We live in an age obsessed with self-actualization, self-fulfillment, self-realization, self-discovery, self-knowledge, self-esteem, self-expression, self-help, self-image, self-identity, etc. Selfies, iPhones, YouTube, me time. We’re self-obsessed.
The idea of “being true to yourself” implies that there is a core-self at our centers to which we could, theoretically, be false. But I doubt that. I suspect, rather, that the self merely as such (that is, the self simply and purely as a self) has no content apart from 1) certain attunements to things external to the self and 2) an ability to construct narratives. To elaborate briefly on this theory, we are naturally attuned to certain things—first and foremost (to judge from babies), other people, physical objects, and bodily needs. These attunements may change with time as our narratives change: narrative is the realm of creativity and freedom, though it is sometimes also the instrument of bondage (as it is, for example, in the case of mental disease). An example of an early baby narrative is the basic story of feeding, which is established long before any self-concept: [I] hunger, [I] cry, Mom feeds [me]. This basic plotline is soon learned by the baby and she begins to tell this story to herself anticipatorily.
If this theory is true, the whole notion of “self-identity” is a misnomer. For example, part of my “self-identity” is that I am literate. In particular, I like to read old books. But I do not imagine that this is some essential, immutable aspect of myself—and nor is any other quality or attribute. If I had been born in another age to another family, I’d likely not be literate. Similarly, if I had been crippled during my early childhood (or been born with a different body) my athletic self-identity would likely be radically different. According to my theory, at least, my self merely as such has no particular content other than attunements and narration, but these give me a readiness to have particular content accrete onto the self, and from this accreted content I have formed a self-identity (in other words, a self-narrative) that happens to include books. If I am right, then, what we call “self-identity” is not really directly concerned with the self at all, but rather with accretions of habit and circumstance, organized through a creative (and therefore non-inevitable) narrative. That content is sometimes good and sometimes bad, but always contingent, and always divisible from the core, essential thing—which is simply and purely a set of attunements and narrative ability.
I write against “being true to yourself” because the phrase is so often used to justify a person acting according to the person’s self-identity, regardless of whether that self-identity is good or healthy. The sentiment of being true to oneself has recently been used as a primary justification for many of the developments in “identity politics,” some (in my view) good and some bad. “I must be true to myself” has been the mantra of people who want to be free from the social and moral constraints that conflict with their desires. It has been used, for example, to justify leaving one’s family for a paramour. On the other hand, it is also the mantra of many good endeavors. Whether the effect is good or bad just depends on what one actually means to be true to when one says the thing. Inevitably, whether the effect of the saying is good or bad, one does not strictly mean what one says when one invokes being true to oneself.
My theory of selfhood is, of course, one among others. No doubt my model, like most models, is incomplete, but I think it is a good corrective for our self-obsessed society. It may be worthwhile to compare my theory of the self with two other theories from intellectual history. First, Locke claimed that the basic tools of cognition were 1) sensation, and 2) reflection. These, he argued, are the origin of all ideas. Locke’s “sensation” corresponds roughly with my attunement, as does his “reflection” with my “narrative.” Second, Freud’s theory of the ego is also similar. For Freud, “ego” is the entity that mediates between the demands of the “superego” (roughly = social expectations) and those of the “id” (roughly = sexual desire and other bodily urges). The “ego,” then, is the conjunction of just two particular attunements—the place where conflicting needs that originate externally hopefully get reconciled. I admire Freud’s work, though I also find it too reductionist. I don’t think an attunement to bodily urges and an attunement to social expectations are the only two attunements.
There is one other attunement, in particular, that I think elevates actual humanity above Freud’s model of humanity—the attunement to Goodness/morality. We often speak of this attunement as a “moral compass.” I like the metaphor, because the whole idea of a compass is that it is attuned to a magnetic center that is external to it.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl argues that the core impulse of human beings is to find a meaning in their lives that is worth living for. He posits an “existential vacuum” experienced by many in the modern world—by which he means the absence of such meaning. He attributes this absence, in part, to the loss of authoritative traditions:
At the beginning of human history, man lost some of the basic animal instincts in which an animal’s behavior is embedded and by which it is secured. Such security, like paradise, is closed to man forever; man has to make choices. In addition to this, however, man has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behavior are now rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people tell him to do (totalitarianism).
Frankl suggests that there may exist no choice to be made between the demands of society and the demands of the self—simply because the self has no particular content, looks outside itself for guidance, and therefore (of itself, at least) offers no alternative to the demands of society. The choice is not between having a master or not, but only between having this master or that. Merely for the consistency of one’s self-narrative, if for no better reason, one will usually be faithful to something.
