People like me

I am trying to decide how to weather this dangerous time.

Do I try to understand it, critique it, describe what is happening? And if so — to what end? Do I try to use my understanding to change it? Or to navigate its hazards? To navigate it and change what little I can when the opportunity presents itself?

Or do I surrender to that part of me who wants to armor myself in cynicism?

My cynicism goes like this: Human beings are more social than rational or moral. Vanishingly few people interrogate themselves on what they actually experience as true or good. They, instead, assimilate themselves to the ideas of the people they identify as “people like me”. And if “people like me” invent a dogmatic schema of identities that in fact have nothing at all to do with who I actually experience as “people like me”, I’ll embrace the dogma and identify myself as whatever I’m supposed to.

To really know a person’s real, lived enacted identity — not the dogmatic identity, that, I will say again is a mere artifact of real, lived enacted identity — just ask that person what they know is good and true. And then ask them who is wrong about what is good and true, or who is against goodness and truth. That, and nothing else, is their true identity: good, true people like me, defined against  bad, false people not like me.

Identity is something we subjectively do, not what we objectively claim. The medium of identity is the message. The content of identity is the intention object of this subjective identity-generating activity.

Identity is, for most people, entirely socially determined. And they’ll tell you this. They know theirs is determined, and from this, and from received dogma, they will insist that this is a universal fact. According to them, your identity is socially determined as well. Because they have still neglected to scrutinize what “people like me” believe, and therefore have never put their conviction to the test, a shift in identity remains entirely outside the limits  of their personal experience. And until they do this, the logic of their lived, enacted identity will drive them along the same rails to the same conclusion, and will appear to them, to be their own independent “critical thought”. Our identities — our very selves — are socially determined.

I, however, have made scrutiny, self-interrogation, and consequent subjective self-modification the center of my life, and I have found that when I ask myself whether I really believe some conviction “people like me” are supposed to believe, and allow myself the space and freedom for a truly candid response, the answer is rarely an unqualified “yes”.  And if I look yet closer at the matter — and I always do — and ask yet more questions the “yes” begins to deteriorate. It rarely deteriorates all the way into “no”. In fact, it turns out, what deteriorates is less convictions than tacit questions to which convictions are answers.

And the more this happens the further removed I find myself from my former identities. The remove, in fact, has opened into full alienation. Those who were once good, true people like me are now manifestly bad, false people, not at all like me. Those I used to mistake for “people like me” — I would be ashamed to be one of them, now. On every important point they the very opposite of who they collectively believe themselves to be.

And now the only “people like me” I can find anywhere are other people who have decided to be intellectually honest with themselves, and who signal that decision enough to be identified as who they are. Most of them are now dead, but they wrote books. I am grateful they chose to be who they are, and to preserve who they are in writing. I try to incarnate them and extend their lives in mine.

Regarding life in this time, I am not sure what I will do. I’ve tried numerous times to reach people I thought had intellectual conscience, or at least promise of developing it, but ultimately they had more loyalty to their identity than their unique personhood. They fear questioning the foundation of their social belonging. And they mistrust my intentions, for very good reason. I am an existential threat to who they believe they are. So, I am no longer optimistic critique can work. I also think others are better at critique than I am.

Maybe I need to stop thinking in terms of intellectual contributions. With the number of talented academics cranking citable content, making an intellectual contribution is like pouring a bucket of water into a lake. We don’t need more concepts. We don’t need more content. We are drowning in concepts, claims, images, songs…

What we need are personal testaments of people who identify only with others who share their dedication to working out what they, themselves, experience as true and good — even when this means excommunication from the conformist “people like me”.

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