Construction of an Identity and Human Dignity Term Paper

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Human identity and human reflection today: A philosophical and personal overview

Human 'identity' is not a given. In other words, human beings are seldom born with a clear sense of who they are and what is their individual and collective purpose in a larger society. Instead, it is up every human animal of the species to invest meaning in his or her life -- or so implies the popular post-modern conception of human identity, shouted from every self-help book on the shelves. Find your true self! Build your best self! Make your identity matter in today's multicultural world! But according to academic and postmodern critical theorists of identity such as Michel Foucault, 'identities' are not something that certain people have or do not have, or even something that people find. Rather, identities are about particular people in specific situations. (Gauntlett, 1998)

Once upon a time, anthropologists and historians of philosophy like Foucault observed, man or humanity's notions of identity were givens. A person did not 'find' him or herself, from within. Rather, one simply was a mother, a daughter, a son or a father, or a child of God or a servant of the king, according to the collectively determined constructs of identity. 'Who' one was born was who one was as an identity. Society and outer forces clearly determined identity by custom and law. Then, classical modern philosophers such as Rousseau and Locke suggested that human identity was not a given, instead all human beings, regardless of their socially determined status, had a right to construct and to change that status. "Locke declared that if a government did not adequately protect the rights of its citizens, they had the right to find other rulers," because the King was a man, just like any other man, woman, or person. Just because someone was born into a certain role, did not mean that the integrity of his identity mattered more than the human life or interests of a cobbler. (Jesseph, 2005)

In other words, the Enlightenment stress upon human reason stressed that logic concluded that all human entities had integrity as people, as well as identities, rather than simply people who had the right to rule others, given by birth. Before the idea of the human dignity of the individual, rather than the rights of the state and society dominating over all other rights became common, the ideals of the United Nations, as expressed in its declaration of human rights for all, would have seemed incomprehensible -- before the Enlightenment only having a position and identity in society gave one 'rights,' not simply one's identity as a human being. But the postmodern theorist of identity Michel Foucault would go one step further than the Enlightenment ideal of human dignity for all identities, regardless of nation, race, or class status. He would suggest that there are no real, pre-existing specific groups or identities -- not old ones, determined by society and custom, or even new ones, like being a man or a woman, a mother or a father.

This may seem counterintuitive, but it is in fact quite a powerful notion. For example, simply because I am a mother does not mean I cannot be a credible professional as well. I have different identities in all of the different worlds I inhabit. When I visit the classroom of my child, I am the mommy. I am the nice lady who brings cupcakes for my child's birthday party -- the Mrs. Sponge bob Square pants baker extraordinaire, or the lady who drives the kids on Wednesday to soccer practice. But simply because I have four children, and love them dearly does not mean I cannot be a feminist and believe in equality and rights for all human beings and all peoples. I can be a different person, a 'Ms' rather than a mommy when I am at work. A woman at work act might tougher, I suppose, but people at work treat people differently, than they do at my child's school so I might act differently in response.

When I am a student myself at college, though, I raise my hand and act with respect towards the teacher, just as I hope my own children do in their classrooms -- I am not a visitor. That is not my identity in school. I am a student, a fellow participant and listener, and so my sense of integrity is different as a person -- I don't find it funny,…[continue]

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