Nevertheless, the Romantic myth of the self has flowered since World War II, culminating in what psychology professor Jean M. Twenge calls “Generation Me”—the children, youth, and young adults of today. Twenge agrees with Frankl that the fruits of the ideals of selfhood and self-definition are mixed, at best.
In some ways, the shift towards melancholy in young people seems paradoxical: Generation Me has so much more than previous generations—we are healthier, enjoy countless modern conveniences, and are better educated. But Generation Me often lacks other basic human requirements: stable close relationships, a sense of community, a feeling of safety, a simple path to adulthood and the workplace. Our grandparents may have done without television and gone to the bathroom in an outhouse, but they were usually not lonely, scared . . . , or obsessing about the best way to get into Princeton. As David Myers argues in his book The American Paradox, the United States has become a place where we have more but feel worse. Technology and material things may make life easier, but they do not seem to lead to happiness. Instead, we long for the social connections of past years, we enter a confusing world of too many choices, and we become depressed at younger and younger ages.
Similarly, Bowling Along reports that suicide rates among young people have risen by three of four times even as suicide rates among the elderly have fallen by half, and the trends are similar with respect to other symptoms of psychic distress such as depression, headaches, indigestion, sleeplessness, and unhappiness.
Finally, Iris Murdoch, a twentieth-century American novelist and philosopher, challenges contemporaneous notions of “freedom” as mere unconstrainedness, which she describes as an “inconsequential chucking of one’s weight about”; instead, meaningful freedom entails “the disciplined overcoming of self.” For Murdoch, the self is not only something less than the free hero of the human story, it (or, at least, self-absorption) is actually the enemy: “In the moral life the enemy is the fat relentless ego.” A lovely passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch is an apropos illustration of this claim:
Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent . . . .
In concert with George Eliot, Iris Murdoch maintains that “[o]bjectivity and unselfishness are not natural to human beings.” Not natural, but still morally requisite—and how are we to achieve something approaching objectivity and unselfishness, according to Murdoch? Part of her answer is that we must cultivate “a patient, loving regard” for that which is real: reality offers a check to our egoistic fantasies, and love impels us to really “look” at the realities that confront us, which are other and bigger (and often better) than ourselves. Thus, it is by attending to reality and then, in each given situation, making what seems to us the best choice that we live the most freely—the most free, that is, from the passions, prejudice, and self-love that would otherwise distort our reality. The mere multiplication of choices emphatically does not constitute freedom:
If I attend properly I will have no choices and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at. . . . This is something of which saints speak and which any artist will readily understand. The idea of a patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, a thing, a situation, presents the will not as unimpeded movement but as something very much more like ‘obedience.’
Surely the challenges to the Romantic, essentialist, exalted concept of selfhood are formidable—and, frankly, in my opinion, unanswerable. So too are the challenges to the related concept of freedom as unconstrainedness. Yet self-definition, self-realization, and self-expression have taken a place in contemporary American culture as core values, and even, increasingly, as the core values. Yet these are vacuous concepts, because the self merely as such is vacuous. It does not bear well the weight of glory with which we attempt to saddle it.
We don’t need to “be true to ourselves”—what does that even mean? What most people seem to mean by it is that we should live faithful to some narrative or other that we tell ourselves about ourselves. But to which narrative?! The proper object of our faithfulness is not our selves but our highest ideals and moral commitments. It is only by binding ourselves to be faithful in this sense that we attain any worthwhile sort of freedom. These are the “bonds that make us free.” One who follows one’s moral compass faithfully can be said to live a life that is better (and even more authentic!) than one who does not. We hear a lot about the importance of self-esteem in school and in the media, and not much about the importance of faithfulness. Yet it is only through faithfulness to something good that the self is made worthy of esteem. I would even say that it is only through such faithfulness that the self obtains a healthy identity. Conscientious faithfulness, then, and not introspection, is the path to wholesome self-identity. And this means nothing more or less than faithfulness to something other than the self, though it sometimes goes by the inaccurate name of “being true to yourself.”
I am not advocating self-abnegation here: what I am advocating is closer to self-forgetfulness and closer still to plain old morality—that is, faithfulness to the Good (or, what amounts to exactly the same thing for those of us who are believers, faithfulness to God). Keep your promises. Love your spouse. Render honor to your forebears and service to your children. Build wholesome communities. Be a friend. Seek for greater light and knowledge. Live in gratitude and joy for all that is beautiful and noble. These are not easy precepts and it is not natural to live by them: it requires a “disciplined overcoming of self.” So please, whatever you do, don’t be true to yourself!
 Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search of Meaning 111 (Buccaneer Books 1993).
 Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search of Meaning 111 (Buccaneer Books 1993).
 Jean M. Twenge, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before 136 (2006).
 Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community 262-63 (1999).
 Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts, in The Sovereignty of Good 95 (Routledge & Kegan Paul 1970) (hereinafter SG).
 Iris Murdoch, On “God” and “Good,” in The Sovereignty of Good 46 (Routledge & Kegan Paul 1970) (hereinafter GG).
 George Eliot, Middlemarch 218-19 (Wordsworth Classics 2000).
 GG at 51.
 See Iris Murdoch, The Idea of Perfection, in The Sovereignty of Good 40 (Routledge & Kegan Paul 1970) (hereinafter IP).
 See SG at 91 (“Should a retarded child be kept at home or sent to an institution? Should an elderly relation who is a trouble-maker be cared for or asked to go away? Should an unhappy marriage be continued for the sake of the children? . . . The love which brings the right answer is an exercise of justice and realism and really looking.”).
 IP at 40.
 C. Terry Warner, Bonds that Make Us Free (2001).
 I would add that my religious hope is founded on the conviction that we have all been given a working moral compass, together with grace to take the next step in following it, and that by doing so we will be led on to greater light and deeper reservoirs of goodness.
 Compare philosopher Alain Badiou’s theory of the subject (which is quite similar). Badiou suggests that the core meaning of the subject is faithfulness (the subject being roughly the same as the self, though only very roughly for Badiou). Alain Badiou, Being and Event 391-409 (trans. Oliver Feltham, Continuum 2007). Badiou’s philosophy is complex, and his theory of subjectivity cannot be adequately gone into here, but the basic gist is that one commits one’s belief to an “event,” and faithfulness to this belief and this event is what constitutes one as a subject. He gives as paradigmatic examples of “events” the gospel of Christ and the French revolution—moments in history that reorganized human reality and set forth a new social order. His “event” is very roughly similar to what I might call a meta-narrative.
16 thoughts on “Why You Shouldn’t “Be True to Yourself””
I appreciate this as I was recently struggling with similar (though much less developed) ideas. I was thinking about the future of gender. As “test-tube babies” become increasingly a possibility, and gender is malleable socially and physically, what is to be done with gender? There’s not much to hold it together, as with the self. As with the self, it is perhaps best understood as a set of attunements and narrative. The more we question those attunements and narratives the more they fall apart. But they don’t surrender to something more real. They surrender, as you suggest, to a new narrative of self. While I believe a lot of this transition has produced unquestionably positive results, I do wonder where it ends. My identity as male (while not inherent) is incredibly valuable. I have been taught to want to be a husband and raise a family. I don’t think I would naturally want children, but I have been taught to want them, and that they are good and wonderful and lead to the highest happiness which is a narrative of healthy, functional families–certainly not the only narrative available, possible, or even positive. I appreciate the vocabulary you provided to talk about this.
On a side note, I wonder if including the reference to LGBTQ+ will turn some people off. The problem is that people will become defensive of their political ideals. No one wants to be backed into a philosophical corner. But that’s that. Thanks again for your thoughts.
I’ve revised the LGBTQ+ line out of it; thanks for the suggestion. I appreciate the parallels with gender identity that you point out, and I very much agree with your sense of what is at stake. Which gender narrative is more hospitable to goodness–that is the real question and really the only question.
I disagree with the idea that our sense if self is completely based on attunements to our circumstances. As someone who believes in a life before this one, I think there are certain aspects of who we are that are independent of environment and experience. At the same time though, I agree that the identity crises we see more and more today are probably mostly, if not entirely, a product of our modern society.
I agree that there is too much focus on the self these days. I often think that the best medicine for the depressed or confused soul is completely selfless service to others.
I too believe in a life before this one. But we know very little about it. First among our attunements, in my theory, is our attunement to other people–and in the pre-Earth life (in Mormon thought) first among our attunements was to God. But think about before God became our spiritual father (if there was such a time) when we were just bare “intelligences.” What makes an intelligence? I think my theory is at least a viable one–attunement to things external and a narrative capacity to try to make sense of those things. If I’m right, some of the “aspects of who we are” that we bring with us (and I agree that those aspects exist) are accretions–good accretions that came from being with God.
