Over the course of a couple weeks, I want to try to dissect one issue that is perhaps not addressed enough: personal identity. (Or too much, depending on who you ask.) In an increasingly globalized world, we sometimes forget to account for how big of a role the individual experience plays into this picture.

The perception by which we view ourselves and own our upbringing very much shapes our world view, how we perceive and treat others. If you grew up poor, the complaints of the wealthy might seem foreign, and visa versa. If you grew up in India, the complaints of Pakistanis might seem foreign, etc. It is this sense of “otherness,” however, that leads to problems.

It is in creating this “other,” someone who is perceived as an outsider, and thusly not worthy of inclusion, that creates a divisiveness and antagonism between people. Some people manipulate it for their own ends, and form power structures around the idea, playing off of people’s fears and anxieties. Some people take this manipulation as truth, because they’ve been presented with nothing to the contrary.

On April 13th, outside a bus station at my alma mater, Stony Brook University, someone outlined in—of all things—pink chalk, “Kill the Infidels,” a term that has roots in divisiveness and hatred.

In Israel, where I spent six months interning at Ha’aretz, it is not an unfamiliar term, a term commonly levied at Israel—and, by extension, Jews—by an oligarchical power structure in parts of the Middle East, which uses the politics of hate to distract from the dire economic situation of the vast majority of the population. It’s scapegoating, to put it in a phrase. Writ large.

(This is not to say that Israel isn’t responsible, in part, for the circumstances in certain parts of the region, through warfare and so on. This is just to say that there are systemic issues in the region that can’t be attributed to Jews and nevertheless invariably are.)

Many people play into this, even those that are well intentioned, because it gives them some temporary feeling of superiority and righteousness. It is in some ways an antidote to the despair and hopelessness they might feel themselves. The problem is if enough people get tricked into playing into this false choice between two extremes, they get sucked into a paradigm that does not truly benefit their own interests. They become unwitting pawns in a chess game that they didn’t even know they were playing.

The trick is to understand the influence that the individual has in this paradigm. You can be defeatist and say that you have no power and no control over your own circumstances, or you can say that you very much have the power to change your situation, and, you know what, you’d be right either way.

At its best, approaching and embracing your own personal identity can lead to self-awareness and a more comprehensive understanding of the world at large. But, go too far with it, and you’re a racist. The fine line is where you view your humanity, as part of a diverse global human community or as an isolated subsection that needs to distinguish itself regardless of the human cost. The choice, at the end of the day, is yours to do the right thing.

About the Author
Ethan Freedman is a music producer by volition and a journalist by vocation. His photos and clips have been published in publications such as Ha'aretz, Al Jazeera English and IPS News, and he has reported from Israel, Cuba, England, Washington D.C. and New York.
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