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Friday, June 09, 2017

Too Hot to Handle: Alt-Personhood

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Fox News reports that the Baltimore Book Festival has dropped Rachel Dolezal’s invitation to participate in the festival this year after receiving too much negative public feedback.

You may remember Ms Dolezal from a flurry of media scrutiny in 2015 when it was revealed that the leader of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wasn’t really a person of color after all, but was in reality a little blonde in blackface.

Tom: IC, I don’t understand. Society says it’s not only okay but morally imperative for me to self-identify as a woman if that’s how I feel about myself, even if I have been born biologically male. It will defend my right to call myself any made-up gender I like, even to the point of stripping you of your right to disagree with me about it in the public space.

That Ol’ Social Construct

So what’s wrong with me identifying as black? Isn’t race just a social construct?

Immanuel Can: That’s a good question, Tom. I really don’t think that the Left understands what it wants us to do about these things. On the one hand, it says we are to accept everything a person can want to do or be, to the point where a man is supposed to be a woman, or in some cases, an animal. But then they say that if you cross over other lines, like say the boundary of “race” (which they also insist is an unreal term anyway) then you are said to be guilty of “cultural appropriation” — that is, of stealing somebody else’s identity and using it for your own purposes. Naughty, naughty.

You’ve got to feel sorry for those who are trying to be politically correct: it’s got to be hard to keep up with all the internal contradictions.

Identifying as an NHL Goalie

Tom: It is. Now, in bringing this up, I’m not intending that we should sit here and pile on Ms Dolezal. When I was growing up I identified as an NHL goalie, so I can relate to wanting to be something you for which you haven’t got the genetics and which no amount of wishing and fantasizing — and for that matter, no amount of hard work — will ever make you. But we’re living in a generation that has been told since kindergarten that you can be anything you want to be, and I suspect way too many of these poor kids have internalized that lie.

IC: Well, we were raised with some of that “positive self-talk”. But it’s taken on new forms and intensity lately. I think it has a lot to do with the Internet, because there one can not only imagine oneself to be someone or something else, but can also cause others to buy into and reinforce the delusion. All you have to do online is say, “I’m a 17 year old girl,” and instantly that’s what everybody thinks you are, and that’s how everybody treats you whether it’s true or not. So with no consequences you can experiment with new versions of you for as long as you like. The material constraints are gone.

The New Alt-Person

Tom: Some of it’s the Internet, for sure. I mean, people have always fantasized about living different lives from the ones they’ve got. Men used to read Louis L’Amour and women would read Harlequin romances. But I wonder if we’ve ever seen anything like the scale and intensity with which wish-fulfillment is being acted out in our society today, whether it’s in the form of sex-reassignment surgery, gender identification, alternate Internet personalities, renaming, obsessive cosplay, body mutilation, virtual reality, online role-playing … whatever.

It’s one thing to try on another person’s shoes occasionally. It’s a bigger step to take that new “self” out and walk it around in the real world, and an even bigger one to try to live it 24/7. It’s Alt-Personhood.

IC: Exactly. Didn’t the Lord tell us that it is what comes OUT of a person that is defiling? Well, the Internet invites, magnifies our impulses, and nurtures them with its artificial life, and then puts them on show. It gives our delusions and darker instincts a much wider and more sustained scope than anything that has come before.

To imaginatively play with the idea of being a cowboy hero or a romantic heroine is one thing: but to take that identity on for a length of time, to sweep others into believing it and reinforcing it to you, to create relationships and ‘worlds’ based on it, to explore it in exotic detail, to invest one’s soul into that new identity, and to enjoy it more than one’s real life — these are new phenomena that have only the faintest and least-telling analogy to the older kind of daydreams and fantasies.

Fanning the Flames

Tom: I was going to ask why this is so pervasive, but I think you’re answering that. The Internet is the primary enabler, and we should probably add in liberal Western governments looking for votes from lobby groups, our cultural monomania about the rights of the individual, the rampant Leftism in our universities, a decreasing emphasis on the need to grow up, affluence combined with an excess of leisure, and a number of other factors.