I lived in Asheville for about 4.5 years, and it is a city full of people who are “finding themselves”, being “true to themselves”, “self-actualizing”, etc. I eventually found it to be a very self-absorbed town, where common courtesies were missing. Where instead of helping me – a new mother with all of the bulkiness in a small grocery store, noticeably having a hard time pushing the heavy cart- people would routinely cut in front of me with their shopping carts, as they hurried off in the direction they were going. (This is not just one person, but many in the store). I remember during this experience that it struck me how unpleasant and selfish many folks were, who I would normally think I would connect with (being more liberal myself). I finally moved back to Nashville, and delightfully remembered how friendly people are here.
Great food for thought. As I think of myself as being a sincere follower of Christ, I find myself to be happier as I discover the lessons in freedom that Christ is offering to those who will listen.
(PS I’m a friend of Danielle Sabey’s, who just pointed me in the direction of this blog).
Thanks for sharing your Asheville experience. We’re delighted to have you reading the blog.
Ok, so I’ve read off and on a number of posts by y’all. I appreciate the theoretical endeavors y’all take to underscore your conservative beliefs. However, it seems that because you are writing to defend such beliefs, y’all often make some logical jumps without acknowledging the other possible turns at those junctures and I’ll use this post as an example.
So, yes, there is no self. This is kind of old news in most sociological and philosophical traditions–ESPECIALLY in queer theory and feminism. Second wave feminism tried to destroy the notion of the self a long time ago for quite similar reasons as you postulate above. But, following poststructuralist theories (like Foucault, which y’all have cited in other instances when you talk about non-heterosexual identities, or Judith Butler) the question is one of power rather than autonomy. But, that’s a tangent to discuss fully for another time.
What I’d like to mention is the moral compass leap. Again, sociologically, this is not surprising. Durkheim has been saying this since the 1800s. (As a caveat, one of Durkheim’s greatest fears was that society would start worshipping the ideal of the individual, which we’ve seen happening at an alarming rate as y’all point out.) The question with today’s social understandings, returning to the power question of postmodern theories, is who gets to decide what is “goodness” even is. So, this would cause a reflection on the politics of knowledge and ethics.
This is where I think if you responded to this argument, you might actually convince me. Even though Josh Sabey (in his comment above) would have you delete the LGBT argument as it might turn people off, it is OBVIOUS that this is a big part of what you are arguing about. Very few other groups in history have used the “be true to yourself” mantra as much as the marriage equality and other LGBTQ groups. (it’s important to recognize that very early on, queer theorists have been super critical of this “true self” notion as well. So, painting the LGBTQ movement under this sweeping generalization as I have just done is false, but I digress for now.) So, let’s take up the case of LGBTQ persons with your case of goodness.
Now, whether we can identify the existence of same-sex attraction as biological or social is fairly unimportant at this stage. Let’s accept that they exist and, as most research on both sides of the political divide will attest to, is very difficult to change/modify/amplify or diminish/etc. Who gets to determine what is good for them. Few, if any, religions have done a great job at truly working with non-heterosexuals and, I would argue, has led to the “culture war” that we see today between LGBTQ groups and religion (especially conservative religions such as Catholicism, Mormonism, and Islam). In fact, historically, these religions have been so caustic (whether intentionally or not) and have preached, as did mid-20th century Mormonism, that homosexuality is evil and should be cast out of the person. So, when people would be unable to change their attractions (even despite the best efforts of shock therapies, manhood retreats, etc.) there is an unfortunate high rate of anxiety, depression, and far too often suicide. My point here is that the organizations often trusted as the definers of “goodness” have sometimes created an environment which is caustic to certain individuals.
So, what I would love to see you address is this idea. What happens when the institutions with power to define goodness or morality (so, the politics of knowledge and ethics question) define them in such a way that makes people so full of self-hatred or loathing (rather than living true to the self) that they ultimately decide such a life is not worth living?
Yes, living for goodness and being faithful is all well and good, but there is a real problem on who gets to decide what being faithful looks like. At least within academic circles (and I’m speaking from a sociological standpoint) that’s the real question. I don’t know if you’re trying to write to a more popular audience (in which case, carry on, the post was fine.) Grappling with the power question, however, would lead to a more interesting and fruitful discussion (in my opinion).
And as a last caveat, you might be interested in reading Linda Zerilli’s feminist work on “The Abyss of Freedom”. She has an interesting book and a few articles on the subject. She brings up themes about forgiveness, respect to others, etc. as part of her new feminist project, but I think she would bring up my questions of power in relation to your outcome. Hers would be a radically different solution, I think.
Anyways, sorry for the extraordinarily and inappropriately long response (as well as my unfortunate tendency to insert parentheticals in [almost] every sentence). Carry on.
