by Kevin Currie-Knight
“What does it mean to be afraid?” Sarah Edmonson recalls Lauren Salzman saying this to strengthen Sarah’s resolve right before Sarah was to be branded with a cauterizing gun. Sarah was understandably scared. Lauren asked her to think about what that fear meant. Sarah didn’t interpret it as most would; i.e. as a signal not to go through with the procedure. Thanks to years of indoctrination and practice, she interpreted her fear as a challenge to be overcome, an opportunity for growth. She would later come to regret that interpretation.
It is hard to know what would lead someone to voluntarily undergo being branded with a cauterizing gun. My wife and I are watching a television series, HBO’s The Vow, about just such people, members of a self-help group turned strange cult: NXIVM. Not all members agreed to be branded – that was a secret subgroup called “DOS.” However, all members did strange things despite – sometimes because of – nagging senses of doubt, reluctance and fear.
I think that groups like NXIVM illustrate a strange aspect of human experience: how malleable and up-for-reinterpretation our inner experience can be. When Lauren Salzman asked Sarah Edmonson what it means to be afraid, she likely knew that Sarah’s answer would mirror what NXIVM members had been taught for years: fear and discomfort are often indications of weakness and limitation that should be pushed past in the name of personal growth. If you feel pain, think challenge and growth, and act accordingly. Thus, while most people would interpret the fear they felt in Sarah’s situation as an indication to get away from a frightful situation, Sarah interpreted her fear in virtually the opposite way; the way NXIVM had taught her to interpret it.
Michel Foucault called this the “hermeneutics of the self,” the idea that the self may not be transparent to introspection as we often think. Most of us, of course, have a strong sense that we can successfully interpret our own inner experience. When I have a feeling, I can generally introspect quite readily what it is. When I have a thought, I know quite readily what it signifies. Of course, we also know that there are other events of inner experience that we can’t readily interpret ourselves. When I have a persistent ache in my side, at some point I see a doctor because I am not sure what it indicates. When I experience certain forms of mental distress, I may see a therapist to help me interpret what the stress signifies.
For Foucault, pastoral Christianity originated the idea that inner experience could be opaque to the experiencer and that enlightened others must aid in helping them interpret it. “In the Christian technologies of the self,” Foucault wrote, “the problem is to discover what is hidden inside the self; the self is like a text or like a book that we have to decipher, and not something which has to be constructed by the superposition, the superimposition, of the will and the truth. This organization, this Christian organization, so different from the pagan one, is something which is I think quite decisive for the genealogy of the modern self.”
It is beyond my scope to judge whether Foucault’s history here is right, but the idea is that one could, say, have a thought and not be able to tell whether Satan had influenced or implanted the thought. Was the thought your own, or did it indicate the presence of Satan? You, the experiencer, could not tell the answer by pure introspection (and if you think you can, you cannot be sure you aren’t deceived in that confidence, ad infinitum). You need the help of others – the Pastor – to help interpret what is going on in you.
As Foucault wrote above, this has been a profound shift in how we think of ourselves in the modern world, and it has had profound effects. Freud, Nietzsche, Marx and others since have argued versions of what Paul Ricoeur calls a “hermeneutics of suspicion”: the idea that individual subjects are often imperfectly or not at all aware of the true interpretation of their experience; our lives are profoundly shaped by drives that lie below (Freud, Nietzsche), or social structures that shape from above (Marx) human levels of awareness. While most of the time, we still trust ourselves to directly introspect on what our experience means, our modern understanding of the self also acknowledges that our introspection of subjective experience may be wrong or partial. (We see therapists to help us interpret our dissatisfaction, allow that judgment can be affected by unconscious cognitive biases, etc.)
There is nothing in itself wrong with this modern view of the self and the (potential) opaqueness of introspection. Evidence seems pretty decisive that much of our inner activity is not open to our conscious awareness, and it is entirely sensible to think that there are times when experts can help us interpret our experience in ways that we can’t. Nor did Foucault offer his theory of the hermeneutics of the self to criticize this modern understanding of the self. But this view of the self and the limits of introspection does open up interesting possibilities that can be used to arguably bad effect.
