What Defines ‘You’?

The recent election results in the USA has made me think about what really defines us—how others perceive us, what and how our beliefs are shaped, and what influences us and how that impacts us and shapes our development. There are multiple factors that once combined contribute to who we become, but does that define you, and what your morals, standards, and beliefs are?

First of all, our direct environment can affect our beliefs, and morals, which is why the first few years of life are important as it creates a foundation for what we believe in. However, things can change so nothing is set in stone. Our parents, siblings, teachers, peers, and the people such as neighbors can provide an initial foundation for what we become and what we build upon. But what about those who come from a background where there was instability, does that mean it will affect a child and their development? It could go either way; perhaps that is what they know and expect in life, or they will see it and know that is not the direction they wish to follow.

What you choose to do for a living, where you decide to live, your choice of friends, political beliefs, religion, lifestyle choices, even what newspaper you opt to read, all contribute to what external perceptions people will have of you. Of course it is wrong to stereotype, but often psychologists find patterns that fit into categories, and people will do this subconsciously, wondering whether they want to get to know you better or not.

I have met many people who have overcome a background that was less than ideal, or they appear to have done so. Take for example Hollywood actors who came from humble backgrounds; on the surface they may have changed and evolved, but perhaps underneath it all, it was that lifestyle that pushed them to escape, or that part of them is still grounded in those early beliefs?

We aren’t always a product of our environment, but some people are. You simply can’t generalize because we all have choices, and some seek out other paths, while others are content to follow the path ahead rather than to source an alternative one. I come back to the Trump voter, which I think many psychologists would like to study and try to understand their beliefs, morals, and levels of humanity. Indeed, I feel it would be a useful study, however, many people will not admit openly to voting for Trump, or those that do have no answer when questions of discrimination or racism are raised. Instead of answering the question, people divert the answer towards Clinton, and say Trump wasn’t as crooked as her. Therefore, they silently admit (for they can’t deny) by evading the question that Trump has made racist statements, thus by supporting Trump, they also support racism. That’s what I can’t get my head around. Two friends (both from ethnic backgrounds) said they supported Trump over Clinton, and both are women. It confounds me, having being a victim of racism that people could support someone who has publicly been racist.

While politics is  a grey area, it can still define the core basis of your beliefs, just as your religion can. Often it’s easier to say you don’t follow any particular party or religion to avoid people judging you, because they will even if they never say anything. It’s the same when you are a child, where your parents don’t want you to be friends with those from bad families. Outward perceptions and judgments are made all of the time, but do they matter? People are more comfortable around those with shared beliefs, but that doesn’t mean they can be trusted automatically. That’s a red herring, which is why people do create public personas and images so that they can attract the desired friends and networks. What groups you join, and who you follow on social media defines the kind of person you are to the outside world, because you are making a statement to say, ‘This is what I agree with and like,’ so be careful who you follow or like.

As a child I was bullied for being clever and looking different, and as a result I ended up a loner observing all that was around me rather than be involved in things. I knew where I came from wasn’t a great neighborhood, but often as a child that is one thing you cannot control. You can’t control where you live, but you can make the best out of the situation, and you can choose who you wish to speak to and who to avoid. I say that, because I did, although for many I know that may not be possible. If someone I didn’t like visited I would hide and be shy, to avoid having to interact. Now, I just block them on social media or ignore their emails.

When people meet me, they are surprised at my background because I’m not typical of my peers or the natives in my area, nor am I similar to my parents. That’s because I decided for myself what my beliefs were going to be, based on moral principles, and logical and realistic facts. I was born in a small mining village where most people lived in council houses, supported Labour (and hated Thatcher), and thought if you didn’t speak with a local accent you were a snob. Yes, it’s a small minded place, and I always knew that and couldn’t wait to leave, but even the locals will admit that the area is rundown with few prospects. Throughout my childhood I battled against my direct environment, often arguing with those in authority because I saw them as small minded. I did win on several occasions, because my argument had basis and was logical. I nearly got suspended from college, but all could see I had a valid case and argument and I got my way and hopefully paved the way for others.