Hey, Erik! Long time no see. I’ll leave it to Brian to respond to your point–I just wanted to say, “Hi,” and let you know that I’ve appreciated reading some of your thinking about Mormon issues. I hope Northwestern is treating you well.
It has been quite a long time. Northwestern is going great, hope Harvard is doing the same for you. 🙂
Erik, thank you for your thoughtful response and critique. I really appreciate your engagement, and the level of intellectual rigor and theoretical nuance you bring. We need more readers like you. Your response was not inappropriately long, nor did the parentheticals distract me. On the contrary, your comment is very well written and to the point. I would even invite you to write a guest blog post for us, if you would be interested. If it is contrary to our views (not that we agree on everything) we might pair it with a responsive post, but we are eager to get multiple viewpoints represented.
I am not unaware that the moral compass that I posit is controversial. I’m not sure I would say it is a “leap,” but it is certainly not the only available path to take in response to the realization that there is no immutable “core self.” But I nonetheless posit that such a thing (or something like it) does exist. Reasonable minds may disagree on this point.
I defined “moral compass” as an attunement to the Good. I did not define the Good (nor do I think it is definable) but I mean, in part, something that is authoritative and discoverable independent of power structures and social constructions.
It seems to me that turning to questions of power to define what counts as good in society is a decidedly second-best move. One would focus on that to the exclusion of seeking after what is really good only if one believes that it is meaningless or at least futile to seek after what is really good.
I’m guessing you would agree that Scrooge makes moral progress–that he is better at the end of A Christmas Carol than at the beginning–that is, REALLY better, and not just better-in-the-context-of-our-society because the powers that be happen to code his latter behavior as desirable relative to his former behavior. If I am right–if you do agree that Scrooge makes moral progress–then how do you explain this conviction of moral progress except by reference to the concept of the Good? (I’m influenced here by Iris Murdoch, whom I quote in the essay, and who wrote “The Sovereignty of the Good Over Other Concepts.” She is a atheist, or at least an agnostic, which I mention because some may think that the concept of the Good is only an abstract version of God.)
Now, allow me to make some concessions. Social context matters immensely. Questions of power matter immensely. What counts as “good” in society matters immensely. We are not free from the constraints of our social context, and must seek the truly Good from within the thick tangle of social constructions that partially constitute who we are. I depart from the hard-core social constructionists only in my conviction that social constructions are not the beginning and the end. There is also Reality, and there is also the Good, and it is my faith and hope that individuals remain free to heed their moral compasses, which will guide them the next step in the journey.
I very much like Plato’s allegory of the cave. It is not so simple a process as looking at the compass, looking up in the direction that it indicates, and beholding the pure form of the Good in all its glory. But we are nonetheless enabled, in some imperfect degree, to discern between better and worse, true and false, good and bad, and to move towards more goodness.
Regarding the politics of knowledge and ethics surrounding LGBTQ+ issues, and in the context of an organization like the LDS church, my views are well expressed by David’s guest post on another blog a little while back. I assume he didn’t post it here because we don’t want this to be a Mormon blog; we want to address a broader audience. Here is the post: http://wellbehavedmormonwoman.blogspot.com/2016/02/response-to-mormon-lgbt-suicide-rates.html.
Thanks again for engaging with me here. Please keep reading, and don’t hesitate to point out any other logical gaps in our arguments.
I’m writing another novel with more parentheticals, so there is TL;DR at the bottom.
So, the “moral compass” would be controversial insofar as some has surrendered their compass to be directed by another person, group, or institution, which I think you are arguing on one hand (and which David does mention in his guest post). Whenever we define ourselves as a “thing” or some frame of “identity”, often it is ascribing to a set of norms/beliefs (or, in other words, a moral compass outside of oneself). Regarding the LGBTQ movements and the “be true to your self” mantra, claiming an identity as queer, gay, bisexual, etc. often brings the baggage of having to believe and act in a certain manner consistent with the social mandates of that group.
This, then, might also become problematic even in surrendering one’s compass to seemingly benign organizations like religious institutions (not that religious institutions are always benign or even that most are benign). Often groups that begin to amass influence over groups, even if starting innocently, can take stances or positions that change the identity for their members that might be caustic. (So, if a woman had an abortion in religion A and a year later, religion A decides to LABEL (or force an identity upon) those who commit abortion as evil, or perhaps less forcefully, as sinners, this woman still has had an identity forced upon her. Now she must choose rather to continue and allow that religion the power of identification.)
