Conflict of Identity and Interests in Relation to Culture, Defence and Security

Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado

How do one’s cultural identity and interests relate to each other in the context of defence and security? Can cultural identity and interests conflict? Does such conflict harm one’s defence and security? Does its resolution involve adapting one’s culture?


In addressing these questions, I hope I can assume acquaintance, at least among some present, with my discussion of culture, defence and security, defining those three terms and showing how they relate to each other, previously delivered to this forum, and published online in New Security Learning. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with that discussion, let me briefly review its main points. By my definition, which is anthropological, culture is a repertory of tools, material and notional, serving the purpose of human survival, growth and pleasure. Culture’s motive and motor is the pursuit of pleasure. If adaptive, pleasure furthers growth and enhances survival. Adaptive pleasures become elements of culture. Defence and security are elements of culture serving survival. They also help growth, and may give pleasure. So, in this context, where do identity and interests fit in, and how do they relate to each other?


Identity is a concept, a notional tool, used to define. Definition is language’s task. Language is culture’s notional tool kit. The word ‘identity’s’ source language is Latin. ‘Identity’ comes from id, ‘this’, and entitas, ‘entity’; ‘entitas’ from ens, entis, ‘being’. So identity is being this entity, not that. The concept was earlier formulated in Greek, as the law of identity: ‘A thing is the same as itself’. This is the first law of thought. It has two correlates: the law of noncontradiction, ‘No proposition is true and false at the same time in the same way’; and the law of the excluded middle, ‘Any proposition is either true or false, with no alternative’. These strict and simple laws of thought form the logical concept of identity, whence grows the culture whose logic is used here.


Human identity, however, and so cultural, are less strict and more complex than logic. A thing may be the same as itself, but humans have several selves, so one may have more than one identity. One’s identities may agree or conflict: son and father, husband and lover, soldier and traitor. Consciousness, context and relationship define human identity. It may be self defined or otherwise. Definitions may agree or differ. Definition identifies by distinction and association. It distinguishes individuals, associates individuals into collectivities, distinguishes collectivities from each other, and associates collectivities into humanity. Humanity is culture’s maker and user. Culture serves human purposes: survival, growth and pleasure. Since definition distiguishes humanity into particular identities, any purpose is some particular entity’s. While all culture’s final purpose is identical, particular entities’ purposes differ in generic ways and means, so in specific interim goals. Insofar as identity associates humans, purposes may agree. Insofar as it distinguishes them, purposes may differ.


‘Interest’ also comes from Latin. Interest, joining inter, ‘between or among’, and est, ‘it is’, means: ‘it is there between or among others, notable in context’. Interesting one, it may be in one’s interest. If so, and if one knows so, it may become one’s purpose. Some purposes suit some identities. If so, identity and interests agree. If so, achieving one’s purpose is in one’s interest. As identities differ, so may interests and purposes. Water suits grass. Grass suits cattle. Cattle suit lions. Grass may, cattle and lions do have interests. Cattle may, lions do have purpose. As identities, purposes and interests differ so may they conflict. Cattle suit humans, so lions do not. Humans may suit lions.

Conflict of interests usually occurs between the interests of different entities, when they pursue the same purpose by the same means, and its achievement by those means is limited to one entity. If only one can win, one must win or lose. So says the third law of thought. Such competition is the simplest and most common form of conflict. Conflict between nations over land, rivals over thrones, boys over girls, are examples. Another form, allowing plural winners, occurs when different entities pursue the same final purpose – survival, growth and pleasure – involving the same resource, but in different ways. Conflict between farmers and herders over land allowing purposeful subdivision or alternate use, or between planters and industrialists over humans, defined only as slaves, or both as wage-slaves and consumers, are examples. Plural winnings involve compromise, so change: redefining identities and interests. This compliantly circumvents the second law of thought’s time, ways and means clauses. If such change serves the redefined interests of all, most or some concerned, it is adaptive, and its results become elements of culture. Thus particular cultures are built.


