by Daniel A. Kaufman
A to B: “You’re an asshole.”
B to A: “No I’m not.”
A to B: “Well, it’s not up to you whether you’re an asshole or not. It’s up to everyone else.”
—Louis CK (1)
The “self-made man” traditionally was someone who had made his own fortune, rather than inheriting it Today, many would point out that by ‘men’ we surely mean people, which seems perfectly reasonable, while others (more regrettably) would tell us not to speak of anyone as being “self-made,” because we are all connected to and dependent on one another and all make use of publicly supported infrastructure. This latter point is true, if you take ‘self-made’ and ‘dependent’ in a literal, deadpan sorts of way, but as these notions are commonly understood, it is clearly false, as there is an obvious and meaningful difference between, say, a person who starts and owns a business and the son or daughter who inherits it or the employee who works in it. The rhetorical purpose behind the admonition is to suggest that some richer, cooler, more successful or otherwise better-off (than you) person doesn’t deserve what he or she has or at least, doesn’t deserve to be too proud of it or talk about it too much. Hence Hillary Clinton (remember her?) and “It takes a village” and Barack Obama and his “You didn’t build that!” each of which, in its own way, was an effort to deflate claims of personal achievement and thereby undermine ascriptions of desert or lack thereof. Of course, this attitude has an equally distasteful counterpart, in the view that those who are not self-made or who have been unsuccessful in one way or another and require assistance deserve what they get and either should not be helped or should be publicly shamed for asking for and receiving it.
It is a bit weird, though, now that I think about it, because for the most part, being self-made is all the rage today. That is, aside from those self-important, thankless jerks who are too proud of or claim too much credit for some achievement or other, our reaction to people who insist that they are self-made in virtually every other respect is largely congratulatory and in many quarters swooning. Indeed, so cherished are some of these forms of self-madeness (madedness?) that to deny them or even express mild doubts about them will earn you a savaging, at best, and at worst, all manner of administrative sanctions and even sometimes legal penalties. I am thinking in particular of the still-unfolding madness involving “preferred gender pronouns” and the legal sanctions that have been proposed (or already exist) for failing to use them, but one might also consider the recent “Hypatia fiasco,” in which a clearly progressively-minded scholar published a paper in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia, suggesting that since race is as much a social construct as gender, perhaps we shouldn’t be any more put-off by people claiming to be transracial than by their claiming to be transgender. She was immediately and viciously set upon not only by trans activists but by the journal’s own associate editors, who demanded the paper be retracted, despite the fact that it had passed peer review. (2) Confusions abound throughout these emotionally fraught situations and events – more on that in a bit – but what interests me the most about the matter of self-madeness lies beneath rather than in any particular instantiation of it, the contemporary versions of which, in my view, simply represent the modern notion of the self taken to its logical extremes.
In the pre-modern worlds of classical antiquity and medieval Europe, a person’s identity would be defined in terms of his or her social relationships and roles. As Alasdair MacIntyre described it in After Virtue:
In … pre-modern, traditional societies it is through his or her membership in a variety of social groups that the individual identifies himself or herself and is identified by others. I am brother, cousin and grandson, member of this household, that village, this tribe… (3)
Indeed, it was precisely this publicly defined self that made it possible to straightforwardly, factually ground evaluative judgments ascribed to the person in question. Who and what one was, as a person, was a publicly verifiable fact, and thus, whether one was a good or bad person of the sort one was – and even morally – was also a publicly verifiable fact:
From such factual premises as “He gets a better yield for this crop per acre than any farmer in the district,” “He has the most effective programme of soil renewal yet known” and “His dairy herd wins all the first prizes at the agricultural shows,” the evaluative conclusion validly follows that “He is a good farmer.”
[This] argument is valid because of the special character of the concept of [a farmer]. Such concepts are functional concepts; that is to say, we define ‘farmer in terms of the purpose or function which … a farmer [is] characteristically expected to serve.
[M]oral arguments within the classical, Aristotelian tradition – whether in its Greek or medieval versions – involve at least one central functional concept, the concept of man understood as having an essential nature and an essential purpose or function … ‘Man’ stands to ‘good man’ as … [‘farmer’ stands to ‘good farmer’]. (4)
This conception of self and identity is fundamentally transformed in the modern era, where – most notably in Descartes and Locke – it is defined in terms of one’s internal consciousness: that is, in terms of one’s private mental states – one’s experiences, beliefs, desires, and significantly for Locke, one’s memories.
[W]e must consider what person stands for; which, I think, is a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it: it being impossible for any one to perceive without perceiving that he does perceive. When we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, meditate, or will anything, we know that we do so. Thus it is always as to our present sensations and perceptions: and by this every one is to himself that which he calls self … For, since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that which makes every one to be what he calls self, and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things, in this alone consists personal identity, i.e. the sameness of a rational being: and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now it was then; and it is by the same self with this present one that now reflects on it, that that action was done. (5)
Thus, while a modern person would not deny any number of identifications that derive from one’s social connections and roles, the question of one’s true self – of who one really is – can only be defined from within.
