Reflections on our Identities
This is a short article on a reflection on the nature and question of identity, ethnic identity and one’s political identity as it is being played out in the contemporary Ethiopian politics. Caveat: It’s not my intention to share anything more than my own reflections on the issues of identity and ethnicity in light of nationalism and what most or some call “Ethiopia.” Much of what I say is intended to bring out some, hopefully, conceptual distinctions in the ideas being treated here.
First, on what we mean by one’s identity. No intention again to address this complex issue thoroughly: we all know that our own sense of who we are, upon a reflection, goes someway in answering the question of our identity as human beings no matter where, geographically, we are. Yes, we all know that we’re human beings and share all the essential attributes that make a being human. The bottom-line here is that there are essential attributes that make a being human and such attributes know no color, no race, no culture, no language, no ethnicity, no country, and no time. All humans share essential attributes that make them what they are [I leave such essential human-making attributes for my readers to figure out]. I know some would dispute this claim but then this is not the right place to address some academic yet misguided debates about some human beings lacking in what truly makes a human being what it is: human, period.
Now human beings belong to things called natural kinds, to what we find in nature, as we’re not our own creations/creators, that is, we’ve not created our own nature. It’s a given. God given, if you like, but that is a point that need not concern us here and now. We have no choice and control over what we are, being humans. Period. No one chose to be born a human being, at this time and place. That is clear. No arguments.
What about our ethnic identities? Yes, our ethnic identities are also things over which we do not have control. We’re born into this or that ethnic identity and that is how we’ve acquired our ethnic identities. Ethnic identities are deeply embedded in one’s language and culture. In the context of this discussion, nobody chose to be an Amhara, or a Gurage, or an Oromo, or a Wolyatta, and what have you in the Ethiopian ethnic history. That is clear too.
But now there is an essential difference between having been born into one or the other ethnic group and having been born as a human being. Ethnic group is an accidental, i.e., non-essential, attribute that we’ve acquired due to the accident of birth. Being part of this ethnic group is not an essential attribute to being human but then being a human is an essential attribute to being part of this or that ethnic group. For example, there is no ethnic donkey nor is there an ethnic cat no matter where these were born, nor where they were raised, unless we refer to cats and donkeys identifying them with their breeders. That is simple: a donkey or a cat is not a human being and does not partake in those things that make a person part of this or that ethnic group, such as the realities of language and culture, or such complex combinations thereof.
The previous paragraphs made two key points, among others: all human beings share essential attributes that make them one and the same: all human beings are equal. This conclusion is one fundamental reason for why we believe that all human beings possess an inalienable and inherent right and dignity that no other human being has given them nor can any other human being rightly and justly deprive them of.
Our ethnic identities, though they are accidents of historical contingencies, they are also things over which we’ve no control. Since our deep consciousness and self-awareness (of ourselves) is deeply intertwined with our ethnic identity (linguistically and culturally) it’s our inalienable and inherent right that no human being has any power to deprive us of our deep manifestations of our identities, i.e., our ethnic identities, which are as deeply important as our being human though they’re distinct in some sense. We’re not human because of our ethnic identities but then our ethnic identities are embedded in our being humans. No cats or dogs are ethnically conscious but we are just because we’re humans.
Yes, trying to cut one’s ethnic identity off one’s being human, or vice versa, is the most delicate thing for any person to undertake. Another key point: no one chose to be born into this or that ethnic group in the same way that no one chose to be born as a human being. The bottom-line: no one ethnic group or the other is superior or inferior to the other; the reason? Simply because being part of this or that ethnic group is not the consequence of anything that one has done anything about by his/her choice. All human beings are essentially one and the same: equally humans; and also, all individual ethnic groups are distinct in virtue of their distinct languages and culture yet all of them are equal in having their ethnic identities embedded in their being humans.
What about one’s political/national identity? This is rather more of a political question than the previous two in some sense. All people who live in a geo-political entity called “Ethiopia” are equally humans. Clear. But these people are not one and the same, i.e., identical, in virtue of their ethnic identities because there are more than one ethnic identities in this commonly designated geo-political entity called “Ethiopia.” Being an “Ethiopian” is not essential for something to be a human being; otherwise all other people who’re not “Ethiopians” are not humans. And also, we say there is an “Ethiopian culture” but that is not equivalent to saying the “Ethiopian culture” is a human being. Clear.
Now we need to focus on some elements that distinguish between being a human and belonging to a certain ethic group from being an “Ethiopian” national and also for wanting to be a nationalist assuming that there is one, unified nation that brings together the idea of a nation and nationality and the spirit of nationalism, if we like. I think now we see that we’re going far beyond what it takes to be just human, being part of this or that ethnic group. The previous two are things over which we did not have control.
Now, can we say, in the same sense, that the person who was born and raised in this geo-politically designated entity called “Ethiopia” has no control over the fact, if it’s a fact, that he/she is an “Ethiopian” period? This is a deeply controversial and deeply sensitive question but then we must face the implications of this question head-on if we really care about what it means to be an “Ethiopian.”
Being an “Ethiopian” is a very fluid concept that does not have one and same meaning for many people even in this geo-politically designated entity called “Ethiopia”. Yes, embracing this, ideally all-unifying and all-embracing concept, idea, as an umbrella is something that those who live in this geo-politically designated entity called “Ethiopia” ideally need to willingly, or voluntarily accept and embrace for their common good. It’s a self-defeating exercise to impose, without the will of the people that constitute the nation, what has historically been taken for granted by some, i.e., what is called “Ethiopia”, as such an all-unifying ideal. As one can see being politically and geographically defined and identified is far different from one’s deep sense of identity as a human being and one’s deep sense of belonging to this or that ethnic group. One has some degree of control over one’s political identity but not over the other two as I’ve tried to argue. Political identity in its nature is an all-inclusive, all-unifying, and all-embracing concept of identity which cannot and should not override or dictate or deprive one’s most natural, most inalienable and most inherent identities of being human and belonging to one or the other ethnic group. Any attempt to subsume one’s ethnic identities under a political/national identity that does not sensitively, and sufficiently and comprehensively address the most sensitive forms of a person’s identities will inevitably fail in its goal no matter how well-meaning and innocent and sincere. Ethiopian politicians in political power or vying for political power must ponder upon these issues if they mean to address the above among the most fundamental problems “Ethiopia” faces at this critical juncture in its history.
Finally, we all heard time and again that Ethiopia’s most fundamental problems will be solved if Ethiopia becomes a genuinely democratic nation or society with rules of law to maintain human rights and human dignity. I agree with such noble ideas but then I think democracy is only part of the solution for Ethiopia’s multiple problems. Yes, democracy is among those necessary things we need to solve Ethiopia’s multiple problems but it is not sufficient as a solution for some of those fundamental problems that we face as a society.
I’ll return to address some of these issues, hopefully, some other time.
Alethia can be reached at email@example.com