How LEGOs Can Help Us Understand Identity in Liberal Societies

Using LEGOs to illustrate mechanisms of identity formation in a liberal society.

Sources of identity and meaning play a significant role in debates about the merits of liberalism. Conservatives, collectivists, authoritarians, and other anti-liberals say that, while liberalism might bring us freedom and wealth, it saps us of the sources of meaning necessary to lead a good life. Identity isn’t something we can forge in a vacuum, nor is it something that can or should be entirely up to us as freely choosing, autonomous subjects. Rather, we need identities given to us, and meaning provided for us—typically by “traditional” ways of being—and both need to be (re)enforced by the government. Otherwise—and this is the inevitable result of a liberal society, they argue—we’re all cursed to become disconnected and identity-less individuals. While we might have lots of toys to play with and lots of spectacles to occupy our time, in reality, we’re adrift without the solid enough identity needed to feel settled, and without the meaning we need to be genuinely, instead of superficially, happy. In short, the anti-liberal claims that the liberal overestimates both the capacity of most people to forge meaningful identities and communal belonging in the radical autonomy liberalism asserts and the authenticity of the identities and sources of meaning that we build in this free and open liberal environment.

In other words, the choices before us fall into a stark binary: Either identity and meaning are communitarian, and so externally given to or imposed upon us, or else they are constructed entirely from scratch by every individual in perfect and unencumbered freedom. My worry is that this binary doesn’t just represent the choice as characterized by anti-liberals, but that it’s how many liberals present the alternatives, as well—and that the binary both makes liberalism look less appealing and, in fact, mischaracterizes how identify and meaning actually come about in a liberal society. Liberal identity formation doesn’t sit at the extreme of the binary, but instead takes advantage of the positive characteristics of the anti-liberal’s preference, while doing away with its most troubling aspects.

Liberal and Anti-Liberal LEGOs

To understand both the binary as presented, and my alternative to it, let’s talk about LEGOs. Imagine that for your birthday, two different relatives each give you some LEGO building blocks. Your uncle picked out a set that builds a cool car. But before wrapping it, he opened the package, took out the pieces, assembled them according to the directions, and then glued the finished car together. Thus your gift from him is a LEGO car, but only ever that.

Your aunt picks out the same LEGO set, but before giving it to you, she opens the package, takes out just the bricks, tosses those into a new bag, and then throws out the box (with the picture of the car), as well as the instructions. Thus your gift from her is a pile of LEGOs you can do whatever you want with, but without a sense of what they're supposed to build, or how to build it.

Going back to the binary as presented above, your uncle is the anti-liberal, your aunt the liberal, and the LEGOs a sort of meaningful identity. As the subject of your uncle, as the subject of a communitarian society, your meaningful identity is provided to you (it’s a cool car), so you don’t have to work to form it, and, because it’s glued together, you can’t change it. In your uncle’s world, identity formation is easy (your identity is quite literally handed to you), but inflexible (the car will always be a car).

As the subject of your aunt, instead, as the subject a liberal society, your meaningful identity isn’t provided to you at all. You have to build it yourself, and your aunt is so open and uncontrolling that she didn’t even give you instructions that might limit your autonomy by telling you what that identity should, or even could, look like. Here’s a pile of bricks, now you’re on your own.

If this is in fact the binary choice in front of us, if these are the only two options representing the contrast between anti-liberalism and liberalism, it’s easy to see why your uncle’s gift might be more appealing to a lot of people. Sure, some of us are comfortable with the radical freedom of a bag of LEGOs without instructions. But many of us aren’t creative enough to come up with something as cool as that car would’ve been, or don’t want to put in that much work, or find the idea of such radical autonomy stressful. Or maybe that particular car just is what we wanted all along.

But, as I said, characterizing the choice this way is both misleading about the nature of liberalism, and rhetorically damaging to the liberal’s position. Liberals should stop treating the aunt’s gift as the right one, and look to a third option, instead.

A Third Way

Let’s go back to the LEGOs. You’ve set aside your uncle’s permanently assembled car as not really your ideal, but you also either can’t think of anything to build with your aunt’s pile of bricks, or else don’t even know how to begin building what you vaguely have in mind. Then your loving grandmother brings you her own gift. It’s a third set of LEGOs, and the same car, in fact. But she hasn't opened it, hasn’t thrown away the box or the instructions, and seeing that you’ve never built LEGOs before, she sits down with you and helps you work your way through the directions until the model is complete.

At the end, though, as you’re admiring what you’ve built together, she says, “I’m glad you like the car. But you should know that, while we’ve worked on this collaboratively, and with the help of the instructions given to us, and you can, of course, keep it for as long as you like, LEGOs are meant to be played with. If you want to change the car a bit so you like it more, you should. If you want to take it apart and build something new entirely, you can, and you can even find instructions others have written to help you achieve what you have in mind. I’ve given you this car, and it’s yours, but because it’s yours, you have the power to make it yours, or make it new.”

That, I submit, is a better analogy for identity formation in a liberal society. Not the radical self-authorship of starting from nothing, but instead starting from something—given to us by our family, community, contemporary culture, local norms and tastes, etc.—and then, if we want to, revising, evolving, or abandoning it for something new. Further, that “something new” needn’t be entirely of our own creation, without example or guidance, but instead is the product of a vast menu of possibilities we can explore, choose from, and revise to best suit our needs. 

Identity as a Default

This isn’t anywhere near as scary as the initial binary makes liberalism seem. Liberal societies don’t mean atomized individuals kicked out to sea at birth to find their own way with a ship they first build themselves. Liberal societies give us robust and meaningful sources of identity, and start us off situated within them. You're born into a family, and the members of that family have their own identities, reinforced by where they live, whether they belong to a church and what kind, the types of work they do, the culture—or cultures, or subcultures—they enjoy and participate in, and so on.

Thus we get part of what the anti-liberal wants: to be told, “This is who you are, and this is where you belong.” What we don’t get is the other piece the anti-liberal demands: to be told, “And this is always who you’ll be, and this is always where you’ll be, and if you try to change that, or if anyone encourages you to change that, we’ll have men with guns put them in their place, and keep you in yours.” 

The identities handed to us, initially, in liberalism aren’t enforced and permanent inevitabilities, but instead defaults. But liberalism also provides a fantastic variety of such defaults, and we can move between them to find the ones most fulfilling to us. Our own default, the identity we're born into, is the LEGO car after we’ve built it with our liberal grandmother: an example of how it works, and maybe we one we want to stick with, for the foreseeable future or maybe forever, but one we can shape or set aside once we learn more about who we are, what makes us happy, and who we ultimately want to be.

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