MacIntyre’s interest in this story is that therein lies the origin of the is/ought gap. From the old, teleological conception of the self, there was no difficulty in moving from how a person is to how he ought to be, given that how he is and how he ought to be are both functionally defined, according to publicly accessible criteria. But with the modern notion of the self defined entirely in terms of a person’s private mental states, how the person is isn’t functionally defined, according to public criteria, and thus, any notion of how he ought to be, other than as determined by him, clearly would seem to be unwarranted. My own interest, though related, is slightly different. From this new version of the self is born a distinctive sort of potential resentment; one in which any effort to assign a person an identity not of his or her choosing or to resist or even reject one of his or her choosing, becomes grounds for serious offense. And when combined with a culture in which offense is routinely – and in my view, often deliberately and thus, quite cynically – conflated with explicit, tangible harm, you have a recipe for social, administrative, and legal sanctions of the sort we find ourselves confronted with today.
I doubt that the older conception of the self can be revived or even that doing so is desirable. The new conception is embedded in a number of fundamental, modern institutions and forms of life that virtually all of us would be loath to give up and lies at the heart of a number of key ideas we have about ourselves that it is hard to imagine dismantling.
The modern self is, at bottom, an emancipatory concept. That one’s identity should be publicly defined in terms of relations to others that are more often than not involuntary was manifested, historically, in very tangibly oppressive caste systems (and still is in places, around the globe), where one’s class, one’s profession – pretty much one’s entire life – were determined by the accident of one’s birth. That one should be able to become anything, at least in principle – that You could even be President! as we often tell our young – is something that relies, essentially, upon the modern conception of the self (and much more, of course). You don’t get liberal democracy without it, and you don’t get the modern conception of autonomy – upon which liberal democracy and modern ethics depends – without it. Indeed, those like Descartes and Kant would argue that you cannot even have intellectual and cultural enlightenment without it. As Descartes wrote in the Discourse on Method:
I was persuaded that it would indeed be preposterous for a private individual to think of reforming a state by fundamentally changing it throughout, and overturning it in order to set it up amended; and the same I thought was true of any similar project for reforming the body of the sciences, or the order of teaching them established in the schools: but as for the opinions which up to that time I had embraced, I thought that I could not do better than resolve at once to sweep them wholly away, that I might afterwards be in a position to admit either others more correct, or even perhaps the same when they had undergone the scrutiny of reason. I firmly believed that in this way I should much better succeed in the conduct of my life, than if I built only upon old foundations, and leaned upon principles which, in my youth, I had taken upon trust. (6)
And as Kant so memorably put it in the pamphlet, “What Is Enlightenment?”:
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!
Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large proportion of men, even when nature has long emancipated them from alien guidance (naturaliter maiorennes), nevertheless gladly remain immature for life. For the same reasons, it is all too easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all. I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me. (7)
So I don’t see us going back to the pre-modern conception of the self or even wanting to. But the contemporary, radically “self-made” version has become an anxious parody of its noble, modern predecessor. A parody because it now extends to such patent absurdities as white people claiming they are black simply because they want to be – a la Rachel Dolezal – and anxious, because it reflects an almost pathological discomfort with any sort of givenness and thus, with any loss of control over one’s identity. What was a healthy desire to wrest authority from others over one’s economic, political, and even (to a degree) one’s social fortunes has been transformed into a need not only to micromanage every last bit of one’s public identity but to force others to accept it; something that has been both driven and exacerbated by the fact that so much of peoples’ public lives – and especially young peoples’ – are lived online, where this sort of hyperactive-self-control is not only possible but expected and even encouraged.
It is no accident, then, that it is young people who are most likely to feel such a desperate need to control their public identities and who are least likely to tolerate the fact that in a liberal society one’s public identities must be negotiated, at least if one is going to venture beyond the circle of one’s family, friends, and the like-minded. That so many young people today are happy to jettison liberalism – and even democracy – in order to force others to accept their public identities is a testament to how desperate they are that their chosen identities should be publicly sustained at any cost. (8)
Of course, there remain parts of our public identities with regard to which public negotiation is still expected and accepted. One cannot simply call oneself an attorney or a physician or an NBA player and expect others to accept such identifications, unless one has met certain publicly developed and managed criteria. But even these sorts of identities are beginning to dissolve at the edges. Is one an “artist” just because one says so or a “musician” or a “writer”? Is one any of these things if one engages in them but isn’t any good, as determined by the public’s reaction? Just a few decades ago, the obvious, overwhelming answer would have been “no.” Indeed, Joan Didion, in her (in)famous takedown of some of the more excessive versions of Second Wave Feminism in 1971, unmasked the essentially child-like dimension of a certain brand of feminist self-madeness:
More and more we have been hearing the wishful voices of just such perpetual adolescents, the voices of women scarred by resentment not of their class position as women but at the failure of their childhood expectations and misapprehensions. “Nobody ever so much as mentioned” to Susan Edmiston “that when you say ‘I do,’ what you are doing is not, as you thought, vowing your eternal love, but rather subscribing to a whole system of rights, obligations and responsibilities that may well be anathema to your most cherished beliefs.”
