Shrinking our Big Selves: Part 3 of “A big-picture, co-intelligent vision of diversity and privilege”

We are each a complex, networked, ecosystem of a self, not just a role or a race or a name. Beneath our shallow surface appearance and social identities we are full, whole people, deeply alive and potent with meaning and gifts for ourselves, those around us and our communities and societies. One of the greatest tragedies of the identity-based inequities and shallowness of our cultures is the vast loss of that richness. What is it about? Where does it come from?

Racism and sexism and classism and all our other oppressive systems are structural, and they are also visual. We sort and treat bodies based on how we’ve been trained to mis-see them. How do we render that mis-seeing visible? How do we correct and repair our limited vision? How do we remember that we’re often misunderstanding one another, often mistaken?

Sarah Sentilles, author of “Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours” in her “How to Write Love” interview

In 2019 I added Complex Identity to my Wise Democracy Pattern Language. In my summary of that pattern, I noted that every entity has innumerable dimensions, such that much is lost whenever we oversimplify or stereotype it. I urged readers to “honor, support, explore and engage many dimensions of everyone and everything.”

That’s easier said than done! Nevertheless, we’d be wise to keep in mind how much more there is to people and things – including ourselves – than we usually assume. It would humble us. And taking it seriously could release energy and quality in our own lives, as well as abundant resources for any community aspiring to vibrancy and collective wisdom.

So I’m sad to say that in my video and essay on the Complex Identity pattern’s webpage, I failed to mention one of the greatest toxins threatening this richness of identity: the oversimplification of identity that occurs through the social dynamics of identity politics, privilege, injustice and marginalization.

The failure to see the fullness of who people REALLY are, rather than seeing them through the lens of politically manipulated stereotypes and old cultural habits, is one of the great tragedies of our social and political lives. Our most rampant oversimplifications have to do with race, gender, ethnicity, and political and religious orientations, as well as all the other stereotypes, debasements and oppressions we’re prone to dish out to each other and take on ourselves.

This creates harms and distortions in the lives of those stereotyped and oppressed. That harm is where social justice movements appropriately focus their – and our – attention. But I want to add that this dynamic also degrades our society’s relationships – our community and “social capital” – as well as our common wealth and, perhaps even more importantly (at least from my perspective), our capacity for collective intelligence and wisdom.

So I was delighted recently to see the article I’ve excerpted below, Kathleen Wallace’s “You Are A Network”. It is the best summary I have yet found regarding the complexity of human identity.[1] Wallace gifts us a framework into which ALL the diverse facets of our individual human wholeness can be placed: We are each a network of identities, qualities, characteristics, and essences. Her vision provides an open space for realizing, knowing and BEING our full, complex, whole selves.

In selecting the excerpts below, I’ve sought to provide both a quick introduction to Wallace’s theory and to highlight that part of her vision which focuses on the dynamics of oppression and privilege. I’m increasingly appreciating the ways in which Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI for short)[2] are fundamental dimensions of wise democracy, starting with their role in liberating the fullness of who we are, out of which true collective wisdom can come.

As a side note, I’m fascinated by Wallace’s choice of “network” to describe her view of our complexity. I personally like to think of us as dynamic identity ecosystems. But ultimately she and I are talking about the same insight: That the WHOLE of our “network self” or “identity ecosystem” is closer to who we ARE than any of our various labels, appearances, roles, traits or relationships.

I invite you to enjoy this vision of yourself as a complex but unique network or ecosystem…. and then to act in ways that help the fullness of yourself and others manifest for the enrichment of our individual lives and the world we all share.


[1] In an email to Wallace I added to her catalog of identity constituents the spiritual and cosmic aspects of our self, as well as the self generated by our unique place and embeddedness in the vast evolving web of Earthly Life.

[2] Another remarkable paper “The Many Faces of JEDI: A developmental exploration” by Aftab Erfan, PhD explores the ways in which people’s responses to JEDI challenges tend to manifest differently at different developmental stages. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to share it here because it is pre-publication. It is due to be released in Integral Review this fall. I see developmental stage as another aspect of human identity.

PS. After I finished the above essay, I had a further realization – one that’s not really new, but feels different in this context:

A real or personal threat from the society around us tends to make us conform into our own social group as a defense. For both protection, power and belonging we contract our complex individual identity into an oversimplified shared group identity of culture, belief, place, race, gender, etc. More often than not people in other groups around us are also shifting from their complex individual identities into their own parochial group member-identity, usually in response or opposition to our and Others’ declarations of identity. And the more narrow and oppositional they become, the more we feel we need to be likewise. It can become quite a vicious cycle.

This is a common group phenomenon, usually driven by the system, the social context, and an us-vs-them story field or Zeitgeist. More often than not, this mutually reinforced antagonism of stereotyped identities is whipped up or surfed by leaders or elites trying to gain or reinforce privileged social power.

