Identity and Belonging

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While we may seek acceptance by others, we need to stay true to ourselves.

In a society which inherently seeks to categorise individuals and in which others’ acceptance is based largely on the extent to which one conforms, it is paramount that each person finds their genuine place in the world. Our society is fundamentally based around the often artificial groups to which we belong and the attributes and qualities associated with them. As a result, adherence to the pre-existing guidelines which define these groups, and to the expectations of others, can often be the easiest and is in some cases the only path to fitting in. However, the complexity and depth of our inner being can sometimes require that we go above and beyond others’ ideals in order to find out true selves. On the other hand, the ease with which one can passively conform in our society can risk breeding individuals who do not challenge others’ perceptions of who they are and instead lose sight of their self-worth and sense of purpose.

As our society tries constantly to box each individual into a set of pre-defined rules and regulations, in order to gain others’ approval, it is often easy and sometimes necessary to fit in. In Western Society, we are often overly focussed on the development of individuals and this can become superficial. Too frequently we concentrate on creativity, expression and self-image, and as these concepts are firmly based on arbitrary labels, opinions and comparison with others this can further overemphasise the need to be accepted. Whether it be teenagers’ desire to have the latest fashion, hairdos and accessories, primary school children who collect cards or play games or even adults who try to lose weight or endure stereotypical mid-life crises and buy an expensive car, all share the common need to be “normal” and adhere to social convention. This need for others’ validation, especially during the teenage years, is explored in the American TV show Glee, directed by Ryan Murphy, in which a bunch of misfit high school students each attempt to find their true selves. From the first day of high school, and even earlier, children are labelled as geeks, footballers, divas and cheerleaders, yet the membership of the school’s show choir – which includes students from every different stereotype – allows each one to feel not only open to their true identity but proud to finally understand that they do have something significant to contribute to the world around them. This group enables these “misfits” to retain their quirks, eccentricities and beliefs while simultaneously feeling appreciated and worthwhile through belonging to this musical group and expressing themselves together.

In modern day society we are afforded the opportunity, on occasion, to explore different stereotypes; to try on multiple identities to see which one fits. However, in comparison, the religious members of the Amish community are not allowed this same trial or path of discovery, as portrayed in Peter Weir’s film Witness. The notion of expected of assumed conformity in Western society is taken further to enforced, compulsory conformity in the Amish community, where you are told your place in society, as Eli does to both Rachael and Samuel, and have no choice but to follow it. We see the Amish conforming in dress-code, lifestyle and belief-system, and the barn building scene, with its joyful, light music, emphasises the positive aspects of conformity: team work, camaraderie and efficiency, for example. However, when policeman John Book confronts Rachael with modern music, the “gun of the hand” and other Western ideals, Eli warns Rachael that she will be “shunned” if she fails to live up to what is expected of her. The juxtaposition of John Book’s (and indeed our modern day) ideals with those of the Amish community emphasises the way in which most individuals seek approval and self-validation by adjusting themselves to gain acceptance, and the necessity, in some...
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