January 25, 2010
The New York Times reported the amazing story of a Turkish Moslem woman Fethiye Cetin who was told by her Grandmother, on her death bed that she has been kidnapped when she was a child, during the Armenian Genocide and adopted later by a Turkish family. That revelation changed her life for ever.
“I was in a state of shock for a long time-I suddenly saw the world through different eyes,” she said. She then espoused Christianity, the faith of her forefathers and became a Human Rights attorney, in Turkey. She represented Hrant Dink, the editor of the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos when he was prosecuted for referring to the genocide. Mr. Dink was later killed by a young Turkish ultranationalist. To this day, the Turkish Government refuses to acknowledge what happened in 1915, when close to 1.5 million Armenians were killed, among them my grandfather Mihran Tchividjian.
Would we be shattered if we were told today that we had been adopted and that our biological parents were of a different ethnicity and faith? Would it change us and subsequently would it change the rest of our lives?
The issue of identity has been pondered by philosophers since antiquity. In the 5th Century BC, the philosopher Socrates gave us a good advice when he wrote “know Thyself.” However few, if any, have been able to reach that understanding.
Who are we or who do we think we are? How do our friends and family describe us? What characterizes us? Is it gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, education, experience, profession? Is it values? Maybe it is all of these and more in different proportions.
We should also consider that people change, sometimes after a dramatic or traumatic event. Others go through an “identity crisis.” Milan Kundera, in his short novel “Identity” writes about the fact that the human sense of self is precarious.
Author and Professor of Philosophy Kwame Anthony Appiah, at the Center for Human Values at Princeton University published a book entitled The Ethics of Identity. In his book Prof. Appiah explores the link between who we are and what we are, between individuality and morals obligations either to a particular community or the community in general.
There is a close connection between identity and ethics. Virtues are character traits. Our sense of who we are, (or who we want to be) and what we do are closely linked.
One could ask the question “are we defined by our actions or is it because of who we are that we do or do not do certain things?
Erich Fromm, the German philosopher and social psychologist believes he has the answer to that question. He wrote:
“Integrity simply means not violating one’s own identity.”