The Water We're Swimming In | 2. I'm an Individual
This is the second post in a series. Before continuing, I'd encourage you to make sure you've read the first post here. If you've already read the first post, here's a quick recap of our expectations:
- Our exploration is introductory, rather than exhaustive. - It's as much about what is happening "in here", as it is "out there". - Be alert, but not alarmed. - At the moment we're just describing. Later we'll do some evaluating.
Aussies who grew up in the 80s may have a (vague) recollection of former football player Mark “Jacko” Jackson’s novelty pop song, I’m an Individual. In the chorus of his “shouty rap", Jacko repeatedly insists:
I'm an individual - you can't fool me An indi-bloody-vidual - you can't fool me A genuine original - you can't fool me I keep an open mind 'cause I'm thinkin' all the time
According to the video clip, the way we expressed our individuality in the 80s was through lots of fist pumping, an extraordinary amount of hairspray and very bright, and very tight, red lycra. (Honestly, the only reason to click play on the adjacent video clip is to view some truly spectacular 80s fashion).
Of course, as much as Jacko might have pegged himself as ‘a genuine original’, he wasn’t exactly breaking new ground with his 1985 one-hit-wonder. After all, by this time, most of Western society was already pretty sold on the idea that we are each and all unique people in our own right. And so, to recognise that the watery worldview of the present moment (35 years on!) values individuality is somewhat unsurprising. I mean, just think how many times you've seen someone nod sagely at a friend as they say, “Just do you”. This makes sense to us doesn't it? I am me, not you. You are you, not me. We are all wonderfully unique individuals, and that is something truly worth celebrating.
But here’s the thing. A simple recognition and celebration of what makes each of us unique is not what is ultimately at the heart of how we think about individualism today. Specifically, our sense of individuality is no longer merely descriptive of what we are like, but definitional of who we actually are. What it means for me to be uniquely individual is not primarily something that describes what I am like, but rather something that actually defines who I am.
To explain what I mean by this, let me turn to the dynamic duo of Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor, and Disney princess, Elsa.
In his 2007 book, The Secular Age, Charles Taylor captures the contemporary mood on this topic by writing about “expressive individualism”. Here is how he describes it in the context of our contemporary worldview:
I mean the understanding of life […] that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority. (p. 475)
Now, notice the key features Taylor identifies as necessary to expressing our individuality today:
It’s not society, or my family, or my friends, or a combination of any of these by which I am able to determine what makes me unique. That’s entirely up to me. What's more, it is a journey of discovery. I don’t just know who I am. I need to “find” that out.
"Finding" myself doesn't just determine how I am similar and different to others around me. Rather, it’s about how I realise and live out what it is for me to be truly human. It’s about discovering and uncovering my authentic self.
This journey of self-determination is inherently subversive. To find and express my individuality means refusing to surrender to the “rules” of the world, the people and the institutions around me. To be free to truly work out who I am deep down, I need to be unmoored from external expectations and norms.
As a core tenet of the watery worldview of the present moment, “expressive individualism” teaches each of us that we have an authentic self which is buried deep, deep within us. It’s a self that the world (perhaps even those we most love) is in one way or another actively working against us discovering. That’s why it’s up to me to determine my hidden, authentic self, and then to unapologetically insist on expressing it in and through my life and relationships. Being free to be my ultimate and authentic self is how I will find true personal and existential fulfilment
Now perhaps this all sounds a bit abstract or overblown to you? Or maybe you aren’t convinced that Taylor has accurately described the significance of what it is to be an individual today? This is where Elsa—and particularly her lyrical manifesto, Let it Go (not to be confused with the Beatles and their lyrical manifesto Let it Be!)—is particularly pertinent.
“Don't let them in, don't let them see Be the good girl you always have to be Conceal, don't feel, don't let them know Well, now they know”
In other words, everyone around me expects me to surrender to their norms, to their rules, to their picture of who I ought to be. But deep down I feel different. Deep down I have a true self which is demanding to break through. I’m tired of pretending to be something other than I’m not. I’m tired of having to suppress and deny what I feel. I’m tired of not being free to truly be me. And so, now is the time to:
Let it go, let it go Can't hold it back anymore Let it go, let it go Turn away and slam the door I don't care what they're going to say Let the storm rage on The cold never bothered me anyway
Frozen is the story of one woman’s journey of expressive individualism. It’s the story of a woman who is committed to discovering authentic freedom to be “who she really is” deep, deep down. And Elsa is not alone. Consider her animated counterpart Moana. Or Merida in Brave. And the list goes on. These children’s movies are built around a central (female) character who has, through hardship and challenge, identified that her authentic self is being suppressed by the expectations and norms of the world around her, and so who bravely sets out on a journey of self-determination... her very own happily ever after.
Let Feelings Be Your Guide
If contemporary Western individualism is ultimately about the journey of self-discovery against and despite the odds, and all for the sake of personal fulfilment, then we’re left with one vitally important question. On what basis is this self-determination to be made? How do we “find” what it is that makes us authentically us? What guides us towards our journey’s end? Christian author Carl Trueman gives us some insight on that very matter:
Expressive individualism particularly refers to the idea that in order to be fulfilled, in order to be an authentic person, in order to be genuinely me, I need to be able to express outwardly or perform publicly that which I feel I am inside.
