We Refuse To Be Each Other

tbarryfigu's picture

The individual’s search for identity in a world where society dictates the implementation of common generalizations is peculiar, as the strong hand of scientific opposition negates the importance of personality with regards to members of the human race. The population is widely accepted as the sole unit of biological evolution, and yet, humans all over the world are thought to slowly evolve as they change the manner of their ways in one distinct direction. This evolution, which in literature, is typically represented by the movement of one toward or away from “goodness,” cannot take place unless that individual obtains a persona capable of definition. This personality, immune to both duplication and recycling, is as important a possession to that person as any secular item used to help define it. With this in mind, it is no surprise that “we refuse to be each other,” as our sense of individuality justifies our actions and consequent evolution over time (Smith, 2). Questions remain, however, as we negate the significance of DNA sequencing, which both supports the idea of inimitability and disregards small-scale evolution. Is any given human persona truly capable of definition, given the limiting context of language? Can one truly be unique if general categorizations like race and class prevail as the most common methods of identification?

James Lindsay of the University of Chicago explains within the International Journal of Ethics that “man is made for society, for association; but the fact that society is essential to man does not make society greater than he, for society grows out of the individual, his needs and attributes” (Lindsay, 2). Through an exploration of historical philosophy texts as old as the statement “cogito ergo sum,” Lindsay separates the idea of personality from that of uniqueness. Similarly, Hegel, in “The Philosophy of Right,” describes individuality as “the free being in pure, self-conscious isolation,” contrasting this idea with personality, or the characteristic, individual features of one’s life when related to other persons (Lindsay, 3). These texts seem to imply that, though individuality exists, it is impossible to define, as our perceptions are those of personality and not of authentic distinctiveness. Literary works such as Langston Hughes’ poem “Theme for English B,” a favorite of mine, manipulate this idea further. The world of the speaker is depicted as both a subject of his influence and an influence on him, in accordance with the theory postulated by Hegel. The character questions the idea of his individuality while considering universal realities such as upbringing, location, interests and race. After doing so, the narrator realizes that his “self” cannot be expressed, for one cannot exist on paper or in time through mere words. As exemplified by this poem, language is a limiting factor when trying to define one’s individuality (much like race and class distinctions) for one word may apply to billions of people. It is the unique combination of these words and their meanings that characterize one’s personality. Even so, it is important to consider the possibility that specific combinations are capable of applying to multiple individuals. Perhaps, then, given this information, it is much less wrong to ascertain that one’s true self exists only at the genetic level.

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, is an adaptive novel which pays homage to Howards End by E.M. Forster. Using strong hierarchical and racial depictions, she illustrates the middle-class life of a white Englishman, Howard Belsey, his wife, African-American Kiki Belsey, and their three children, Jerome, Zora, and Levi. Contrasting their family’s beliefs with those of Howard’s academic rival, Monty Kipps, Zadie Smith touches on racial and class-related stereotypes. Over the course of the novel, she makes it quite clear that most characters “refuse to be each other,” as one’s identity often accompanies, or is indicative of, a level of pride. Even so, this is not always the case, as the evolution of characters over time often implies the conscious awareness of identities and the subsequent wish to change. Much like the layering of Levi’s 5 headpieces over the course of the novel (dew rag, skully, baseball cap, hoodie, and jacket hood) the characters are granted additional attributes over the course of the story. As a result, the families develop over time, but never lose the characteristics which denote their desire for change in the first place. One such example is that portrayed by Carl, a lower class African-American boy who is deemed an intellectual worthy of taking classes at Wellington University, outside of Boston, Massachusetts, for free (at least in the mind of his suitor, Zora Belsey). Though relatively poor and uneducated, Carl is granted the opportunity to work in a music library on campus, documenting the history of his true love, rap. He discovers a sense of hope and pride within himself, thereby allowing him to enjoy the privileges of life as so called “Wellingtonian”. However, his background overshadows his successes as Zora Belsey realizes that he will never love her. Making mention of his lower-class demeanor and presence, she tears him down in a fit of anger, revealing and calling attention to the aspects of his character that he had believed were hidden.

The type of personality-layering witnessed in On Beauty promotes the idea of identity as a source of constant revision, despite the aforementioned conclusion that it is both static and indefinable. Though the relative importance of a unique presence is critical when considering the concept of personal success and evolution, broad categories and linguistic restrictions fail to promote or support its existence. Thus, it can be stated that personality (and not individuality) is the unit of evolution present among human beings.

Works Cited

Lindsay, James, “The Ethical Value of Individuality,” International Journal of Ethics, Vol. 30, No. 4. (Jul., 1920), pp. 423-449


Smith, Zadie, “On Beauty,” United Kingdom, Hamish Hamilton, London, 2005


Hughes, Langston, “Theme for English B.”


Anne Dalke's picture

Personal Evolution

Okay, Tamarinda, I think I've got a-holt of your question: How can we be unique, if the most common (scientific and social) methods of identification are general categories? And do I understand your answer a-right: that there is a true, "pure" self only on the genetic level, all else being mere "personality," the result of social interactions?

If so, I'm a little puzzled by the data you use to demonstrate your claim, that so-interesting action of "layering" of characters that constitutes individual evolution in Smith's novel On Beauty. The example of change that you highlight is that of Carl, whose background eventually overshadows his success, and who retreats from Wellington as a result. So: the layering doesn't "work"? The original strata (to pursue your metaphor) is determinative, and one cannot change social status? I'm thinking of other illustrative examples: Howard reverting to "a grammar older than his marriage" when he talks to his father; Kiki telling her husband, "You want something new. I can't be new." These examples seem to imply that change on a personal level isn't possible.

But you conclude otherwise: that personality (not individuality) is the unit of human evolution. You make that claim on the basis of what happens to Carl; I think you're over-generalizing, and need more data...

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