We Do It All The Time

Will Wilkinson wrote a nifty piece linked to this opinionator item from the NY Times about our “true” selves. In the latter, Joshua Knobe presents the following situation:

Mark Pierpont used to be an important figure in the evangelical Christian effort to help “cure” gay people of their homosexual desires. He started out just printing up tracts and handing them out in gay bars, but his ministry grew over time, and eventually he was traveling the world and speaking to crowds that sometimes numbered in the thousands. There was just one problem. Mark Pierpont himself was gay. He continued to feel sexual desires toward other men and was constantly engaged in an effort to suppress them. In the documentary film “Protagonist,” Pierpont movingly describes his inner conflict, saying that he sometimes felt an almost physical revulsion at his own desires and would then think: “Good. I hate this. I hate sin, just like God hates sin.”

Faced with a case like this one, we might be tempted to . . . tell him that what he really needs to do is just look deep within and be true to himself. . . Yet, though there is a great deal of consensus on the importance of this ideal, there is far less agreement about what it actually tells us to do in any concrete situation. Consider again the case of Mark Pierpont. One person might look at his predicament and say: “Deep down, he has always wanted to be with another man, but he somehow picked up from society the idea that this desire was immoral or forbidden. If he could only escape the shackles of his religious beliefs, he would be able to fully express the person he really is.”

But then another person could look at exactly the same case and arrive at the very opposite conclusion: “Fundamentally, Pierpont is a Christian who is struggling to pursue a Christian life, but these desires he has make it difficult for him to live by his own values. If he ever gives in to them and chooses to sleep with another man, he will be betraying what was is most essential to the person he really is.”

Each of these perspectives seems like a reasonable one, at least worthy of serious consideration. So it seems that we are faced with a difficult philosophical question. How is one to know which aspect of a person counts as that person’s true self?

Knobe goes on to argue that the answer to this question is inevitably ideological – people identify the “true” Mark Pierpont with the “side” in the conflict that they agree with. Liberals say he’s “really” gay and should chuck the religious repression. Conservatives say he’s “really” Christian and shouldn’t give in to temptation.

But those are the perspectives of outsiders. What do they know? I would wager anything that, from Mark Pierpont’s perspective, the “real” him is the one in conflict. That’s what makes his situation tragic. The desires don’t come from the devil and the repression doesn’t come from society. They both come from him.

And this is not a peculiarity to homosexuality. The woman who is a devoted mother who’s fallen out of love with her husband has a conflict. You could say that she “needs” to take care of her needs and leave him, or she’ll wind up dragging her kids down with her misery, or you could say that she “needs” to put her selfish needs aside and think of her children, and that if she does this she’ll find fulfillment within the life she has. But these aren’t advice – they are ways of making us feel better about the advice we’re giving. The reality is: she’s got a profound conflict. Her true self is divided.

My own hard-won wisdom on this matter is that, whatever way you wind up jumping in these sorts of conflicts, you first have to acknowledge that the conflict is real. It’s really easy to tell ourselves happy little lies to convince ourselves that the conflict doesn’t actually exist, but we’re not really fooling ourselves. We’re getting through the day, but at a cost of escalating levels of stress and alienation from ourselves. And, as a consequence, from those who care about us.

And I find that, once you acknowledge, openly, the conflict that exists, you’re generally most of the way toward the resolution that, in retrospect, is obviously right. When the woman tells her husband about her conflict, he’ll have to respond. That response, in turn, will help clarify for her what is and isn’t possible.

Wilkinson, meanwhile, sees all this “self” business in functional terms:

My own view is that the sense of a stable self is an evolutionary construction with a certain social function, which our intuitions about authenticity reflect. The primary human means of survival is social cooperation. But cooperation is fragile. We need to trust one another to follow through, to not take advantage. Coordinating on a common moral ideology facilitates cooperation, but only if we all stick to it. We cannot make others trust that we will stick to it if we cannot trust ourselves not to opportunistically change our stripes. So we build a sense of self upon the shared moral ideology of our local culture. We come to feel that to betray these values would be to betray the essential self. To prize integrity is to fear disintegration. To violate our constitutive values is to risk falling apart. This fear of falling apart—of losing one’s self, of standing for nothing—prods us to keep our oaths, to pull our weight, and thus to be truly trustworthy, even when it would be to our advantage, in some sense, to cheat. So the sense of self enables social cooperation. But what matters most is not so much the content of our moral ideology, but simply that we all stay pretty much the same over time, so that we can continue to trust ourselves and one another. This is not to say that the values upon which we build stable, cooperation-enabling senses of self can be anything at all. But anything that works works, and probably there are many moral ideologies that work reasonably well.

Well, okay, I’m down with the idea that one reason we don’t feel good about radically changing our personae is that we’ve evolved a desire to maintain others’ trust in us, which entails maintaining a consistent persona that can be trusted in. But what’s the evolution purpose of the self itself? That is to say, if we experience an internal conflict, such as Mark Pierpont’s, why, unless there is a reality to the self, can we not resolve that conflict by an act of will? Why are we so constituted that we can experience that kind of conflicted self, a self that needs two things that cannot be reconciled? I don’t see how you answer that question without accepting that the self has some reality. When you say “anything that works works” that means, presumably, anything that works for your real self. Because, given that you have a real self, not everything will.

Finally, both Wilkinson and Knobe spend much of their time thinking about how we perceive other people’s “true selves.” But it’s important to recognize that their examples pertain to situations where we are not experiencing these other selves directly, but rather mediated through mass communications. If we knew Mark Pierpont through his various changes, we would make an assessment of whether he seemed “more himself” before or after not only based on our ideology but based on our actual experience of him. If we are at all sensitive people, we’d know – whether we liked it or not – whether he seemed more “real” before or after.

That’s not an option we have with political and media figures, and it’s worth highlighting how our intuitions can serve us poorly when we experience people in a mediated form. I will argue – confidently – that Mitt Romney is an authentic person, someone with a strong sense of self. One piece of evidence for this is that he is an exceptionally poor panderer – he comes off as completely phony. And, since he panders all the time, this makes him seem – in a political context – completely inauthentic. Which he is. He is an exceptionally phony politician. But not because he panders more than most politicians – because he panders much less successfully than most politicians. He is, to invert a famous formulation, an exceptionally poor liar. Exceptionally poor.

That fact has real political consequences. A President Romney, precisely because of this lousy political persona, would not be trusted by any pressure group, and hence would be much more constrained by said groups. I’d compare him to another politician who was distinctly lousy at conveying political authenticity: George H.W. Bush. But this has essentially nothing to do with his “true self,” of which the elder Bush I have no doubt had a pretty darn robust sense.

My point is: when we talk about politics, the intuitions that we bring to the game from the world of small-scale interpersonal relations can easily betray us. The guy who “seems authentic” and “makes you want to trust him” is the guy to be nervous about – because he has a kind of charisma that is powerful. He is not earning your trust; almost by definition, he’s conning you. That doesn’t mean “don’t vote for that guy” – precisely because that guy has that power, he’s likely to be more effective. It means don’t trust that this “authenticity” means what it might mean in an interpersonal context of long and stable relationships. You don’t really know who any of these guys are. The one thing you can know for certain, though, is that they aren’t who they want you to believe they are. Because they want you to believe that they understand you, personally, and they want tens of millions of other people to believe the same thing about them. And that’s just not humanly possible.