I spend a considerable amount of my time in the company of teenage girls. It is my job, not my choice. They are one of the strangest tribes on the planet and one I never understood even when I was one myself. There are unwritten rules of unimaginable complexity, there are meanings within meanings and everything must be taken soooo seriously; feelings, suspicions, needs, relationships, culture, fashion ...... But nothing is static and if you can't keep up and read the unwritten signs about what is right and what is not, then you are nobody.....
However, these girls do have a lot to teach us about identity and what it means, and for this I have been grateful to have to mop up after them and the absurdities of the hurts they cause each other.
I think that in the not too distant past, our identity was not much of an issue. More important were our duties of state; most probably the state which we found ourselves born into. It would be our integrity which determined how we fulfilled those duties. There would be some mobility and flexibility in those duties but on the whole your "caste" determined your life. Once secular egalitarianism became enshrined in the fabric of society, identity became important. If all are "equal" and have "equal opportunities" then forging an identity is incredibly important. It makes you identifiable, it makes you other (different from the rest), it makes you special, it gives you belief in yourself and something to cultivate and nurture, and it is all a mask. Ultimately it is something to hide behind. Fashioning an identity hides our insecurities.
This is where "my girls" have taught me so much. The only way to bring them on, to make they feel like they can flourish, the only way to humanise the petty insanity in their lives is to completely ignore their identity. One day they are "gay", the next "bi", one day vegan, the next on a paleo diet, one day flowing long hair, the next a crew cut.... I exaggerate, but only slightly. Their identities are both fickle and seriously real to them and it is simply best to ignore. What must be done is to defend them when they can be defended and reprimand when they can't, listen to them, but chiefly one must ignore the identity they are forging. There is something deeper and more real than the identity we forge and that is what we must all try to reach in each other.... anything else is insanity as it involves trying to respond to something that only really exists inside the other person's head, it involves us trying to nurture it and help forge it, shielding up that person's insecurities, making them believe their own fantasy.
I have been thinking a lot about this as I look at pictures of this week's suicide bomber. All I can see is an insecure youth. Someone with body language that suggests he really doesn't fit in or feel at home with himself. Someone on the edge of a group of friends, unable to pose with confidence like them, someone lacking the necessary social skills to feel quite at home in his tribe, someone desperate for an identity of his own.
You see, I'm not convinced that "radicalisation" is a major factor in turning someone into a suicide bomber. I think identity is a far more important factor; something we choose to cultivate because it makes us feel better, it makes use feel excited to be us, we can perceive ourselves as a hero because we are forging an identity where others will see us as a hero. And so much the better if our identity is dangerous and is under threat, if it pits our identity against somebody else's conflicting identity.
And all the time society is escalating the identity crisis. Making us choose tribes. Making us forge meaning out of image. Making us all different but in such a shallow way. We are losing the ability to look deeper into each other's souls because we are avidly trying to pigeon hole the other, place them in a tribe, make them different and judge them to be good or bad depending on which box we've stuck them in.
It is supply and demand. If the teenage girls didn't have so much spending power to forge their identities and fantasy worlds, if they could find something beyond trying to cultivate an identity, they'd flourish and their culture of fakery, sexualisation, manipulation and promiscuity would lessen. Could something similar be said for wannabe suicide bombers? I think so. But there is serious money invested in supporting and nurturing the whole teenage girl thing and it will not go away. And the same can be said for terrorism.