While our beliefs can adapt or change according to our personal experiences and influences, do they differ greatly from what foundations were created as a child? I find that social media has more of a brainwashing effect on people, and the media too depending on which paper you choose to read. Finding neutral and unbiased reports, and opinions, is much harder which is why I like philosophy, because it is supposed to look at all the options and then let the reader decide. Naturally, a philosopher can highlight what appears to be logical or rational depending on which philosophical approach they are taking.

What defines me is my moral compass and that is the bedrock of my belief system. I know right from wrong, even though I may have made errors in the past—that is how I know what is wrong for me at least. I am influenced by very little, but then again I don’t get impressed easily, even at my own achievements. Are you thinking for yourself, and can you explain why you have your beliefs or standards? If not then maybe think to yourself why and how did those perceptions come into being. Are you an individual or a byproduct of what you see and hear?

What is ‘Freedom’?

What is freedom? It’s when we are free to act or think as we choose without any constraints, so can it really exist? We are influenced by our peers, the media, and our environment throughout our life, so are our thoughts ever truly free?

I speak as the eldest and even as a child, I would have to look out for my sibling, so was I ever truly free to think as a carefree child when I had to make sure my sibling was safe?

Our actions are limited to what is legally and also what is morally permitted in society, so again, are we acting freely or within a framework and guidelines?

My thoughts are the closest thing I get to some kind of freedom, even then they are mired with thoughts of responsibility or moral conflict. I may have a less than generous thought about someone or an incident and maybe Karma will wave its finger at me, but surely I have that freedom to think that? Isn’t that human? If someone does the dirty on you at work, then you have some rights to think ill of them, if only for your pride and self-esteem. To me, while yes, you can then turn around and say, “It’s their problem and Karma will deal with it,” a human reaction should be free to express anger or hurt. While they are negative emotions, as long as they are transient, then learning from them makes you stronger. Learning to let go of things can be hard, but we should be free to do it when we are ready.

Writing down your thoughts, whether good or bad is an act of freedom. However, should they fall into the wrong hands then could it be libelous? If it is published or distributed, yes it can be. If they were stolen or distributed without prior knowledge, isn’t that a breach of privacy? People should be free to express their thoughts in their journals as long as they keep them safe and private. What happens to them years after they have died though? When I see published letters from celebrities’ archives, I think they should be kept private; in particular the one recently published from Joe DiMaggio to his wife Marilyn Monroe. He was expressing his private free thoughts and they weren’t to be shared with anyone else. With some diaries, they have proved to be an invaluable primary source for historians, while they are private, they also depict an accurate picture of an era or event. They also show the personality of the person, notably Anne Franks and Samuel Pepys whose famous diaries have helped piece together some important moments in history. Neither would have imagined their private thoughts would have been published for billions of people to read at the time.

Then there is the internet; today it’s the same as publishing something in a newspaper except it’s harder to delete or retract. Once you express yourself online, it is recorded forever unless the site is deleted. People confuse freedom with the rights of freedom; we have rights for freedom of speech and expression in many countries, but be prepared for public backlash if it is an unpopular opinion. That’s the thing about freedom, people have the freedom to reject or oppose your thoughts. It goes both ways. With libel laws, true freedom has limits in the public and even when allowed it can still cause harm and controversy, so does freedom harm others? It can, which is why true freedom cannot truly exist if we are bound by the legal and moral laws. These exist to protect, so to enjoy freedom, some freedoms must be limited or curtailed. Therefore true freedom cannot exist in society.

Few of us are free in our actions; as a child we have compulsory education (not always a bad thing), then as adults we are expected to have a career and then a family. Those who break from this are seen as eccentrics, but freer. I have a few friends who are able to live freely without having to have a home and working job-to-job and renting in random places. I’m sure it is liberating and I have been there, but it also gets tiring. It’s not as free as people think, always thinking where to go next and what if?

Many of us yearn for freedom, but what kind of freedom, and what is it exactly that holds us back? Duty, responsibility, morals or fear? Freedom to me is to be able to do what I want without harming or affecting others and to be able to express myself without fear of recrimination. I find that in my writing though not all the time. I can see imprints of guilt that linger and moral conflict from what I feel I should be doing and shouldn’t be thinking. Then I ask, “Am I truly free,” and realize even my inner thoughts are not as free as they should be.

© 2015. The Nomadic Philosopher. All Rights Reserved.

This was first published on Great Minds and Thinkers.