What is this “you do you” thing?
What does it mean for you to do you?
If it’s a sign of our pervasive narcissism, as some believe, it expresses one of the original meanings of narcissism… that is, using one’s body as a sexual object. Before narcissism referred to self-love and to self-esteem it had a more sexual connotation.
To be more precise, British sexologist Havelock Ellis used the term narcissism to refer to people who masturbated excessively.
By now, it feels quaint. In our sexually enlightened age we are loath to say that anyone masturbates excessively. When was the last time you heard anyone say that it was possible to have too much sexual pleasure? Or that we should cast judgment on the different ways to obtain said pleasure?
Call it a sign of pervasive narcissism, if you like, but it is also a sign of cultural decadence.
This raises the question of whether you do you because no one else wants to do you or because you do not want to do anyone but you.
One ought to mention that doing you is really not the same as being you. Doing involves an action; being does not.
So, I disagree with Colson Whitehead’s notion that “you do you” is equivalent to: “Be yourself!”
In his words:
Wherever you hail from, you’ll recognize “You do you” and “Do you” as contemporary versions of that life-affirming chestnut “Just be yourself.” It’s the gift of encouragement from one person to another, what we tell children on the first day of kindergarten, how we reassure buddies as they primp for a blind date or rehearse asking for a raise. You do you, as if we could be anyone else. Depending on your essential qualities, this song of oneself is cause for joy or tragedy.
This feels slightly confused to me. Of course, you can adopt any one of a number of personae in our everyday life. We act differently when we are professionals, parents or lovers.
True, “just be yourself" is encouraging, but it tells someone to relax and not try so hard to assert a persona that seems false and put on. "You do you" aims at your moral being, in the sense that it is excusing your moral dereliction. "Just be yourself" recommends that you relax. It does not say what you should or should not do.
Of course, a shark or a tornado is defined by certain actions. It seems an inevitable part of the natural order that animals act like the animals that they are.
When we encounter a horse or a pig, of course we do not encourage it to be itself. An animal does not have the choice… unless it can talk and exercise free will.
Those who are trying to define what it means to do you suggest that it correlates with notions like:
Haters gonna hate.
Lovers gonna love.
The ignorant gonna ignore.
But what does it mean?
Let’s try to define it.
As it is now being used, the locution suggests that have no real free will in choosing what to do or not to do. This means that you have no real responsibility for choosing to do one thing or another.
If you are a lover you will love. You cannot help yourself. You should not be held responsible for your actions, because your being makes them inevitable… beyond your control.
It is strange to think that love and hate are intrinsic to who you are, however.
To the extent that the phrase defines modern narcissism, it offers a convenient rationalization for amorality.
To clarify the issue, Whitehead recalls the fable of the scorpion and the frog.
In his words:
You will recall the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog. The Scorpion needs a ride across the river. The waters are rising on account of climate change, or perhaps he has been priced out of his burrow, who knows? The exact reason is lost in the fog of pre-modernity. The Frog is afraid that the Scorpion will sting him, but his would-be passenger reassures him that they would both die if that happened. That would be crazy. Sure enough, halfway across, the Scorpion stings the Frog. Just before they drown, the Scorpion says, “Aren’t you going to ask why I did that?” And the Frog croaks, “You do you.”
One accepts that the early version of the fable does not include the line: “You do you.”
What is the moral of the story?
One might suggest that it’s a lesson in narcissistic amorality, but it also shows that it’s foolish to trust a scorpion.
In that case, it means: know thy enemy.
Whitehead notwithstanding, Obama’s new deal with Iran, such as it is, sounds like the frog’s deal with the scorpion. Can Iran be trusted, even if it knows that its attempt to destroy its carrier, the USA will lead to its own destruction?
More saliently, can Iran be trusted, even if it knows that any attack on Israel will produce uncountable casualties?
When Bret Stephens wrote about the concept, he was referring to President Obama’s seeming incapacity to look presidential, to manifest the dignity of his office.
Obama, he suggested, is more concerned with looking cool and insouciant than in looking dignified and in commanding respect. Thus, it has happened that has looked clownish when occasions have required seriousness.
What it’s about is showing just how totally relatable and adorably authentic and marvelously self-aware is this president of ours. “Can I live?” the president says when caught shooting imaginary hoops in his study by a young visitor. “You do you,” the visitor gamely replies before walking off.
Yes, you do you, Barry: It’s what your political career has always been about, from your myth-memoir “Dreams From My Father” to your well-nurtured cult of personality to the coterie of flatterers with whom you have surrounded yourself in office to the supine and occasionally complicit news media that have seen you through six years of crisis, failure and scandal.
“You do you” is the ultimate self-referential slogan for the ultimate self-referential presidency. It’s the “be yourself” piety of our age turned into a political license by Mr. Obama to do as he pleases. It’s what drives his political choices: the immigration amnesty; arbitrary rewrites of the Affordable Care Act; the Environmental Protection Agency’s coal rules; the $128 billion in settlements the administration extorted from six banks convicted of no wrongdoing.
Stephens is defining a personality-type, a persona, a mask that one might put on. Obama is not doing Obama. He is not acting like the president. He is pretending to be above it all, to be too good for the office, to be too good to do the job.
It’s a defensive posture, used to cover up the fact that he has no idea what he is doing.
We might, in our narcissistic age, an age where we believe that our mirror image, our persona is who we truly are, confuse a mask for face… because acting with presidential dignity is having face… but still we ought to know better.