Decentering one’s self or one’s identity as a response to one’s former egocentrism or ethnocentrism is just this year’s model of altruism.
Altruism is benevolence modeled on a stunted vision of individualism, which it tries to overcome by simply inverting it: Selfish people care about themselves at the expense of others, so unselfish people care about others at the expense of self.
We’ve experienced the consequences of the altruistic ideal in design.
In the late 1990s and 2000s user experience design (UX) set out to help organizations stop being org-centric, and instead to be user-centric or customer-centric. Organizations who listened to us invested in research to find out what their customers wanted them to be and tried to become that. And everyone got told approximately the same thing, so wherever UX did its thing organizations started looking expertly, unobjectionably, and blandly alike. There was nothing wrong with the solutions — UX had seen to it that all flaws were removed — but there was nothing spectacularly right, either.
The solutions were well-informed, but poorly-inspired.
I want to argue that an impoverished understanding of personhood is at the root of the uninspired, uninspiring, unobjectionable but bland products of UX.
But I want to take it further and claim something more general and consequential:
The impoverished understanding of personhood that belongs to altruistic ethics is responsible for uninspired, uninspiring, unobjectionable relationships incapable of sustaining personhood.
The high divorce rate, the empty depravity of hookups, the shallowness and fragility of friendship, the feeling of victimization and oppression that motivates so many young activists to hunt down and punish whoever is responsible for one’s own bad experience of life (and, it appears, one’s own self-contempt) — all these are caused by a theory and practice of personhood that can only produce empty relationships and selfless, decentered alienation.
This nothingness at the center where somethingness ought to be — nihility — is not neutral or numb or Buddhistically empty or void. On the contrary, nihility torments, aches, rings, glares, and stinks in its absence.
Our last two generations were aggressively indoctrinated in this decentering, altruistic ethic of goodness. They, in turn, are replicating it everywhere they can, motivated by intense resentment toward a world that has put them in this state. Or, as they prefer to put it, out of a selfless love for the oppressed, with whom they identify.
I would propose as a replacement for this altruistic vision of personhood — self as an inert subjective object, a discrete, body-sized soul which moves around in space expending its limited resources caring for its own self or caring for other selves — with something radically different. I propose that we see selves as radiant centers, comprising smaller radiant centers, and contributing to larger radiant centers. A person is one unit of such centers, possessing a sort of center of gravity, based on the dynamic arrangement of centers at any given moment. Each of these centers, being radiant, extend in their being outward. In other words, they exist. Ex- “out” + -ist “be”.
But these radiant centers, with their own personal “I” center of gravity, also constitute larger units of being, and these larger units are relationships. These “we” relationships change the dynamics within the person, and brings that person to exist within the larger being, as a member of the relationship as well as remaining a person.
The meaning of love changes with this reconception of personhood. Love is not so much a love of the other as other, but as a fellow participant in a relationship that is the next scale upward of oneself, a larger self in whom one is a participant — a participant in something real and transcendent to self, within whom one subsists as oneself. In the altruist conception of love the other is the object of one’s love, “I”, the subject, love “you”, the direct object of the love. In this new understanding of love, love is an enclosing subject within which love happens between persons.
The meaning of empathy — another favorite word among altruists — changes with this reconception of personhood.
Empathy becomes a participant’s direct perception of the state of the larger beings of which it is a part. It is felt via the shifting dynamics of radiant centers within oneself in response to the changes of surrounding transcendent centers. Empathy is felt, but we lack language for its experiences — we have no “red”, “yellow”, “green” or “blue” — and so the speaking part of our mind (the only part of our mind the speaking mind acknowledges) refuses to acknowledge the reality known to empathy. Empathy is a sixth sense — a mode of perception, experienced with immediacy — and it is undeniably real to those who accept its reality.
Empathy is the furthest thing from intensely imagined feelings of others, or the reaction one has to stories of other people’s suffering. What is called empathy today is more often just emotions generated by vivid imaginations, the virtue of avid readers of sentimental fiction.
A lot of pretty-sounding Jewish and Christian platitudes make very new sense when heard with ears that hear this way. In marriage we become one in flesh. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves. The Christian idea that the Church is the bride of Christ. I even recognize this vision in Alain de Lille’s formula: “God is an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Seen this way, each center is one of infinite sparks of God, who approaches God by participating in ever-expanding nested scales of radiant being.
So, forget altruism. We do not give ourselves up in order to have the other. We give up the limits of our discrete, body-sized soul in order to participate in larger and larger personhood, and it is this alone that makes life lovable, because this participation as persons, in new, larger persons is what love is.
By this logic:
- We should stop telling our children “You are not the center of the universe.” Instead tell them “You are not the only center of the universe.”
- We should stop doing user-centered or customer-centered, or any-centered design. A better ideal is polycentric design.
- We should not decenter ourselves. We need our centers! We should polycenter ourselves.
- We should absolutely not tell other people to decenter themselves. We may invite them to polycenter — as I am doing here, now.
- We should not express love as “Not for me, but for you, alone.” We should instead express it as “Not for me, but for us, together.”
- We should not treat gifts as transfers of ownership from giver to receiver. We should instead see gifts as investments what did belong to me, alone, now belongs to you as a member of we.
- An identity should not be viewed as a classification that makes one person the same as another. Identity is identifying oneself as a member of a group, within whom one subsists. Identity is something we do, and it is not something another person can do to another — at least not respectfully.
- We are never more self-centered in our small body-sized self than when we refuse to hear another perspective offered to us in good faith, but instead cling to our own omniscient already-knowing. Clinging to altruism does not make us less selfish, it destroys our selves, the very being who can love and be loved.