But whatever may be fanning the flames, there’s a root problem in the human heart. Where is all this discontentment with ourselves as we are naturally constituted really coming from?

IC: I think there is a flip side, Tom; and some of what you say hints correctly at it. The traditional sources of a strong sense of self — economic and social stability, culture, family, career, faith and relationships — are all fragmenting or turning liquid (as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman puts it). Then there is rampant consumerism, wherein people ‘buy’ new identities with clothing and other material items. Then there’s data overload, which everyone is experiencing today. And all these things cause today’s people to be less anchored, sure, committed and located than previous generations have ever been.

Tom: Let’s take that as read. And however we may have gotten here, there’s no denying we are seeing a huge increase in emotional and mental fragility.

Toughen Up, Buttercup!

What I’m wondering is how it benefits our society to indulge this, which is essentially what we’re doing. When we see this sort of behavior, instead of saying, “Let’s get you some help, dear” (which would be a kinder response), we’re instead reinforcing what can only be described as a delusional state of mind on the part of a significant percentage of the population. That would seem to be a recipe for disaster down the road.

IC: True. But do you actually think, Tom, that all this is happening just because people are being coddled? Is it any kind of solution to say, “Just toughen up, buttercup!”

Tom: Oh no, absolutely not. For one thing, they can’t toughen up. They’re currently incapable of doing much more than scrambling for a safe space and a plush toy with which to soothe themselves. But a major step in being able to deal with these issues is understanding that such behavior is genuinely defective, dysfunctional and wrong, not just another perfectly acceptable lifestyle option, or even a product of systemic oppression that will go away if we reorder society to eliminate the allegedly abusive elements. We have to locate the problem where it actually exists in order to deal with it.

No Simple Answers

But I entirely agree with you that there are no simple answers here … well, I mean, it’s simple in the sense that the answer is Christ, as all answers are. But getting people to understand and accept that is a process. It’s not simple at all. We got here by allowing decrepitude and evil in all sorts of areas of society. Sorting that out on a macro level may not even be possible at this point. But I firmly believe we can help at the individual level if we love and care like the Lord did, and that begins with an honest diagnosis of the problem. Saying “Society did it to me!” won’t cut it. Likewise, forcing others to say, “You’re okay the way you are” doesn’t really help you much either.

IC: No, that’s true. That first reaction just makes them permanent victims, and the second pretends there’s nothing victimizing them in the first place. But “Don’t agree to be a victim”: maybe that’s a starting point.

Tom: Yeah, I like that. Go watch some Jordan Peterson video on YouTube. He’ll teach you not to play the victim. But there’s more to it in the Christian worldview than just taking responsibility for who you are and how you conduct yourself. I’m thinking now of what Paul says to the Romans about our self-assessments: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment.” There’s are first clue to sorting out the mess in each of our heads: asking ourselves Who are we to God?

Who Am I to God?

IC: Well, that’s another key, isn’t it? Who I am or who I want to be are both matters for God to decide. We all need to learn to be grateful to the Lord for the abilities, boundaries, physicality, limitations and opportunities that come to us because we have been made a particular self located in a particular set of circumstances. There isn’t any gratitude in the attitude that says, “I can make myself whatever I want to be.”

Tom: Yes, or even the attitude that says, “I need to be something different than what I am.” Now, I can totally understand feeling that way from an unsaved perspective, where the sense is that I’m nothing more real or significant than a giant blob of miserable, pulsing tissue. But when we’re talking about an eternal being for whom Christ died, and who is conscious that he or she was bought with the price of his shed blood, the real question is not “What can I make myself into that will please me more than this current iteration,” but rather, “Why was I made the way I was? What does the Lord want me to do with this?”

IC: Right. And then the self you have is a given, a gift … and your job is to steward that gift … to make sure you value it, use it rightly, and do with it everything that God intended for you to do. As for, so to speak, “turning in your hand for a new set of cards”, that’s not an option anymore.

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