Self-Identity and Conscientious Non-Compliance

What of our highly active, frenetic daily lives in the early 21st century? Substantial effort is expended in developing marketable skills, in order to earn money and survive. Yet, within the oppressive constraints imposed on us every day, each person may nonetheless nurture an inner, contemplative space, perhaps ultimately unshareable but all-the-more uniquely individual for that. In fact, as mega-corporate structures have tightened their control of people’s daily habits and inclinations (“algorithms,” “nudges,” surveillance, etc.), it becomes all the more imperative that each individual steadfastly cultivate an integrated self-identity, in which autonomous choice and value-judgments are uncompromisingly inner-directed.

De-socialization–the replacement of externally-imposed behaviors with radical non-compliance and carefully chosen goals of enlightenment and social-political activism–is facilitated by frequent moments of self-observation. Notwithstanding our ongoing historical struggle for an egalitarian-communitarian social order, each of us will remain substantially alone. Indeed, this feeling of inner privacy–and thus, a modicum of alienation from others–is the price of self-directed autonomy and critical-thinking perceptions of others. And with it, the enlightened self-realization which constitutes the most intimate form of liberation.

Impression-Management” and the “False Self”

Introduced by Thespis in the 6th-century BCE , “play-acting” quickly attained widespread popularity among Athenians who, like most people, were looking for diverting forms of entertainment to fill the evening hours. On one such evening the aged patriarch Solon, celebrated lawmaker and civic founder, was persuaded to attend a performance. At the end, boiling with indignation, he severely rebuked Thespis–who blithely responded that such “play” was harmless, merely a novel pastime. “No!” Solon retorted angrily (here paraphrasing Plutarch’s account), “It is dangerous. Such a tolerance for pretense and deception will end up infecting all our commerce and civic life.”

But Thespis merely shrugged–and, some 2500 years later, we now find ourselves enmeshed in a media-sphere of garrulous, deceitful “actors,” all clamoring for our attention as they exhibit their base arts of “persuasion.” Aristotle, in his book on Rhetoric, had warned presciently that the “base” variety of rhetoric seeks to undermine our self-directed judgment in order to manipulate and control our decisions.

Quite obviously, the job skills of the professional actor require playing different roles, displaying (false) emotions, or perhaps “sincerely” persuading us to buy sundry products. With their omnipresence in all performing media, actors have by now become absurdly over-valued as role-models in everyday life. But writing way back in the 1940s, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm was already perplexed by the rise of a new American character-type: the “marketing personality.” Persons were carefully honing a “winning” persona, comprised of looks, smiles, jokes, and convincing “self-presentation” as critical selling-points in their upward road to Success.

Social psychologists George Herbert Mead and Charles Cooley had already established their claims that the self is merely the passive composite of the mirroring reactions and responses of others. And, to sociologist Erving Goffman, effective social interaction was thereby inherently “dramaturgic”: those engaged in skillful “impression-management” would get ahead (no matter how incompetent), and thereby successfully persuade others (“leadership”). Indeed, Hitler once boastingly called himself “the greatest actor in Europe,” and forty years ago journalist Lou Cannon wrote his aptly titled book President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.

To be liked and admired: very human longings, but not the end-goal for authentic self-realization. Indeed, psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott warned that societal demands for presenting a “false self” exacted a heavy price on the individual’s sense of true identity and self-esteem. “Only connect!” exhorted the depressed novelist Virginia Woolf, who met a tragic end a century ago. But now, the more urgent question is: “Why connect?” As scholar Mary Aiken has documented in The Cyber Effect (2016), the evidence is overwhelming that adolescents and young people, trying to elicit favorable approval and attention–as in generating “likes” and “followers”–are thereby becoming more vulnerable to negative assessments of self-worth and identity-confusion.

Alienation as Autonomous Non-Compliance

From Socrates to Sartre, alienation refers to the independent, rational thinker’s questioning of the prevailing norms and practices of his socio-political context. For the vast majority, who crave a regressive belonging, the non-conformist free-thinker and critical rationalist are unwelcome. But such alienation, philosopher Walter Kaufmann argued, is not the enemy of self-realization but its positive prerequisite:

It is those who are easily satisfied that we should worry about, and it is grounds for melancholy that most people cease so soon to find the world strange and questionable…. [A]s perception increases, any sensitive person will feel a deep sense of estrangement. Seeing how society is riddled with dishonesty, stupidity, and brutality, he will feel estranged from society, and seeing how most of one’s fellow men are not deeply troubled by all this, he will feel estranged from them.
(Without Guilt and Justice, Wyden Books, 1973; p. 146-147).

The critical rationalist and free-thinker, skeptical of a corrupt status quo (“business as usual”), invokes her autonomous right to independent judgment–based on evaluation of the respective evidence and objective substantiation involved. She optimally values her autonomy, which she equates with intellectual integrity. Moreover, she is skeptical of communitarian ideologies of total group-identification. She thus revises, in individualist-libertarian terms, Jesus’s exhortation thus: “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you.”

In the present-day, one thinks with admiration of courageous whistleblowers who, alienated from corrupt, organizational cultures, confront and expose the criminality and deception of those in power. And their truth-revealing information, quite beneficial to a propagandized citizenry, is of course usually received with considerable ambivalence by a public who, at least at first, may “prefer not to know.” I’m always reminded of Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann, tragic hero of The Enemy of the People. Although he originated and executed the plan for a health spa to bolster the economy of his beloved hometown, when he finds that the waters are in actuality contaminated and unhealthy from tannery wastes upstream, the townsfolk violently turn against him, repress his findings, and virtually drive him and his family out of town. Yet he remains defiant and steadfast, supported by those very few who always place the highest value on moral and intellectual integrity.

Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.