I break through all boundaries. If I see a boundary, I eat a boundary. And wash it down with a cup of hot, steaming rules.
This cult of the will did not end with classical totalitarianism. An ideal of self-creation has returned in 21st-century liberalism. Part of the craze for identity politics is the insistence that each of us can be whoever and whatever we decide to be. Not fate or accident but untrammelled choice must shape our identities. It is an illusory vision, since identity in practice is never unilateral. Everyone’s identity depends on recognition by others – a relationship that must be negotiated, one way or another. Yet pursuing a fantasy of autonomous self-creation has come to be seen as the fundamental human freedom. The fact that the demand for recognition of one’s chosen identity leads to the fragmentation of society into warring groups has not diminished the appeal of this vision.
The problem is that identity is being asserted in a cultural vacuum. According to the ruling philosophy of deconstruction, freedom is not exercised within a matrix of practices and institutions. It is found in anomie – the normless condition of insatiable self-assertion that the French sociologist Emile Durkheim called “the malady of the infinite”. Individual autonomy is fully realised only once the structures that helped form identities in the past have been demolished. True freedom means creating oneself, a god-like power which requires that the norms that defined western civilisation be left behind.
I’m of the opinion that all of this identity-fluidity is going to be one of those era-defining oddities we look back on one day and laugh about. Ah, those crazy twenty-teens... I mean, defining reality according to individual will and whim is one of those things that can only be tolerated as a fringe eccentricity; by definition, it can’t become the norm without unleashing epistemological anarchy. But for whatever mysterious reason, this strange dualism is the thing that a significant number of youth have seized upon in this day and age to deal with the angst and confusion that is central to the human condition — “I’m not actually what I appear to be! I’m something else on the inside and you have to take my word on it!” Eventually, some of them will realize that there is no cure for the human condition, and the marketplace of ideas will present the rest with a new identity that promises to alleviate what the old one couldn’t. Ploosa shawnje.
The Lady of the House had a former acquaintance who is, in the parlance of our times, an “otherkin.” That is, this person “identifies” as an extinct apex predator. (How conventional. Always an apex predator! Never an insect or a bacteria!) As I tried to make sense of this (which was new to me at the time) and articulate my disbelief, I offered an analogy. Imagine you had a friend of average height, I said. Imagine that this friend is very sensitive about his height and wishes he had been several inches taller. Now, imagine that he insists that you refer to him as tall when talking about him in the third person. Imagine that he urges you to warn him to duck his head when entering a low doorway. Imagine that he gets upset and casts aspersions upon your character if you hesitate. Wouldn’t you feel like telling him that it would be much better for everyone if he just accepted reality for what it is, rather than trying like Procrustes to stretch and mutilate it to fit his wishes? I feel like I’m being ordered to participate in someone else’s delusion, I said, and I’m not interested.
Now, someone else has used the same comparison in what I can only assume is a masterful job of trolling which went undetected. You see, Slate’s advice columnist is a man named Daniel who was, until recently, a woman named Mallory. (I promise, I read neither advice columns in general nor Slate in particular; this was all passed along to me by an informant.) Daniel’s advice for a reader who claims to have a 5’8” boyfriend who insists that he is actually 6’0” is to pursue a strategy of “acknowledging reality.”
Ah, those crazy twenty-teens…