Even if, as you suggest, we refuse to self-identify and recognize that various notions of self and identity are at best flawed, it has not stopped larger social organizations to continue and do it to us. I, personally, am a grad student and thus, by virtue of that “identity” or “positionality”, am required to submit to various norms and behaviors of my graduate program. (The same would be true of my Mormonism, my citizenship, my race, etc.) So, the sociologist in me still wonders if you might speak to this more social identification rather than personal identification. For even personal identifications are going to be based on these social norms and expectations. I think that’s why I consider the moral compass as a leap. It seems to still assume individual autonomy in rejecting identifications for a moral compass which falls under your own critique of the atomistic individualism espoused in romanticism. (But perhaps this is another point rather than the one I was arguing previously.)
In response to the issue of “the Good”, or an abstract/universal morality/ethics. I still think I’d push back a little on what you might be conceiving as universal. I’m inclined towards the relational perspective of ethics (not to be confused with relativist). In a relational perspective, any notion of morality is specifically tied to the contexts and social networks in which one finds him or herself. I think the best description of relationalist Christianity was done by Brent Slife in the BYU Religious Department. Here is a quote from his article, “Values of Christian Families”:
“Relational ism directly addresses the modernist assumption of atemporality that crucial quality of the lawfulness of natural laws lawfulness is timeless and unchangeable and the modernist conception of truth is similarly atemporal this view of truth is the reason that a modernist endows moral principles with atemporality so readily if such principles are truthful they are assumed to be timeless and unchangeable as well any truth by modernist definition has to be atemporal moreover many religious people have assumed that timelessness and unchangeability are sure signs of divine truth some postmodernists postmodernists however claim not only that secular truth is temporal rather than atemporal but that religious truth can also be understood as temporal. I believe this claim has considerable merit.” (see reference below).
So, taking up this hypothetical of Scrooge. Yes, we can see that Dickens was obviously trying to paint a progression of morality, but a relationist would argue that this was at the same time particular to the time and circumstance. In fact, I could conceive of various criticisms of his charitable actions that probably defined the rest of his life like being to free with his money, not emphasizing hard work and privileging handouts, etc. That might be me raising a conservative strawman to make my case, but alas, I did it. Slife goes on to say that relationism can help explain some various inconsistencies with God’s commandments (such as the “do not kill” vs. “go kill this entire people”). Slife will argue that ultimately, God is “the Good” and that it is our relationship with Him in every circumstance that will remain consistent while actions and beliefs may change depending on context. So, if we wanted to generalize this beyond theists, I guess we could conceive of some moral entity or power in the universe that we are being true to. Unfortunately, that still paints the problem of how do we know when we are being “true”? Mormons believe a prophet has been called to help guide us and he (the prophet) has called many, many leaders to assist him in that task. My question still remains: what happens when they create a norm or belief that is inconsistent with someone’s situation and enforces a label (or identity) that causes intense psychological harm?
For example, we in America tend to be fairly patriotic. We’ve seen, however, that in recent years there is a growing group (at least in publicity in voice and hopefully not also in number) of people who argue that being Muslim is a-American. To be a true American, one must renounce the Islamic religion. If Trump became president, this would likely create institutional policies that solidify this belief for even more people. What do Muslims do in that situation? How do they negotiate the forced identity of American as non-Muslim with their own religious beliefs (and identity)?
For an example perhaps more difficult to disentangle, I bring up again LGBTQ+ Mormons. (To explain my standpoint, my MA thesis is currently on the identity negotiations and cultural mechanisms of hybrid identities of LGBQ/SSA Mormons.) In the 60s and 70s, President Kimball was fairly open about the evils of homosexuality. He called it “the sin against human nature”, “a result of excessive masturbation”, “likely to lead to other sexual transgressions like bestiality”, etc. Fairly caustic language. You might say, “But this was a rejection of behavior, not of any personal status or identity.” Yet, there were a number of talks and pamphlets that labelled homosexuals as “transgressors”. One in particular was called “Hope for Transgressors” and labelled those with same-sex attractions as such.
You’ll find that many LGBTQ+ Mormons reject multiple aspects of the social norms and beliefs of the secular LGBTQ+ community, such that to be a gay Mormon results in a vastly different “gay” than to be a secular “gay”. So, you could say already that they’ve rejected the notion to “be true to themselves” as they’ve rejected the societal definitions of what that self is and what “being true” means. However, that does not take away the fact that they’ve been labelled by the Mormon Church (at least in the past, but locally many of these labels remain) in damaging ways.
