French philosopher Paul Ricoeur demonstrates how science-fiction allows us to deconstruct our humanity in ways otherwise inconceivable in the real world. Take identity, for example. Ricoeur devises a teleportation device that could transport an individual from one planet to another, piece by piece. He asks the reader then to figure out at what point the individual’s identity is reconstructed on the other planet. Is it once the entire process is complete? When the brain and its memories are transposed? Or perhaps when the ‘soul’ finds its new destination? Identity remains an elusive subject. It can mean many things according to personal convictions and, significantly, cultural baggage. Unless identity is concretely defined within a set of parameters, its discussion will inevitably involve widely diverging formulations.
Already in the 1980s, there were well over 170 definitions of identity in academic circulation. Add to this an infinite number of qualifiers –e.g. ethnic, cultural, racial – and the list grows exponentially. These qualifiers reflect the hegemonic construction of how the self is to be understood and perceived in a specific cultural and political framework. Thus, an individual relating to their ‘male, Egyptian, Muslim identity’ regurgitates a configuration of the self that gives primacy to – and indeed even discreetly compartmentalizes – gender, cultural and religious identities. Identity, in this sense, is a uniquely politized construct.
Let’s take a closer look at cultural identity. What happens when the subject of a cultural identity is raised in a mental health setting? We begin by remembering that therapy is a process of co-construction that gives meaning to suffering within the therapist/patient intersubjective space. When cultural identity enters this space, two caveats are worth noting. First is the ontology that gives cultural identity its significance. By focusing on the cultural identity of their patient, the therapist inadvertently affirms a formulation of the self-concept in which cultural identity is necessarily a component. This, in turn, reflects a Western history that gives primacy to ethnic/cultural identities due, in large part, to globalisation and national identity discussions in early 20th century. The cultural identity is then situated within a wider political discourse that puts it at an ontological crossroads with national identity. In many ways, one cannot avoid discussing a cultural identity without affirming – and perhaps even reifying – a political framework upon the patient’s minority status vis-à-vis the State.
The second caveat is the actual content of the cultural identity. Now that the ontological nature of the cultural identity within the self-concept has been affirmed, its design reflects the therapist’s sequence of questions and interpretations. These questions and interpretations are, in turn, subject to definitions of the cultural identity embedded within political discourse. Salient in the discussion of Western Muslims, for example, is the subject of radicalisation. In the UK, the importance accorded to radicalisation among Muslims reflects a political stance which views extremism as a religious perversion which must be tackled within an ideological arena (i.e. ‘changing the hearts and minds campaign’). This viewpoint disregards however the myriad of other non-ideological factors which push individuals towards a path of violence. A mental health worker, oblivious to the impact of political discourse, may reproduce the Muslim identity within the intersubjective space in a way that affirms its potential ideological threat. In turn, their prejudgement may damage therapeutic interventions.
None of this is to say that discussions on cultural identity should be avoided. I would argue that it remains a useful concept in many respects. Indeed, it still provides a platform to meet the cultural ‘other’ without denying their traditions altogether. Nonetheless, mental health professionals must always remember that the therapeutic space is unavoidably a political one in which certain formulations of the self and suffering will be favored over others. Just because cultural identity is a convenient tool for culturally-sensitive mental health workers does not negate the reality that it is, after all, a Western artifact.