Categorically different is conflict, not between different entities, over identical interests, whether in the same or different ways, but within single entities, over self-defined identity. This occurs both within individuals and collectivities. Examples are individual self-doubt and redefinition, or collective ideological strife. Individual conflict of identity arises between one’s plural identities: say, as husband and lover. This is logically conflict between different identities, but humans, limited to one body and life each, experience it as conflict within a single entity. Collective conflict of identity also logically occurs between different identities in single entities, but is exponentially more complex and volatile, as individual constituents of collectivities may change their self-definitions in different cases. Such conflict often occurs during cultural change, as individuals and collectivites adapt to challenges to their self-definition of identity, and so to their definition and pursuit of interests. Often, in practice, all the foregoing types of conflict overlap and influence each other.


Conflict between one’s own identity and interests, that which concerns us here, is related to the former. It may be the former’s precursor. But unlike the former, which is evident in self doubt or collective strife, it is hard to detect, because it is latent, not patent in its context. Interest, sed non videtur. It occurs when an entity’s self-defined identity and interests conflict with its adaptive identity or interests, or both, otherwise defined, but the entity is unaware of the conflict. If it becomes aware, there is a chance that this may lead to individual doubt or collective strife, and so to adaptation. If it fails to become aware, there is a chance that the entity in question will perish.


Here converge two crucial distinctions: one between self definition and otherwise; another between adaptiveness and otherwise. The conflict that concerns us here occurs when self-defined identity and interests are unadaptive. If they remain so, the entity in question is doomed. Paleontology, archaeology and history are full of examples of entities which perished because they failed to adapt to challenges to their identity and interests. To say this is to compare biological and cultural evolution. Biological is unconscious and retrospective; cultural conscious and prospective. Entities like dinosaurs and pterodactyls could not help perishing, because they lacked culture, thus self-determination. Entities like Greece and Rome might have survived, but did not, perhaps because something in their cultures prevented them. In both cases, however, their genes or mnemes survive in other forms: as birds, or in ourselves.


By ‘ourselves’ I mean the heirs of Greece and Rome, as well as of some other cultures, who constitute the culture of modernity. Again, my previous discussion of this culture in this forum is published in New Security Learning. Again, for the benefit of newcomers, I briefly recapitulate. The culture of modernity prefers knowledge over belief, and reason over emotion. Authoritarian modernity enforces these preferences by force. Liberal modernity prefers persuasion over force, but is prepared, if necessary, to marshal force, and even emotion and belief, to defend against threats to its survival.


Cultural survival is subtle to define. It may involve continuity of locus, ethnicity, language, ideology, economy, technology, and custom, but may also omit some items.

China has survived longer than most, with the same locus, ethnicity and language, through often violent changes of ideology, economy, technology and custom, which nonetheless leave its basic identity intact. India, equally continuous in locus, is less homogeneous ethnically or linguistically, more conservative in custom, more diverse in ideology, and equally eclectic or experimental in technology and economy, having, like China, borrowed and adapted elements of both from the culture of modernity.


The culture of modernity is heir to the ideology of Greece and Rome, implicit in the three laws of thought. These form the basis of modernity, both authoritarian and liberal. They do so through their theoretical and practical extension and circumvention, in the cultural, scientific, technological, industrial, political and economic revolutions of the last five centuries in Europe and America, and more recently beyond. Yet modernity is far from homogeneous ethnically or linguistically, and has spread far beyond its original locus. Its customs vary, but tend to converge in certain ways: dynamic social interaction leading towards class mobility, race and gender equality; a tendency to individualism and self-determination; the keen pursuit of pleasure and growth. So does modernity’s self-defined identity conflict with its adaptive interests?


A culture’s self-defined identity may conflict with its adaptive interests when its self-definition is predicated on a single aspect of its threefold purpose: survival, growth and pleasure. Most often, that single predicative aspect is pleasure, involving growth, whether of its numbers, or in its use of resources. Pleasure leads it to neglect limitations on resources, and/or to breed excessive users. Even without pleasure, excessive growth in numbers or intensity of use can lead to exhaustion of resources. Conversely, exclusive focus on survival, neglecting growth and pleasure, can lead to cultural extinction, since pleasure is the incentive, and growth the condition, of culture.  If a culture gives no pleasure to its participants, it will not regenerate itself. If so, it will not grow over time, and so will not survive. The best chance, over time, for a culture’s survival, is balance among its three purposes: survival, growth and pleasure.


