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Persons and Personal Identity

The Preconditions of Social Identity of a Small State in Transition to Democracy

Jurate Morkuniene
Lithuanian Institute of Philosophy and Sociology

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ABSTRACT: The definition of social identity consists of two parts. First, it means protection against threats to the nation’s existence and well-being. Second, it means the search for measures and possibilities to achieve the goals of social development and improvement. Social identity implies the creation and preservation of conditions in which each citizen can develop as educated, creative and responsible persons. Today, especially for nations throughout the former Soviet Union, the chief danger to social identity lies in the adverse conditions of continued underdevelopment. It follows that for these nations, identity means first of all development. The essential condition for a small nation’s identity and survival is based on the people’s resolution to rely on themselves and to envision the potential for their own country. The modern strategy for ensuring social identity would essentially rely on the principle that every citizen is part of the national identity, i.e., its active agent. For this reason, of central importance is the creation of equal starting possibilities (equality of opportunities) for everyone.

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An essential point of departure for an examination of our subject is the definition of social identity and its principal connotations. Both external and internal threats to social identity can arise, although our interest must be limited to the consideration of internal threats. Today, especially for nations throughout the former Soviet Union, the chief danger to social identity lies in the adverse conditions of continued underdevelopment. It follows that for our nation nowadays identity first of all means the development.

The definition of social identity consists of two parts. First, it means protection against threats to nation's existence and well-being. Second, it means search for measures and possibilities to achieve the goals of social development and improvement. Social identity implies the creation and preservation of conditions, in which each citizen can develop as educated, creative, responsible personality. It is very important to note the difference between the common-sense concept of freedom of choice and the social identity concept based first of all on economic and cultural measures. Such comprehension of identity implies the protection of the vitally important interests of the person from the threats arising from internal factors.

We have think about identity of the society developing under fast changing conditions. At present we can see that the rapid change of social conditions has many negative consequences. Social identity is on decline.

Many of the evils originate in our history and in former Soviet totalitarian regime. Over the centuries Lithuanians have been oppressed by a host of foreign invaders — German, Russian, Polish. The territory of Lithuania has been just a "window to Europe" for Russian Tsars, it has been "Lebensraum" for the Germans in their centuries-long "Drang nach Osten".

Lithuanian people managed to preserve their national identity, their language over the last fifty years under the ravages of World War II, forced emigration, mass deportations, overt and covert russification and general destruction of the very bases of national cultural life. (1)

For this the nation as a whole had to pay a high price in the form of depopulation and acculturation. The loss of a great number of conscious, educated, cultured people can not be easily and quickly compensated.

However, our interest is to describe the present threats to social and personal identity of the Lithuanian people. As the existentialists put it, we are the choices we make, but sometimes those choices are not the ones we would choose on our free will. For a great number of people the actual conditions of life have become worse. Facts to destructiveness, social pathology, human decline abound, there is increasing loss of social identity.

The speed of political changes in Eastern and Central Europe is so rapid that the process of reform faces many difficulties. I do not agree with the researchers who argue, that those difficulties "arise from the human mind's limited ability to accept the speed of the perceived changes", (2) or that it is an "insufficient level of mental adaptation". (3) The difficulties may be interpreted in terms of multidimensional reality, i.e. economic, cultural, political. For example, if we want to explore social identity, some geopolitical and historic issues must be considered. Such factors, as historical consciousness, political and economic situation, national aspirations determine the characteristics of social and personal identity changes. Naturally, in different countries, Lithuania among them, changes in the social identity of the people bear some specific features. On the one hand, the transition to a new historical epoch is similar to the abolition of slavery or the end of colonial repression. On the other hand, the loss of social and personal identity under the new economic and political circumstances may be observed.

I would like to present some basic facts which, I hope, will go some way towards substantiating such an assertion. Through the interpretation of some quantitative data we shall try to determine the main reasons undermining social identity.