In people’s individual psychology, that toxic dynamic is often rooted in and fostered by their abusive family experiences as children – or even adults. They felt and feel a need to trim their complex selves back into some simpler aggressive or defensive role that they felt helped them survive. Or their natural complexity was simply beaten out of them by parents, partners and/or larger social forces.

At a perhaps even more fundamental level, this dynamic is helped along by adversarial social system dynamics like majority rule, competitive economics, and embedded racism and sexism. ALL participants in these battles lose sight of their natural human complexity. They present themselves in more stereotyped ways in order to win, to succeed, to thrive – or to just survive on the social battleground. Meanwhile, the whole society suffers with them the tragic loss of their full personhood.

Excerpts from
By Kathleen Wallace

[Late in the] 20th century… philosophers started to move toward a broader understanding of selves. Some philosophers [now] propose narrative and anthropological views of selves. Communitarian and feminist philosophers argue for relational views that recognise the social embeddedness, relatedness and intersectionality of selves. According to relational views, social relations and identities are fundamental to understanding who persons are….

The network self view… says that the self is relational through and through, consisting not only of social but also physical, genetic, psychological, emotional and biological relations that together form a network self. The self also changes over time, acquiring and losing traits in virtue of new social locations and relations, even as it continues as that one self…..

Consider [hypothetical person] Lindsey: she is spouse, mother, novelist, English speaker, Irish Catholic, feminist, professor of philosophy, automobile driver, psychobiological organism, introverted, fearful of heights, left-handed, carrier of Huntington’s disease (HD), resident of New York City. This is not an exhaustive set, just a selection of traits or identities. Traits are related to one another to form a network of traits. Lindsey is an inclusive network, a plurality of traits related to one another. The overall character – the integrity – of a self is constituted by the unique interrelatedness of its particular relational traits, psychobiological, social, political, cultural, linguistic and physical….

Lindsey can have a holistic experience of her multifaceted, interconnected network identity. Sometimes, though, her experience might be fractured, as when others take one of her identities as defining all of her. Suppose that, in an employment context, she isn’t promoted, earns a lower salary or isn’t considered for a job because of her gender. Discrimination is when an identity – race, gender, ethnicity – becomes the way in which someone is identified by others, and therefore might experience herself as reduced or objectified. It is the inappropriate, arbitrary or unfair salience of a trait in a context.

Lindsey might feel conflict or tension between her identities. She might not want to be reduced to or stereotyped by any one identity. She might feel the need to dissimulate, suppress or conceal some identity, as well as associated feelings and beliefs. She might feel that some of these are not essential to who she really is. But even if some are less important than others, and some are strongly relevant to who she is and identifies as, they’re all still interconnected ways in which Lindsey is….

[And] What about the changeableness and fluidity of the self? What about other stages of Lindsey’s life? Lindsey-at-age-five is not a spouse or a mother, and future stages of Lindsey might include different traits and relations too: she might divorce or change careers or undergo a gender identity transformation. The network self is also a process. [The author notes here that one’s body, consciousness, attitudes, relations, and so on, are always changing, always in process.]….

Rather than an underlying, unchanging substance that acquires and loses properties, we’re making a paradigm shift to seeing the self as a process, as a cumulative network with a changeable integrity. A cumulative network has structure and organisation, as many natural processes do….

Anchoring and transformation, continuity and liberation, sameness and change: the cumulative network is both-and, not either-or. Transformation can happen to a self or it can be chosen. It can be positive or negative. It can be liberating or diminishing….

The network self is changeable but continuous as it maps on to a new phase of the self. Some traits become relevant in new ways. Some might cease to be relevant in the present while remaining part of the self’s history. There’s no prescribed path for the self. The self is a cumulative network because its history persists [as memories and patterns in the person and in their relationships]….

When people try to fix someone’s identity as one particular characteristic, it can lead to misunderstanding, stereotyping, discrimination. Our currently polarised rhetoric seems to do just that – to lock people into narrow categories: ‘white’, ‘Black’, ‘Christian’, ‘Muslim’, ‘conservative’, ‘progressive’. But selves are much more complex and rich. Seeing ourselves as a network is a fertile way to understand our complexity. Perhaps it could even help break the rigid and reductive stereotyping that dominates current cultural and political discourse, and cultivate more productive communication. We might not understand ourselves or others perfectly, but we often have overlapping identities and perspectives. Rather than seeing our multiple identities as separating us from one another, we should see them as bases for communication and understanding, even if partial…. [T]he multiple identities of the network self provide a basis for the possibility of common ground….

By embracing the complexity and fluidity of selves, we come to a better understanding of who we are and how to live well with ourselves and with one another.

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