Over time, but not in a crisis. In a crisis, survival trumps growth and pleasure. Without survival, there is neither. But there can be survival, if only short term, without either. Thus, in considering conflict between cultural identity and interests, survival’s primacy should be borne in mind. If a given society’s self-defined identity and interests are predicated more on its pursuit of pleasure, and its indulgence in growth, whether in its own numbers, or in its consumption of resources, or both, than on ensuring its survival, it is vulnerable to threats to its survival. Depending on the direness of such threats, it may have to redefine its identity and interests to survive. The question, then, is: Are we in a crisis? If so, what to do? If not, how to avoid one?


To judge whether we are in a crisis, we must know where threats may come from. There are two main sets of possibilities: culture or nature; external or internal. Let us start with external cultures. Modernity is unlikely to fall, like Greece and Rome, to barbarians. Despite the violent reaction of some traditional cultures, such as parts of Islam, to the challenge of modernity, no such traditional culture has the material or ideological power to overthrow modernity and rule the world. And rule the world it must, if it is to overthrow modernity, since modernity continues to spread worldwide.


It does so because it provides more pleasure and growth than most traditional cultures.

As modernity’s nature, and so its appeal, is mainly ideological, it quickly transcends locus, ethnicity, and language with its superior technology and economy. These are adaptable to diverse traditional cultures, as the cases of China and India show. They gradually bring about changes in custom and belief. Such adaptability is modernity’s secret weapon. While modernity requires changes in practice, it allows intransigence in theory. It does not immediately challenge self-defined markers of cultural identity, such as language, custom and belief. One can be antedeluvian in one’s beliefs, so long as one flies one’s planes by aerodynamics, not by magic. Changes in culture occur by stealth, over generations. Violent reactions, such as those of forms of Islam aware of the threat to them, seek to block such changes, but, over the long term, in vain. So modernity must cope with such reactions, but they do not pose an existential threat.


Since modernity is a global culture, external nature may be defined as extraterrestrial; internal nature as this earth. Threats from external nature are detected by astronomers. We know that eventually the sun will die, and earth with it. We also know that we may be hit by a large asteroid, with dire fallout. In the present state of our technology there is not much we can do about such threats. We manage, so far, to cope with solar flares. Against larger external natural threats, we must continue to develop science. One aspect of science is intellectual. This is hard enough, but we may be equal to it. Another is political and economic. This is even harder, and here I have my doubts.


For much the same solution, developing science, holds for internal natural threats. These can be divided into two groups: those, like earthquakes, typhoons, and tsunamis, arising from nature alone; and those, like solid and gas pollution, arising from human interaction with nature. So far, the record does not inspire confidence. For in both cases, human nature is part of the problem. Emotion often prevents effective response, whether to purely natural or interactive threats, and contributes to causing the latter.  We see how controversial are scientific attempts to detect and define perceived internal natural threats, in view of vested economic and political interests. This is a conflict between identity  – that of the threat – and interests – those of the threatened.


It is one whose solution requires self redefinition of identity and interests by the threatened. Since, in many cases, they are arguably also the causers of the threat, this is resisted, politically and economically. So enforcing scientifically designed defences against internal natural threats involves not only politics and economics, but force or persuasion. Whether by authoritarian or liberal means, the job, if urgent, must be done.

Liberal societies can use authoritarian force. Most armed forces are authoritarian. But determining urgency, and so military deployment, faces the same conflicts of interests as identifying threats. So given a society’s self-defined identity as a liberal democracy, the task of defence against internal natural threats falls mainly to persuasion.


The same applies to internal cultural threats. These, moreover, are harder to identify. For much of modernity’s vitality consists in its ability creatively, but compliantly, to skirt or stretch the laws of thought, by redefining its own identity and interests. Thus apparent threats become opportunities. Modernity’s development over five centuries shows the creative power of dialectic resolving contradictions. The direst internal threat to that creative power is the dogmatic imposition of alleged certainty; but such is modernity’s vitality that it will not long or wholly submit to any such imposition. That understood, we may consider internal cultural threats, looking for opportunities.