What does people's social identity consists of? It consists of a possibility to acquire the skills or tools, i.e. knowledge, experience, which are needed to function effectively in a society-making process. The main indicators of social identity include professionally assisted birth, a safe and secure life space, an adequate diet, accessibility of health care services, a good, practical education, political participation, an economically productive life, protection against unemployment, a dignified old age, a decent burial. (4)

The social identity is mostly based on national identity, dignity, self-respect, self-esteem and responsibility of people. Social identity is expressed as knowing and also as the feeling of dependence to society and of responsibility to it and also as the wish to belong to it. It means, that each member of the society is aware about identity (is educated), will belong to the society (he/she participates in social life) and can achieve identity (the social conditions ensure a worthy human life).

The main threats to social identity in Lithuania are poverty, unemployment, increasing criminality. (5) Social differentiation of the population becomes more pronounced than is acceptable for a normal society. For the majority of the population living standards remain low.

Lithuanian rebirth is set in a framework of disaster. The high mortality rates, decline of health, all educational indicators are in the danger zone, decline in the standard of living, growth of unemployment. The number of homeless people is now rising sharply.

Poverty is an acute problem for the sustained social identity. In terms of income security, the most vulnerable groups appear to be the disabled, families with children, especially single parent families or where the breadwinners work in the state sector, and the elderly. Most consumer goods become unobtainable for many people. With the underdeveloped middle-income layer poverty threatens to develop a mass character. (6)

Lithuania still lacks an official definition of poverty and a poverty line. Pensions cannot even cover the costs of utilities, thus putting elder women in the poorest population group. The situation of rural women has become especially desperate. (7) Gender also implies disparities in opportunities. The disadvantageous status of women in Lithuania remains largely invisible because of a lack of gender-related statistics.

Property and social differences increase, social differentiation of the population is becoming more pronounced than is acceptable for a normal society. The middle stratum — base of stability of democratic society — is not increasing but decreasing.

These boundaries are strongly felt psychologically: the differences cause huge emotional conflicts. People remain silent, but the dissatisfaction is deep.

Alongside with the property differences the contrasts in education increase as well. Problems of accessibility of education in a broad sense are very acute.

Apart from the worsening living conditions, the main reason for not attending school is a change in the attitude of society towards education, devaluation of the significance of education and learning,  — in many cases, educational background has no influence on people's earnings, and thus a number parents do not see the point in sending their children to school. For example, even the teaching is one of the lowest-paid professions (In July 1994, a teacher's average salary was less than 300Lt. (75 USD) per month. (8) Three-quarters of teachers survive only their earnings. Many teachers cannot subscribe to the necessary publications, cannot buy the latest materials or books, and cannot attend concert or theatre performances. In force of the above reasons, the prestige of teachers in society is very low.

According to an international expert-rated classification of education programmes (ISCED), only 25% of 20-24 year-olds in Lithuania are now pursuing specialized and higher education.

Alongside the growing insecurity of incomes, the other serious social problem, breaking the social identity, is emerging: the loss of job security and the steady growth in official and unofficial unemployment. Some categories of people lost their jobs first: elderly women, workers with disabilities, young people, who have no specialization or profession. Hidden and open unemployment was steadily growing. The social stigma of unemployment is strong in society, and many people cannot overcome this psychological barrier.

The criminalisation of society and the rise in the crime rate threaten personal security.

Harsh economic realities, accompanied by the uncertainties over the future and the erosion of traditional social norms put additional strains on the individual. The disillusionment undermined people's abilities and caused apathy. People are becoming less careful with their lives and health, are lacking self-esteem.