To Ellen Peck “the birth of children too often means the dissolution of romance, the loss of freedom, the abandonment of ideals to economics.” A young woman described on the cover of a recent issue of New York magazine as “the Suburban Housewife Who Bought the Promises of Women’s Lib and Came to the City to Live Them” tells us what promises she bought: “The chance to respond to the bright lights and civilization of the Big Apple, yes. The chance to compete, yes. But most of all, the chance to have some fun. Fun is what’s been missing.”
Eternal love, romance, fun. The Big Apple. These are relatively rare expectations in the arrangements of consenting adults, although not in those of children, and it wrenches the heart to read about these women in their brave new lives. An ex‐wife and mother of three speaks of her plan “to play out my college girl’s dream. I am going to New York to become this famous writer. Or this working writer. Failing that, I will get a job in publishing.” She mentions a friend, another young woman who “had never had any other life than as a daughter or wife or mother” but who is “just discovering herself to be a gifted potter.” The childlike resourcefulness— to get a job in publishing, to be a gifted potter—bewilders the imagination. (9)
But today, in a world of blogs and Photoshop and Pro Tools? One in which we lionize self-madeness? Not only are such claims routinely accepted with nary a blink or a chuckle (good natured or not), it is increasingly thought impolite or even terribly rude to react otherwise and one is likely to be deemed somewhat of an asshole if one does so. That this sort of informal social sanction is considered sufficient and that no one (yet) is proposing administrative codes or civil or criminal laws mandating that people publicly voice their acceptance of others’ self-identifications as artists or musicians or writers simply testifies to the fact that these identifications have not taken on the social, cultural, or personal significance that gender and racial identities have.
It is understandable that racial and gender identities should be held more preciously and the desire that they be publicly acknowledged pressed with more vigor, though it is not immediately obvious and one easily could imagine things being otherwise (as they undoubtedly are with any number of individuals, whose souls burn with the conviction that they are artists or writers or musicians). But there is something puzzling about the current effort to publicly force these sorts of identifications, and it lies in the fact that the very terms in which they have been defined entail precisely the sort of public negotiation that people are insisting should not occur.
We are told that race and gender identity are “socially constructed” rather than biologically determined, and it is worth noticing what this does not say, which is that race and gender identity are personally or privately determined. Thus, when we say that gender is socially constructed, what we mean is that the gender roles and tropes associated with the physiological sexes are not in any way inherent or natural to those sexes, but rather, determined by social consensus; one that has evolved over the course of millennia. Certainly, they were determined neither by individuals or small groups of people, nor at a particular moment in time.
The proposal now is that these should be reconceived; that we should move away from the long, socially-established gender binaries, tied to the sexes, to fluid and shifting genders, unmoored from physiological sex, and for the sake of the discussion, let’s stipulate that the proposal is a sound one. Whatever the new consensus will be, it will have to be a consensus – that’s what socially constructed facts are grounded in – and this means it will have to be a matter of public negotiation. It also means that it will take a long time and that we will not be able to predict precisely what the consensus will be. It took the current consensus millennia to form, and while a new consensus certainly won’t take that long to develop, given modern modes of communication, it equally certainly will not happen overnight, as is evinced by the current public conversation on the subject.
I should point out that this is true, regardless of whether the new view of gender is supported by “the science,” whatever that currently is and wherever it goes. It’s not just that clinical gender dysphoria is exceedingly rare (and barely understood) or that the notion that the twenty or more percent of millennials and members of Generation Z who claim gender fluidity and “queerness” are clinically dysphoric strains all credulity (10), but that regardless, whether people, at large, in a free society, are going to publicly express acceptance of identities that are by every account socially constructed is ultimately going to depend upon whether they come to agree with those identifications. This seems like it would be obvious – a social construction is not self- but publicly made – and clearly it is, in the case of racial identity, as evinced by the near-ubiquitous rejection of Rachel Dolezal’s claims to be black, but one would never know it from the tenor of the current conversation regarding gender. That this has caused such a degree of distress that it has led so many to agitate on behalf of the most illiberal means possible to force such a consensus, immediately, clearly is due, in part, to the appalling treatment that so many transgender people experience, but I would maintain that it also is due to the extent to which self-madeness has not only captured, but defined the contemporary and especially the youthful imagination, regardless of whether it is expressed in an entirely consistent fashion.
Relevant portion begins at 1:50.
- Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 33.
- MacIntyre, After Virtue, p. 58.
- John Locke, “Of Identity and Diversity,” from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. (1689) http://enlightenment.supersaturated.com/johnlocke/BOOKIIChapterXXVII.html
- Rene Descartes, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. (1637)
- Immanuel Kant, “What Is Enlightenment?” (1784)
- Joan Didion, “The Women’s Movement.” (1971)