Cultural threats and opportunities, like culture itself, can be divided into material and notional, with technology the bridge. The most recent material and notional innovation, presenting challenges and opportunities, produced by the culture of modernity, is digital binary code information technology. IT is a revolution as profound and consequential as any of the previous ones configuring modernity. Note that it is based directly, materially and notionally, on the logic of the laws of thought. Some of the threats it gives rise to can be met with the laws of thought themselves. One of these is excessive volume of information, much of it trash. Another is misinformation and disinformation. Both can be fought with the rigorous application of logic and its partners in the mediaeval scholastic trivium: rhetoric and grammar. Grammar, and its cognate, lexicography, help one to discard, without wasting time on reading it, much of the trash and misinformation. Rhetoric helps one to detect tactics of disinformation and discount them. Logic gives one criteria to identify and analyse whatever propositions are left. Indeed, the laws of thought, applied in identification and definition, help one, using one’s computer, properly programmed, to sort huge amounts of raw information, before ever allowing it to enter one’s mind. Therein, however, lies a danger. For one risks excluding that bit of wacky, heterodox information that may just provide the key to solving a problem. So flair is required. Other threats arise from our exclusive dependence on information technology, and on its material precondition, electricity, to power and deploy our material culture. This makes it vulnerable both to natural threats, such as solar storms and earthbound disasters, and to cultural threats, such as cyberwarfare, malware, or error. Non-electric, non-digital backups for vital material elements of culture are imperative.


A different form of conflict between cultural identity and interests is when one’s cultural self-definition prevents one, not from identifying threats, but from responding effectively to them. This arises with threats to which effective response poses a moral dilemma: transgressing one’s own rules. An example of such conflict occurs within certain religious sects whose members refuse medical treatment on religious grounds. Because they identity themselves as holy, they would rather let themselves and their children suffer, even die, than to sully their souls by interfering with God’s will.


A classic case of resolving such conflict between interests and identity, in the case of an individual who happened also to be a head of state, so of a collectivity, is that of Henri de Navarre, a Protestant, who, in order to become king of France, embraced Catholicism with the motto: ‘Paris vaut bien une messe’: ‘Paris is well worth a mass’. By changing his religious identity he not only gained a throne for himself, but brought about a truce in the wars of religion, at least in France, at least during his lifetime. They did, however, re-engulf Europe after his murder by a religious fanatic, showing that his resolution of the conflict was only temporary, as indeed are all things human.


A more modern example of such conflict is the media notion that in democratic elections two kinds of voting occur: interests voting and identity voting. Interests voting reportedly occurs when voters vote for what is in their interest, usually defined in economic terms. Identity voting supposedly occurs when voters vote for whom they identify with, emotionally or aspirationally. It is also sometimes implied that while identity voting is emotional, interests voting is rational. This distinction allegedly helps one understand apparently irrational phenomena, such as when, in an American presidential election, white working class voters vote for a white multimillionaire Wall-Street-friendly Republican, rather than a black mere millionaire Main-Street-friendly Democrat. Their vote, apparently against their own economic interests, is explained in terms of an emotion, racism, affirming, through binary opposition, their own identity, or of projected wish-fulfilment related to their own identity: they would rather identify with a multimillionaire than a mere millionaire, irrespective of race. It may also reflect the fear of being labelled ‘liberal’, a dirty word in parts of America.


Conflict between cultural self-definition and adapative interests often arises in states belonging or allied to the culture of liberal modernity. The USA, constitutionally defined as a guarantor of the security of ‘life, liberty and property’, restricts some civil liberties in the defence of life and property. The UK, a country without a constitution, compromises its own cultural identity, and transgresses its own judicial precedents, when it does likewise. Japan, defined by a constitution imposed by its victor in war as a state renouncing war, and foreswearing the maintenance of land, sea and air forces, nonetheless maintains a powerful army, navy, and air force, under other names, and perpetually debates whether to change its constitution. Germany, Italy, Denmark and France also have pacifist clauses in their constitutions, yet maintain armed forces. France’s, indeed, are nuclear as well as conventional. Moreover, despite guaranteeing religious liberty, France, in order to affirm its secular identity and enhance its physical security, bans certain female dress with religious connotations that stops security agents from seeing and identifying its wearers’ faces.


