Saturday, November 19, 2022

A Culture of Solipsism

Those who read this blog religiously understand my point of view. I hold that America’s cultural problems, its increasing fragmentation derives from the simple fact that the culture has been defined by therapy.

We no longer care about our duties toward others and are completely obsessed with our search for personal meaning, for personal self-actualization, for doing right by ourselves. The more philosophical term is solipsism, a form of individuality that rejects duties to others and defines us by our needs, our feelings, our emotions, our passions, our suffering, our personal traumas. We have replaced the mantra-- do unto others-- with a new one: what about my needs?

Now, Tara Isabella Burton has written a compelling essay about it for the The New York Times:

Our political lives have become saturated with the language and imagery of therapy. Our personal lives too: The language of “trauma” and “attachment styles” has become a common way to understand ourselves and our relationships.

Among the casualties are our responsibilities toward other people:

It’s not just that this Instagram therapy gives its adherents a convenient excuse to bail on dinner parties or silence our phones when friends text us in tears. Rather, it’s that according to this newly prevalent gospel of self-actualization, the pursuit of private happiness has increasingly become culturally celebrated as the ultimate goal. The “authentic” self — to use another common buzzword — is characterized by personal desires and individual longings. Conversely, obligations, including obligations to imperfect and often downright difficult people, are often framed as mere unpleasant circumstance, inimical to the solitary pursuit of our best life. Feelings have become the authoritative guide to what we ought to do, at the expense of our sense of communal obligations.

Naturally, therapists are leading the charge:

A representative September article for Self, “3 Things to Do If You REALLY Want to Cancel Plans but Feel Guilty,” cites a therapist who encourages readers to ask themselves “what are some of my needs that are not being met” in order to weigh the pros and cons of bowing out of plans with friends. The therapist urges readers to “find a solution that will meet as many of your needs as possible.” The needs of the bailed-on friends in question go unmentioned.

With some exceptions, of course. Some therapists see the calamities that this has produced and are trying to lead people back to sanity:

We have withdrawn to a highly subjectivist form of individualism,” said Eva Illouz, a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of “Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help.” “This means that our emotions have become the moral ground for our actions.” The prevailing mentality, Dr. Illouz said, is: “I feel something, therefore I am entitled to make this demand” or “to withdraw from a relationship.”

How did we get to this point? Burton suggests, cogently, that we beat down religion and needed to replace it with something. That something was therapy culture:

Historically, the project of making sense of our lives was often dominated by religion. Our churches, our synagogues, our mosques offered answers to life’s most wrenching questions: Why do we suffer? What is my purpose in life? Why do we keep making the same mistakes over and over? But religious institutions don’t have the cachet, or public trust, that they once did.

For some, the language and worldview of therapy fills that gap. Therapy, Dr. Illouz said, “helps us find meaning in the chaos of our lives. It helps us explain why things are not working and how we may attain salvation.” From that perspective, too, the apparent solipsism of therapy culture — its encouragement to look inward rather than to external authority — may also be its greatest asset: After all, if you don’t trust the society around you, your own feelings and perceptions start to look far more reliable than those of anyone else.

Why must therapy culture fail? Simply put, we were not designed to be self-absorbed, self-defined human monads. We are, until forever, social beings. As Aristotle pointed out, a human being isolated from the group can never survive:

The idea that we are “authentic” only insofar as we cut ourselves off from one another, that the truest or most fundamental parts of our humanity can be found in our desires and not our obligations, risks cutting us off from one of the most important truths about being human: We are social animals. And while the call to cut off the “toxic” or to pursue the mantra of “live your best life,” or “you are enough” may well serve some of us in individual cases, the normalization of narratives of personal liberation threaten to further weaken our already frayed social bonds. “We are a relational species,” Dr. Cohen noted, adding that we need connection “to really thrive and survive.”


Walt said...

I’m curious as to what you think of Maslow’s self-actualizing idea.. I studied it once long ago at college snd thought at the time that it was at once Neitzschean and bullshit. But I’m open to,correction.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I agree, Nietzschean and bullshit.