Centuries have passed and we have gone beyond “I think, therefore I am.” Now the new credo is: I am whatever I think I am.
It’s called identity politics, but it feels more like mass hysteria.
Here’s how it works. Let’s say that one day you walk into class and declare to all those present that you are a baboon. It took some time and a great deal of mental anguish, but you have finally discovered that you are not really a human being, but a baboon. You don't look like a baboon. In fact, you look just like a human being. And yet, the baboonist interpretation explains why you don't have any friends and why you have such bad table manners. What more do you want?
After all, if a man and a woman are differentiated by 1% of their chromosomes and if a man and a primate are differentiated by 1% of their chromosomes, ergo… it’s just as likely that you are a baboon as that you belong to the opposite sex.
Now, when you announce your true being, as a baboon, most of us will probably look away, not in scorn or derision, but in pity. We will imagine, if we know a little about psychiatry, that you are prey to some kind of delusion, or, at best, have gotten caught up in the societal hysteria and have convinced yourself that all of your social problems derive from the fact that you were pretending to be a human being when you are really a baboon.
If that’s all there is, then we do not have too much of a problem. You do, but the rest of us don’t. If, however, you add that now and henceforth we must all treat you like a baboon and must purge from our language any references to your apparent humanity, we will be in trouble.
Perhaps not as much of a problem as will the underage children who are taking hormone treatments to stop them from attaining puberty, but a problem nonetheless. For the record, what kind of a society does not consider this to be child abuse?
In one sense this is not too difficult to understand what is going on. I would not generalize for everyone, but certainly the intelligentsia and those who pretend to belong to it have decided that we should no longer live in the real world. We must inhabit a fictional kingdom where each of us plays different roles in different plays.
While this kind of delusional thought is de rigueur in classrooms and the media, the general public thinks that political correctness is really a bunch of bunk. They are tired of having their thought policed and more than tired of being accused of being criminals for using the correct pronoun.
One recalls my book, The Last Psychoanalyst, wherein I explained how Freud and the therapy culture he spawned have been hard at work transforming mere humans into characters in plays. I take this opportunity to note that said book will be a perfect gift for your psychoanalyst or your therapist. With any luck your analyst will pronounce you unanalyzable.
Identity no longer has anything to do with your identity. It’s about playing a role in a play and convincing people that you are the character. If they do not play along, you will find the means to punish them.
As Shakespeare put it:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
Back in the day, Aristotle said that you are what you do, habitually. Apparently, it had not crossed his philosophical mind that you can cancel the laws of biology because you saw a YouTube video one day and decided that your mind and your body were of different sexes and that your body-- thus God-- had gotten it wrong.
You are what you do, habitually. The thought is behind Brendan O’Neill’s reflections on the current mania:
Incapable of reconstituting the old validation of people for what they did, or for who they became through achievement, work, discussion, interaction and other social and political accomplishments, society instead gives the green light to the celebration of people for their ‘traits’, or for their narrow cultural or biological identity, or, increasingly, for who they claim to be, with little in the way of objective reasoning.
O’Neill believes that Western society has suffered a moral collapse, one that dates back to the Vietnam period. One is hard put to disagree:
More importantly, it was the moral disorganisation of Western society over the past five decades that nurtured today’s identity politics, and created a climate in which identity has no real, felt, objective foundation but instead has become a fleeting, unsatisfying thing unlikely to fill its adherents with anything like a sense of achievement or true human value.
Our thought leaders have told us to feel guilty about our culture. Having any sense of dignity or self-respect must yield to our guilt for being part of a nation that is merely an organized criminal conspiracy. This means that we should no longer identify as proud Americans, but must see ourselves as citizens of the world or as members of the human species.
One must remark that being a member of the human species requires nothing of you. Your behavior, however appalling, cannot compromise your membership in the species. Nothing is quite as amoral as this form of speciesism.
All those things individuals once defined themselves through – nation, church, work, family – have corroded in recent decades. We live in a post-national era where shamefacedness about our nations’ pasts is preferred over questionable national pride. A phoney cosmopolitanism that explicitly eschews ideas of national identity is now promoted by our elites. Churches in the West are in constant crisis, reeling from one scandal to another, and seemingly lacking the moral resources to withstand the tidal wave of relativism. In an era when few know (or are willing to say) what is right and wrong, churches have lost their purchase, and shedded worshippers.