Turning from states belonging or allied to the culture of modernity to states and non-state actors among its emulators, rivals, adversaries and enemies, actual and potential, we see the conflict between interests and identity even more clearly and dramatically. The current turmoil in the Near and Middle East is a conflict of identity and interests of extraordinary complexity and volatility. At one level, it is a classic conflict of political and economic interests between different collectivities within states; and also between states, calling into question the current composition and definition of those states and collectivities. At another, it is a conflict within and between collectivities, ethnically, culturally and economically defined, occurring within states, politically defined, over which economic, political, cultural and ethnic identities those states will adopt, embrace, allow, expel or exterminate. Such states and collectivities, moreover, define themselves, and are defined by others, in terms of ethnic and cultural identities, involving race, language and religion, that cut across political and economic lines. Most of this turmoil falls within the Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Muslim majority is violently split between Sunni and Shia, each further fractured into mutually hostile sects. Christianity is split among Catholics, Copts, Ethiopes, Maronites, Orthodox, and Protestants. Not much Christian charity is lost among them. Jews are equally captiously split among Hassidic, Orthodox, Reform, and Secular. At their most extreme, the proponents of each of these Abrahamic sects claim to be the sole possessors of religious truth, with all the rest damed to hell everlasting.

Clearly, they could do with an Henri de Navarre to help restore their sense of humour. The relatively greater success of the culture of modernity in providing a measure of security, prosperity, well-being and self-determination lies in renouncing, in practice, if not yet universally in theory, the notion that anyone possesses absolute truth. We see, in cases of liberal democracies curtailing liberties and deploying authoritarian armed forces, that threats to survival are being met, not by resolving contradictions, but by ignoring them: by not letting the left hand stop what the right hand doth. While this may be intellectually dissatisfactory or ethically repugnant to those, like the present Pope, who preach perfect consistency and continuity between one’s self-definition and one’s actions, in terms of a predefined set of values and imperatives, it is vital to the survival both of individuals and of cultures that they be capable of it. For those seeking intellectual validation of this dialectical process, there are indeed solutions to hand. They involve redefinition of the terms involved, such as good and evil, based on multiplicity of points of view: hence moral relativity. For what is good for one is not necessarily good for another, as our glance at lions and humans shows. Indeed, in seeking intellectual understanding of cultural dialectics, we have lessons to learn from evolutionary biology: from bio-logic. But that is for another time and place. For now, much to His Holiness’ disappointment, I fear that moral relativity is here to stay; just as, so we are reassured by news from CERN, is its physical equivalent.


As usual in this forum, I shall end with a few questions of my own, then invite yours.  I have tried, in this exposition, to ask these questions: What exactly is the relationship of interests and identity? Where precisely does the difference between them lie? To what extent and how does it involve a distinction between reason and emotion? Specifically in the context of defence and security, to what extent and how are choices, decisions, and actions conditioned by interests or identity, or both, and driven by reason or emotion, or both? How may we acquire and exercise intelligence in order to improve the outcomes of our choices, decisions and actions, in pursuit of our goals and values? What, in view of such intelligence, should those goals and values be?


Let me give examples of practical matters to which such questions are relevant. In the case of politics, is it in anyone’s interest, in countering Islamism’s perceived threat, to allow or aid the Islamic world to spiral into internal strife, in order to divide and rule? Or is it in anyone’s interest to aid its evolution towards modernity and democracy? To what extent does such a choice involve reason or emotion, identity or interests? Is it likely, either way, to have any effect? In the case of economics, is it in our interest to pursue growth indefinitely, or at least till everyone achieves a high standard of living? Or does this so threaten global resources that we must renounce further growth and development, and if so, by whom and for whom? Who shall make and enforce such a decision? On the basis of what intelligence? With what input from reason or emotion?