So, this is why I think power is not just a second question, but THE question. Identities are going to be around whether we like it or not, not because of the individualism of contemporary society, but precisely because society is not individualistic, social organizations group people together, and these groupings are coupled with norms and beliefs. People put faith in various institutions to teach them “the Good” or “God”, but sometimes these trusted institutions, whether nations or religions, fail to provide a non-caustic space for people with overlapping social identifiers. (So, Muslim Americans, third-world feminists, gay Mormons, and first generation college students all might fall into this group.) What is there to do? I think it actually might be worse for those Mormons and Muslims who do conceptualize their faith as a universal and it suddenly fails to provide them with a framework to understand their situation or, perhaps worse–as it did for gay Mormons in the 70s–it is downright problematic.
(I feel like, partly because of the Mormon norms, I must qualify my statements. I do believe in the LDS religion, but I refuse to consider it infallible and I think that it does need a LOT of work regarding the LGBTQ+ community.)
In response to David’s post that you reference, I think you (now referencing David) are affording too much individual autonomy that ends up ignores the social organizational pressures on identity (similar to my critique to your brother). The idea that we can shed identities at will doesn’t take into account how modern institutions force identities upon us. Even the idea of sexual fluidity (not identity, but the actual attractions), which I mostly agree with, isn’t fluid on the basis of individual choice. From a religious perspective, I agree that we shouldn’t let identities, or even physical attractions, determine our course of action. But let’s not mistake the incredible pressure of LGBTQ+ persons to live something that is at odds with their positionality from both the LDS Church AND secular LGBTQ movements. As I mentioned earlier, most LGBTQ+ Mormons have a completely different conception of sexuality than their secular counterparts, but they likewise, and as a result of their sexuality’s intersection with the LDS Church, have a fairly different conception of Mormonism than most heterosexual Mormons.
My biggest concern in your post is what people will take away from it. First, it was posted on a blog that is widely read by conservative Mormons. So, if we take that as your audience, I think it is going to be read a certain way. You do mention that there needs to be discussion on the topic, but you focus most of your time on this rejection of allowing sexual identity to dictate action. I think a lot of readers are going to walk away from the article thinking: Oh, right. So these LGBTQ/SSA Mormons just need to get their act together, stop complaining, and suffer through like any ordinary trial. That grossly mischaracterizes the problem (and I know you don’t intend it this way), but because of the audience, I’m sure this is how a lot of people took it. Instead, a better piece might outline the institutions of secular LGBTQ+ groups and the problems with their norms and beliefs AND the problems that exist within the LDS Church. (Again, as a sociologist I tend to favor discussions of a social nature rather than honing in on individual choice because it ignores so much.)
Second, this statement: “If I found myself feeling attracted to other men, I would not necessarily experience a crisis of identity because I would not feel inclined to attribute to those emotions definitional authority.” Unfortunately, I will have to say I reject this. You aren’t attracted to other men. So, positing what you would “probably do” is kinda weird. Feminist scholars would call BS on that straightaway on the basis of standpoint theory. By not being in the actual standpoint of a gay Mormon, they would say, it would be nigh impossible to determine what you would do. Many a gay Mormon has said at one point they will never let their sexuality define them nor let it dissuade them from the LDS Church only to find in 5 years that the conflict looms too large and they pull away. So, I would hesitate to say what you would do in that situation unless you are IN that situation. (Even if you have “friends who experienced same-sex attraction”. It’s not the same.)
Third, about the policy itself and your claim that people consider supporters of the policy to not care. The upheaval wasn’t really about that. It was more that the Church has found a need to consistently reaffirm and, unfortunately in my opinion, strengthen its stance against same-sex marriage. EVERYONE in the church knew the position beforehand. But now we are going to label them apostates? Was that totally necessary? I think your average LGBTQ/SSA Mormon is more upset by the focus on reaffirming the stance and using such intense language when it is probably unnecessary RATHER than creating a discussion for how to include LGBTQ/SSA brothers and sisters without a change in doctrine. I think there is a great deal the church could do about more inclusive spaces: opening up restrictions on callings/jobs for only married people (especially like seminary/institute teachers), create something like the Genesis Group for black Mormons pre-policy change, eliminate the taboo-norm of sexuality in discussions, stop calling it a trial like smoking/alcoholism, etc. None of these require doctrinal changes and would vastly improve the status and perception of LGBTQ’s in the Mormon community. The issue isn’t that policy supporters don’t care, it’s that the Church’s reluctance (or at least slow-ness) in actually structurally improving itself for LGBTQ/SSA persons makes them feel like the institution doesn’t care. (And in my research, this is still a common sentiment even for the most conservative LGBTQ/SSA Mormons.)
Ok, I’m out. 🙂 If you want some kind of guest piece, feel free to message me. I’m obviously not adverse to extreme amounts of writing.
