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It’s been said that the issue of identity is the signature problem of the 21st Century. In fact, I think it’s fairly obvious to anyone observing the human species, whether as an expert or just as someone regularly watching the evening news, that the identification with one group or another has been at the heart of many of our most serious conflicts. Whether it’s religion or politics or economics or nationality or culture or gender or sexual orientation, almost all violence on our planet today can be traced back to an identification with a particular set of characteristics, beliefs or values leading to an attitude of “us against them”.

From time to time we hear about efforts to eliminate or at least reduce such conflicts by seeking to build bridges between these identifications through one kind of negotiation or another. However, building bridges can never lead to lasting peace; at best it may lead to a truce. A truce can last a long time – sometimes even centuries – and perhaps we should accept that as good enough.  But let’s at least be clear about what we’re doing.

I’m an American living in Germany and so I’m very aware of the current struggles with identity on two different continents. In the United States the struggle is often referred to as the tribalism of the “culture wars”. For example: although the American Civil War ended over 150 years ago, the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate heroes keep showing up again and again (most recently in the confrontations in Charlottesville), suggesting that although the issue of secession may have been settled militarily and politically, it hasn’t really been settled culturally at all. Apparently, the grievances associated with the North vs. South identities still simmer. And according to the American Psychological Association’s 2017 “Stress in America” survey, more than half (59%) of those surveyed pointed to “current social divisiveness” as one of their biggest concerns. In other words, while there may have been a truce, there is no peace.

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