’re far more. Some of it is invisible to you yet, though it won’t be forever. Just one of the unacknowledged laws of human nature at work.
     Which is?
     —At every moment of your life, you are everything you have ever been. It’s all there, from the instant of your birth onward to this very moment. And it all plays a part.
     Even the pain?
     —Especially the pain.

     I’ve bloviated before about the nature of individual identity. The what you are – your human nature – is a starting point. The who you are – what makes you a unique and (forgive me, please) identifiable individual comes second, as it must. And while some of it is nurture-dependent, quite a lot is the result of your exercise of your free will: that is, your choices about what path to follow through life.

     That leads us to an interesting and rarely discussed semantic cleavage: the difference between “I am an” and “I am.”


     One of the reasons we don’t get a great deal of traffic here at Liberty’s Torch is my topical eccentricity. I write about what’s on my mind, and my mind has a tendency to wander into realms where most people never go. Add my fascination with metaphysics and epistemology, the nature of reasoning, the critical importance of religion, the subtleties of language, the centrality of undecidable propositions, and a love of wine, and the mix strikes a lot of folks as too cockeyed to bother with.

     Still, it passes the time (though that’s not why I write). About five hundred visitors share it each day. That suffices to keep me turning out these turbid exercises in anfractuosity. And every so often it stimulates someone else to keep a train of thought in motion.

     I’ve yet to meet a human being who was entirely and only a single characteristic. I doubt that our nature makes it possible. Maslow’s Hierarchy would seem to forbid it. Besides, it would be boring.

     So what do we really mean when we say:

“I am an [insert characteristic or affiliation here]” — ?

     It can’t mean that we’re that thing and nothing else. Yet within certain contexts it proclaims an oppositional distinction of some kind: a this that is definitely not certain thats. “I am a Catholic” says by implication that “I am not a Muslim,” or a member of many other faiths with which Catholicism is incompatible.

     However, some “I am an” statements do not preclude others that would seem at first glance to be incompatible. Some sets are subsets of others. For example, “I am a Catholic” is perfectly compatible with “I am a Christian,” “I am a theist,” and “I am a human being.”

     Now let’s look at a reformulation of those attributions:

  • “I am a Catholic” versus “I am Catholic”
  • “I am a Christian” versus “I am Christian”
  • “I am a theist” versus “I am theist” (or “I believe there is a God”)
  • “I am a human being” versus “I am human”

     Do the statements on the left of the arrows tell the hearer anything different from the statements on the right? Do they have different connotations? Different emphases or emotional weights?

     I think context matters more to the answers than anything else.


     Were you once inclined to say “I am an [characteristic or affiliation]” that you have since renounced? Most adults have left something of the sort behind. Yet that prior characteristic or membership is immutable: it’s a fixed element in your past. To some extent it’s a part of why you’re what you are today. Perhaps you even put it to use consciously, now and then.

     There was a remarkably striking scene in one episode of the television series Justified in which a secondary character, confused or perhaps disturbed by the peregrinations of Marquee antagonist Boyd Crowder’s affiliations, asks “Which of these are you?” For Crowder, brilliantly depicted throughout the series by Walton Goggins, has been serially a thief, a killer, a white supremacist leader, a Christian evangelist, and other things. Crowder replies that he is all of them, in apparent contradiction to his having set some of them permanently aside. It was a penetrating self-observation that not many persons would make of themselves. Everything Crowder had ever been participates in what he had become, even if he’d left some of it permanently behind him.

     This suggests that in the enumerated list of “I am an” statements versus their “I am” reformulations, the latter expression has advantages over the former. For what “I am” today might not be what “I am” tomorrow. The process by which one sheds characteristics and acquires others could well be more important than the characteristics themselves. Indeed, I’d venture to say that the process is more important than its consequence in the majority of cases. It tells us not merely who we are but how we got there. That’s something that a lot of people fail to appreciate…and a lot of those who do appreciate it strive to obscure.


     Today’s multitude of clashes between identity groups is only one of the reasons this is on my mind this snowy Monday morning. Another is the importance of knowing oneself, and one’s ability to use that supremely difficult sentence I was wrong.

     Not long ago, I had lunch with a former colleague, a woman who had once been a passionate, even vociferous vegan. (I know, I know: most of them are passionate and vociferous, and will make sure that you get the full benefit of both.) I’d known her in that earlier phase, and some years had elapsed since we’d seen one another. At our lunch together she startled me by ordering a cheeseburger. She noticed my surprise and smiled.

     “I was vegan,” she said. “I’m not now.”

     Note what she did not say. The omission of the indefinite article gave her statement a curious power. She knew and acknowledged what she had been and no longer was. Yet she did not attempt to distance herself from her previous practice. It was part of what made her what she was as she sat before me.

     Food for thought.