The foundation stones on which identity was built for decades, the national flags, religious faith, workplace meaning or class feeling through which we constructed a sense of ourselves, through which we discovered or defined ourselves, are gone – or are at least shaky, insecure, withering. And in such circumstances, our sense of self can become weak; we cultivate new identities that feel unfounded, unanchored, changeable rather than convincing.
With social support systems broken, people could only rely on themselves. If they could no longer trust the views of other people and if they had come to believe that all social customs had been invented to oppress them and to deprive them of orgasms, they had nothing left but themselves. They could even feel liberated: to define themselves, assert themselves and finally create themselves as the beings that they truly wanted to be. They were not bound by the laws of biology; their bodies were like so much silly putty.
Christopher Lasch called it a culture of narcissism and O’Neill takes up his point:
These observations were taken further by the American thinker Christopher Lasch in the 1970s, most notably in his book The Culture of Narcissim. As a result of major quakes in the spheres of work, family and society, a new kind of individual was emerging, argued Lasch: one who ‘needed to establish an identity, not to submerge [his] identity in a larger cause’. Lasch’s observation of a new climate of narcissism in place of the old ideal of the strong-willed individual engaged in the world – John Stuart Mill’s individual with ‘strong susceptibilities that make the personal impulses vivid and powerful’ – was based on a recognition that the disarray of institutional life did not free the individual to discover his ‘real self’, as the hippies claimed it would, but rather gave rise to a new generation with a very weakened sense of self.
Of course, the self-created individual is really a character in a fiction. He requires an admiring audience, an audience that is willing to suspend, as Keats said, disbelief.
O’Neill on Lasch:
He noted that ‘apparent freedom from family ties and institutional constraints does not free [us] to stand along or to glory in our individuality’. Instead, it ‘contributes to [our] insecurity’. It leads the individual to ‘depend on others to validate his self-esteem’, until he ‘cannot live without an admiring audience’. Where the strong individual of the past realised himself through engagement with the world around him, the new minimal individual merely wants to be consoled by the world, flattered by it.
Then, these self-created individuals, individuals who have transcended all of society’s customs and norms and traditions, who have gone beyond biology, who claim that they do not care what anyone thinks of them, will force everyone to accept their new being:
The new identitarians, or self-identifiers, might technically be liberated from old social pressures, gender norms and moral expectations – though it’s more accurate to say that those things fell apart rather than the identitarians having broken free of them – but they have become locked into new and even more insidious relationships of dependency. Their need for constant validation, for self-consolation, for an ‘admiring audience’, means that while they may be free of past, burdensome social expectations, they have become psychic slaves. They are dependent upon the recognition of others, especially officialdom. The frenetic subjectivity of their identity creation disguises the extent to which they lack any sense of genuine human subjectivity – as actors in and on and through the world – and instead have become objects of the therapeutic industry, maintained and even directed by the approval of institutions and experts.
You might have guessed, and if you have read my book you would know, that the entire enterprise is being underwritten by therapists. They might not realize it, but this form of self-creationism derives is the telos of the therapy culture. Therapy, by pretending to be science, gives it authority and credibility.
In O’Neill’s words:
Where earlier celebrators of the individual emphasised our capacity for autonomy and for governing our own minds and sense of ourselves, today’s self-identifiers cannot exist without the blessing of new forms of therapeutic authority.
Contrast that with today’s self-identifiers who claim words wound, that individuals are vulnerable, that, in the words of one, ‘our mental safety is threatened by those who question our right to exist’.
Addressing the emergence of new, weak identities, and the corresponding creation of a therapeutic industry and new forms of moral censure to prop up these identities, will require more than ridiculing the new left or the so-called ‘identitarian movement’. It demands nothing less than the reconstruction of public life, and the rediscovery of our faith in the strong individual who both makes and is made by the world, rather than simply needing to be consoled by it.
One does not want to give therapists too much credit. God knows, they need forgiveness, because, as the Bible says: They know not what they do. After all, rather than treating and curing emotional distress they have gotten into the business of producing it.