* Power is THE question not a secondary one.
* Individual identity still assumes a romantic individualism and ignores the influence of social organizations and their enforcement of identity on individualism.
* Read Slife’s work on relational Christianity. There are pictures.
* The LDS Church can actively create spaces to be more inclusive without any change in doctrine.
Slife, Brent D. 1999. “Values of Christian Families: Do They Come from Unrecognized Idols?” BYU Studies 38(2):117-136.
(Apparently, there’s a limit to how many layers of replies to replies are permitted. I hope my reply to Brian’s reply ends up under Erik’s.) Erik, thanks for your feedback about my previous essay. My synthesis of your points are 1. we should be careful not to romanticize the individual over the social, 2. a conservative audience will selectively interpret my writing to reinforce their opinions (and behavior), 3. we shouldn’t speculate about what we would do if we were somebody else because we can’t know that, and 4. the reaction against the policy change was not so much about lack of care as it was about how the Church further entrenched itself in its opposition of gay marriage rather than promoting inclusive and dialogic measures.
To your first point, I agree that our identities are inextricably entangled with our social contexts and positionality. I don’t think I suggest otherwise in the blog post, although I probably believe we have more individual agency than some might think. A complete treatment of the issue would need to zoom in and out between the individual and the social. If your point is just that the blog post would have been better had it more fully considered the role of power and social pressures, you’re probably right.
I’m afraid I also agree with your second point, but I would add that I think it goes both ways–because it was published on a conservative blog, liberal readers will often assume the worst. (Unfortunately that has already happened.) The experience of writing and publishing that blog post is part of the motivation behind my most recent post (https://thebrotherssabey.wordpress.com/2016/04/02/in-memoriam-a-plea-for-a-different-discourse/) in which I bemoan the way we operate so much within echo chambers.
I’m not sure I agree with you third point for two reasons. First, it seems solipsistic. Although I obviously don’t know what it is like to be someone who identifies as a gay Mormon, that doesn’t mean that I am excluded from making sense of or commenting on others’ experiences. Second, my point in the essay wasn’t actually to speculate about what I would do if I were in that situation. That line you quoted came from a part in the essay when I was imagining what it might be like for someone in a currently non-existent social context. It was all hypothetical–not just my first-person example.
Lastly, I think you’re right that it is simplistic to categorize the negative reaction to the policy change as “That’s uncaring.” You have definitely been thinking about these issues more than I have, so I think you have interesting insight into some of the dynamics involved. But I do think that as these “higher-level” conversations happen, the thing that gets translated and perpetuated through social networks is more like “Let love win and be nice” than it is like “The LDS Church can actively create spaces to be more inclusive without any change in doctrine.” So, although some people certainly were more upset with the issues you raised, there were many others whose discourse remained much more superficial and visceral.
Great post Brian.
Thanks again, Eric, for your continued engagement. I remain of the opinion that power and social constructions, while incredibly important, should not be the exclusive or even the main focus of writing about these issues. I agree that what Goodness/God demands from me will vary depending on context, but I still think that Goodness/God is real: there is something beyond the social context, something eternal, and this is properly our primary focus and the object of our primary orientation. (At least, having it as our primary orientation should be our goal.) Nor is this “Goodness” reducible to God: something is not good because God says so; he says so because it really is good. I accept His word on the subject as binding and absolute, and I believe that He has asked me to receive the words of His authorized servants “AS IF from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.” (I like the scripture partly because it acknowledges that God’s servants are not the same as God, and that it will REQUIRE patience and faith to receive their words as if from his own mouth.)
Perhaps this talk of “Goodness” sounds mystical–a return to Platonism, almost–but this is what seems to me the most adequate way of explaining the universal, binding validity of at least some moral judgments (e.g., the sadism of the Nazis was bad; faithfulness to my spouse is good; Scrooge makes moral progress). These situations are contextual, but (given the context) the moral judgment is still universally valid. That is, given that particular context, God/Goodness would ALWAYS demand that (for example) Scrooge become more tuned in to the human realities of suffering and joy and sympathy and connection with his neighbors and less focused on the aimless and singleminded pursuit of wealth. Positing the impossibility of such judgments seems to me far more absurd that whatever is entailed by positing their possibility. Again, I am persuaded by Iris Murdoch on this issue.
I also think you go further than I am willing to go in subsuming completely the individual in their web of relations and social contexts. I am no individualist, but I do not think that either the individual or the individuals’ moral compass is reducible to their societies. They are more than the sum or product of their relationships with other mortals and social institutions.