Morbidity and mortality are rising in Lithuania, while life expectancy is falling and is now lower than it has been for two decades. The average life span for men is now lower than it was in 1959; for women it is about the 1970 level. (9)

The mortality is growing most sharply among young people, who mainly die from non-medical causes such as accidents and suicide. There has been a sudden jump in suicide, indicating growing human distress. In 1995 the highest suicide indicator was among 40-49 years-old men. For every 100.000 residents, 135 men of this age committed suicide in urban areas, and 257 in rural areas. More than one third were unemployed men looking for work. (10)

Economic poverty emphasizes breakdowns experienced in other areas, for example, the weakening and the breakdown of social ties, relationship difficulties, social discredit, exclusion and loss of identity. The personal and social impacts of unemployment, in their own turn, include poverty, financial hardship, incur debts, homelessness or overcrowding, the weakening of family ties or family dissolution; disintegration, isolation, erosion of confidence and self-esteem, atrophy of work skills, ill health. Poverty and unemployment keep individuals out of the society.

Poverty-related social exclusion is the most persistent danger to social identity and social cohesion. On the other hand, we can not describe the poor as a category or even a social class in the real sense of these terms. But poverty manifests itself not only in malnutrition, unemployment or homelessness. The biggest threat to social identity lies in the fact that poverty does not allow people to take full advantage of their citizenship. Many people, who may not actually be starving, are nonetheless unable to lead meaningful lives within the values accepted in society, to participate in social life. They find it difficult to develop social contacts, to travel, to study, to buy books, visit theatres, to subscribe to the papers, relations of scientific workers with colleagues from abroad are not easy to maintain.

The above mentioned contrasts influence consciousness of people, make it shredded and split and even "schizoid". Alongside with the loyalty to an independent state and national ideals we can see national and civic nihilism. Feeling of community the days of Revival has been replaced by disunity and disagreements.

The indicated abnormal social differences serve as a weakening factor for such a vital element of social identity as a feeling of belonging to a community and a wish to belong to it. Loss of status leads to breakdowns in socialization and sociability networks.

The transition period has given people a growing sense of insecurity and social isolation. Apathy, alienation, indifference, violence and brutality, growing scepticism, cynicism, fatalism and despair become the established practice. The moral disintegration, taking place in society, street violence, murders etc. are indicative of the profound moral slump in our society. People, whose future is uncertain, become frightened, they look backwards and not forwards, they look for people to lay upon the blame for this situation, they become more aggressive and most likely to support an authoritarian rule which promises to implement rationality and justice by force.

However the main task of investigation would be not a classification of threats, but looking for measures to eliminate them. The essential condition for a small nation's identity and survival is based on people's resolution to rely upon themselves and the potential of their own country. The peculiar geopolitical situation of Lithuania determines, that the modern strategy for ensuring social identity would principally rely on the principle, that every citizen of Republic is part of identity, i.e. its active agent. This can be achieved by creating such living standards and by ensuring such participation in social life, which give equal starting possibilities (equality of opportunities) for everyone. J. Habermas wrote: "Everyone must be able to wish".

Small nations and states can survive even if they rely on their own strength. Thus, the quality of the inhabitants is the main social identity factor. An educated and dignified nation (and unanimous for that reason) can rely on itself, i.e. on the strength of its citizens. Self-reliance is obligatory also because various donations of rich countries, charities (except for indispensable humanitarian aid), when there is no great need for them, are not only degrading for national self-esteem and especially for social identity, but do not promote creative abilities of people, their responsibility, and on the contrary, promote the psychology of dependency and servility. The nation (society) with a low level of self-esteem, in fact, a low level of social identity, can unconsciously project its own negative qualities into other nations and, consequently, react aggressively against them.

A self-conscious, educated, responsible, dignified member of the society is the guarantee of social identity. Only an educated person knows enough and can understand the development process of the society, forecast future events, can impartially foresee their consequences and is able to contribute to the progress. Only a creative person is able to control and to direct the course of events, because he is thinking independently and has his own point of view. Only a civic-minded, free person, taking responsibility, is ready to defend not only his or her interests selfishly, but to defend himself or herself as a member of society — to defend nation, independence, democracy, freedom, not under orders, but of his or her own inner need for this. Thus, the person (each member of society) is the main agent (subject), creating social identity as well as the conditions identity for himself or herself.

