A conservative friend suggests banning all adjectives – eliminating identifiers completely. ‘Conservative’ for example. Adjectives indicate our opinion about a person, and sometimes that’s all. Relying on it exaggerates the differences, shrinks the complexity and puts labels on them instead.
Perhaps that’s why I thought it was during Ketanji Brown Jackson’s hearings that the media identified her almost exclusively as the first black woman—true, but in a sense, universally. First black woman: those are all important milestones, identities that of course really matter. It’s just that sometimes they seemed to drown out so much else about her. Some people never got past First Black Woman (no doubt the same people who turned the page when they saw HERS).
As a ‘senior’, my identity is established at a glance. The co-op clerks can’t tell me apart from other white-haired women waiting for their orders. In their twenties, seventies they all look alike. (Twenties can also look quite similar to us, unfortunately.)
Education obliged I struggle with identity. Students ask: How should we address you? A friend gave her students two options: first name or majesty. I liked that. But these days I find that most of my students prefer “professor” because that is my identity to them. I don’t really identify as a “professor,” but that’s okay.
That’s the thing about identity. It changes in space and time. “Hers” doesn’t mean what it did 30 years ago. At the same time, I find it hard to identify with the reckless forties who rolled through Manhattan. (The Trump Tower lobby was the best spot in town.) A friend sent me a photo from a few years ago, giving a lecture at an event. “I was someone then,” I wrote back. “You were someone else then,” he replied.
Sometimes, my primary identity is ‘mother’. My cat, not mistakenly, probably identifies me as a “can opener”.
Still, my identity doesn’t mean that I’m identical to other “can openers,” like the cat sitter, or that I identify with “can openers.” Even identical twins may not identify as identical. One might identify as “Olympic athlete”; the other, “thug.”
In mathematics, an identity is something very specific. Euler’s identity is arguably the most famous: I once saw it engraved on the license plate of a pickup truck in Anchorage. It appeared on The Simpsons several times. A scientist friend suggested it to me as a fitting tattoo.
Part of the appeal is that Euler’s identity has a star-studded cast – all the cool songs!
0: the destroyer; it makes everything nothing or infinite.
1: unity, an identity in itself!
pi: ratio of circumference to diameter, irrational and infinite. (The first three digits are Einstein’s birthday.)
e: transcendental, occurs everywhere, a limit, unreachable, its own derivative.
i: imaginary, the square root of minus one: √(-1).
Put them together and you get: e i piss + 1 = 0. In English, multiply i times pi then increase e to that power. Magically, it equals zero. That is amazing!