What guides me as I seek to realise and express my authentic self is what is internal to me, and me alone. My instincts. My desires. My longings. That “inner voice” that whispers, then asserts and then finally shouts “this is who I am!”.
Now, here we see that expressive individualism actually has something very important to teach us about what it is to be human. We’re not just a collection of genetic cells that result in embodied automatons. Neither are we just a brain full of logical and rational connections. We are people with unique and complex longings, desires, instincts, emotions and feelings. This is a key aspect of what it means for us to be truly human.
But the watery worldview that so prizes expressive individualism isn’t content to leave it at that. It says that these things aren’t just an important part of what makes us human. Rather, they are determinative of what it is to be human… and specifically, what it is for me to be the individual human person I am. What is more, because these guiding principles are internal to me, then I am the only one who is able to truly apprehend and apply them in my journey towards “finding” myself.
In other words, the old adage, ‘I think, therefore I am’ has been replaced by a new one ‘I feel, therefore I am’. Who I am is determined by what I feel inside; by that “inner voice” that speaks to me of what I desire, what I yearn for, how I perceive myself both independently and in relationship with others. These things absolutely determine my purpose, my meaning, my very identity. They are at the heart of what makes me, me. They reveal who I truly am.
And so, if I am to actually live as the person I truly am, I need to be genuinely liberated to express my individuality according to these internal guides. As Elsa says, “No right, no wrong, no rules for me. I'm free”.
The Essentiality of Affirmation
Grasping the significance of this is not only really, really important for us to make sense of the water we are swimming in today, but also in understanding who we are in relation to our fellow swimmers. Because, you see:
If my feelings and instincts determine my authentic self; my meaning, identity & purpose, then…
How those I’m in relationship with, and the wider society around me, reacts and responds to those feelings and instincts is ultimately about how they are reacting and responding to me as a person
As a child of the 80s and 90s, I was brought up to recognise the importance of “tolerance”. As an ideological value, tolerance insisted that it was possible for people to co-exist—and even thrive together in society—even as they held (perhaps, strongly) different views on any number of deeply held convictions. I was taught it was OK, actually, it was good for us to have different perspectives. I was taught that it was important for us to respect and honour each other, despite disagreement.
A few decades on and tolerance is now considered completely inadequate. In fact, calls for tolerance are often regarded as offensive. Because, you see, expressive individualism is not consistent with us tolerating someone whose self-determined identity is, in some way, contrary to our own personal ideological values or moral framework (whatever that may be). No, it insists that we must actively affirm that person’s self-determined expressed identity. Why? Well, because to be anything other than absolutely affirming is nothing less than a denial of who they are. It is a cruel and unloving rejection of their authentic self.
Within the worldview of the water we are swimming in, the logic of this is actually pretty seamless. We can perhaps see this most clearly in the areas of sexual ethics and gender identity. Now, let me clear—these topics are certainly not the only ones in which we perceive our society’s (and our own) commitment to expressive individualism. They are also too often picked as “low hanging fruit” by those just seeking to make a point. And so, it is with some fear and trepidation that I briefly wade into these waters. But I do think they are important waters to wade into, because I suspect we can all agree that sexuality and gender are perhaps the most compelling manifestations of expressive individualism in Western society today. Suggesting this does not imply any inherent judgement or critique—it’s just an observation that these two topics are held to be hugely significant within today’s societal dialogue. And so…
Consider the general reaction to anyone who makes any sort of critical public comment regarding sexual orientation/choices and/or gender identity/choices today. It is now to be anticipated that any such a comment will be roundly described as “XYZphobic”, “hateful”, “harmful” and perhaps even “abusive”.
We cannot and must not dismiss these responses as simply being over-reactions. They are very genuinely meant and very genuinely felt by many in our society. Why? Well, because our commitment to expressive individualism means that being critical or disapproving of any aspect of a person’s self-determined sexual preferences/lifestyle or gender expression is ultimately to be critical and disapproving of them as an individual. It is to stop them from being their authentic self. It is to hate who they are. And so, it is to do real and actual harm to them.
It doesn’t matter how many times the original commenter might exclaim, “Wait! Yes, I have a different perspective and opinion. But I still respect and love those I disagree with! I still want to be in relationship with them. I don't hate them. Honestly!”. It’s not that those listening have decided to just disbelieve this. Rather, to their mind it just doesn't make sense that we might actually like, respect or care for someone whose sexual and gender choices we disagree with. Why? Because any disagreement about those choices is ultimately perceived to be an attempt to suppress who the person making those choices authentically is… and this is a fearful, hateful, harmful and even abusive thing to do.
Over the last couple of hundred years, expressive individualism has become deeply embedded into the very molecules of the water we find ourselves swimming in today… the water which we are actively breathing in and out, moment by moment. (Wait. Do fish actually “breathe” in water? Oh well. You take my point, right?). It’s part of the very fabric of our social existence. And it leads straight into the next feature of the watery worldview around us…
In our next post: The Water We're Swimming In | 3. Experience Matters. UPDATE: Apologies for the delay in continuing this series as planned! I've been working on a large project which is demanding most of my attention and so I've had to readjust a few priorities.