Solid national traditions, historic consciousness and historic memory, a high level of education, a considerable economic strength, good living standards maintain the development of social identity. An identity as well as other social goals — freedom, independence, security — can be achieved only by a formed civic society as a whole. The will of a separate individual is insufficient, an unifying reason is indispensable to bring the common will into power. Society as a whole can be subjected to identity only on the basis of the intrinsic values of the society, the appearance of which had been decided by all the past by-gone life of an individual-citizen, by his or her education, cultural build-up, as well as by historical memory, retained by the whole nation, and its historic consciousness. The society cannot be brought to identity by giving orders or instructions. This is a voluntary process, predestinated by the mentality, which usually is formed under the conditions of democracy, i.e. under the social order, which promotes and encourages every citizen's freedom, equal rights and equal chances. For this, first at all, it is necessary that to each citizen of country should be guaranteed worthy living and acting conditions through the creation of a civilized political, economic and social system.

Development of social identity means identity of the people, identity for the people and identity by the people.

Thus, the development and fostering of education, culture and democracy is of prime importance in this process. Especially for a small country education at all levels is not an indirect, but a direct element of social identity: the cultural "armament" is an essential and indispensable condition. An educated citizen is not only an inseparable national possession, but, namely, the bearer of responsibility to one's own nation, initiative, activity. A developed technology, democracy and social identity call for education for everybody. Creation of the most favourable conditions for each citizen of Lithuania to freely develop one's abilities and talents is an imperative. For a small country it is very important that not a single talent should be lost. Such a development of the people means the development of quality of inhabitants, investing in human capabilities, whether through education or health or skills, so that they can work productively and creatively.

The most important goal of the economic program would be to create such conditions which would guarantee fulfilment and harmonization of the interests of the person, society and state. Such a development — the development for the people — means ensuring that results of economic growth must be distributed widely and fairly.

The main task of the political program means giving everyone a chance to participate — the development of social identity by the people, i.e. through the agency of people.

However, if meager consumption by the greater part of the population over a long time ruins their health, does not allow them to get a good education, i.e. does not allow to develop their creative abilities and guarantee successful participation in the life of the society; if their working life does not give satisfaction, and unemployment or a threat of it throw them out from the society — then such a low quality of life (like nowadays in Lithuania) will stimulate and in time will determine economic, political and cultural decline or even a catastrophe of the nation, will result in a danger to the social identity because of the undermined foundations of identity — a person, a citizen.

An explanation of the specific problems of social identity preconditions is indicative of the need for substantiating the philosophical leve, this kind of theory being the only one able of performing the explanatory function. Without them frequently we take the way of errors and experiments. This way is very expensive and very dangerous for society. Without a philosophical theory, on the level of common sense, social phenomena would be conceived in a fragmentary, kaleidoscopic way, limited to the description of isolated facts and the analysis of solitary phenomena.

The novel trends of the application of philosophical theory are characterized by the transition from spontaneous creation and application of philosophy towards an organized methodology. The philosophical conceptions can not save the world. But, according to V. Havel, "we must all behave as if we could save it". (11) Each one of us must "clean" one square metre around himself or herself.

We hope that all this are the difficulties of the beginning new era.

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(1) Genocide of Lithuanian People (Vilnius, 1992.), p. 48.

(2) Adam Biela, "Mental changes and Social Integration Perspective in Europe: Theoretical Framework and Research Strategies", Journal for Mental Changes, 1 (1995), 10.

(3) Ibid, p.7.

(4) John Friedmann, "rethinking Poverty: Empowerment and Citizen Rights", International Social Science Journal, 148 (1996), 169.

(5) Lithuanian Human Development Report, 1996 (Vilnius, 1996).

(6) Ibid., p. 25-26.

(7) Ibid., p. 83.

(8) Ibid., p. 61.

(9) Ibid., p. 45.

(10) Ibid., p. 48.

(11) Vaclav Havel, Maximilian Schell, "Europe at the Fin se Siecle", Society, 32 (1995), 71.

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