First, this hermeneutic view of experience potentially alienates us from the sense that we can directly understand ourselves or trust our senses of ourselves. Even if we accept – as we likely should – that cognitive biases show up in our thought, the question is what to realistically do with that information. If I am, say, susceptible to confirmation bias – the tendency to unknowingly privilege evidence that confirms rather than disputes my favored conclusions – what do I do the next time I believe that my favored conclusions are handily confirmed by evidence? I could be correct because my favored conclusions are just that sound, but it could also be that I am unknowingly in the throes of confirmation bias. And if the confirmation bias is truly an unconscious bias, could I know which it is?
Second, because of this potential for alienating ourselves from interpreting our own experience, it opens the possibility for a situation where others, what Adam Martin calls an epistocracy, are in a powerful position to interpret ourselves for us. To be sure, seeing therapists to help us interpret our inner experience can be a good thing, as we may not be sure if our melancholy or anxiety indicates a deeper problem they can help us understand and work through. Yet, it does give the therapist (or whoever we trust to help us interpret our experience) a good bit of power, power that can often go unchecked as long as we are convinced that our inner barometer is not as trustworthy as theirs.
This brings us back to NXIVM, the cult group that was able to convince Sarah Edmonson and others to undergo branding with a cauterizing gun. Group members learn that their own interpretation of things can’t be trusted (in this case, because members’ values are a product of societal inculcation that only NXIVM’s teachings can counteract). In her book Scarred, Edmonson recalls that from early on, members were taught that any reaction against NXIVM teachings should be interpreted as “just our internal indication that we were doing it right. Discomfort was an indication you were ‘hitting on an issue,’ so if you bolted, you would never work [through] that limiting belief.” Correctly interpreting one’s inner experience requires the guidance of NXIVM teachings and the judgment of high-ranking NXIVM members.
There is another belief system that I believe employs this Foucauldian hermeneutics of the self in potentially problematic ways: a modern variation of anti-racism popularized by Robin DiAngelo (White Fragility) and Ibram Kendi (How to be an Antiracist). By this doctrine, white people are taught not only that they are unavoidably and unconsciously racist, but that discomfort about the accuracy of this idea should be interpreted as evidence of one’s racism. DiAngelo tells her readers:
The dimensions of racism benefiting white people are usually invisible to whites. We are unaware of, or do not acknowledge, the meaning of race and its impact on our own lives… It follows that to name whiteness, much less suggest that it has meaning and grants unearned advantage, will be deeply disconcerting and destabilizing, thus triggering the protective responses of white fragility.
This puts (at least white) readers in a spot of alienation from their introspective abilities, at least in the sense that one must now entertain the idea that whether one is racist simply is not something that can be reliably introspected. (Even those who are convinced that their discomfort indicates that they are not racist cannot be sure that the thought is “pure” and not a rationalization born of racism.) From here, it is up to those bringing the antiracist message to aid people in correctly interpreting themselves, in a relationship, pace Foucault, that resembles that between a Pastor and congregant.
To conclude, I should reiterate that it is not necessarily bad to recognize the limitations of our introspection or the opacity of our inner experience. Certainly, it is possible for people to be inculcated with counterproductive values that wrongly come to shape our introspection (as when we measure ourselves up to culturally prevalent but potentially unhealthy standards.) Certainly it is possible that racism can be wholly unconscious and that it is best to be reminded of that possibility, even if it is uncomfortable to entertain. Yet, the idea that our experience is often hermeneutic and may require others to aid us in its interpretation also comes with potential downsides. We can become too dependent on others, especially those who come to us as experts, to interpret ourselves for us (rather than with us).
Kevin Currie-Knight is a Teaching Associate Professor in East Carolina University’s College of Education. His research is in the philosophy and history of education as well as the role of agency and self-direction in education. He is the author of the book Education in the Marketplace (Springer 2019).