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In search of the lost “self”

The fundamental question in conscious beings “Who am I” and what do I represent to others has always been the target of various ideologies starting with Socrates. However, to discover who we are and to express our true “self”, in our days and age it obtained a new form; a certain pronoun connected or not to a particular gender. In the English language, this movement has a specific character which distinguishes it from other languages and perhaps the proper pronouns in other languages will soon be invented as this movement is gaining popularity throughout different cultures. The Chinese are somehow fortunate being able to build a civilization and culture lasting over 5,000 years using only pronouns that have no gender. One can only wonder what might happen when 1.5 billion people realize they lack proper or sufficient pronouns to identify themselves.

Branching off this main topic (Who am I) is agenderism and gender pluralism, simply put, when an individual decides or discovers that he has no gender or has more than one and refuses to be addressed by a pronoun which identifies either of the two biological genders. Let’s try to understand this current ideology in light of the ageless philosophical interrogation “Who am I”. Famous philosophers attempting to ask this question emphasize that to truly know yourself is to have the courage in expressing yourself exactly the way you are. But is this really the case today? Many people now demand others to acknowledge what or who they are before even asking themselves “Who am I”, likely with the wrong intention or motive as Jordan Peterson well puts it [1]. Defending his stance, Peterson may be silently asking by refusing to use “selfie” pronouns, “Have you addressed this profound question first (Who am I) before you demand this of me? And do you truly know yourself? Because if you do, you would know a “selfie” pronoun isn’t going to tell the world a whole lot, nor any extraordinary things about you! Thus, must I call myself something in order to be and feel extraordinary, or instead, do something extraordinary, something that truly makes a difference?

For all those hoping to sincerely answer “Who am I”, let’s examine an essay by Nietzsche titled Schopenhauer as Educator [2]. Nietzsche is trying to answer Schopenhauer’s provocation, influenced in turn by Indian philosophy [3]. Its introspective principle states “Dig down within yourself in order to find your true self.” In other words, remove all the superficial peals as those of an onion to find the essential parts. Or, remove all the illusions about life and self and then you’ll reach the essence of your own “self”. Nietzsche addresses the question by making an astound affirmation, “Most people that ever lived never live up to their own self potentials, but are instead conformists. They never try to truly know themselves because they prefer comfort and commodity. It is a big risk to be honest towards yourself, to live an authentic life, to recognize the uniqueness about your own being and instead of conforming to society’s expectations, refuse to be your own traitor.

Let’s put Nietzsche’s idea in a bit of an opposition to the idea of inclusiveness in agenderism and the pluralism of the pronouns which reflect the gender or no gender of a given person. The issue here about individuals which discover they have no gender or many genders is that it produces a great state of discomfort to them and society must make an effort to conform itself towards them. We must, however, recognize and accept that gender dysphoria where an individual feels himself a woman in a man’s body or vice versa is a real situation and clinically valid. There’s no need for religious fanatics to contradict psychiatrists and specialized professionals calling it lust and sinful desires. Because of this, many individuals end up either contemplating or succeeding in committing suicide besides the fact of living terrible dramas in their life [4]. Thus, better efforts to understand and support them must be made by society, no matter what that might do to our name or religious beliefs.

Nevertheless, the fact is that being and knowing your own “self” implies a major risk and whoever wants to be his own “self” must assume such risk and surrender his own comfort. Ironically, this profound idea which all its great supporters sacrificed for, teaching their disciples to do the same and assuming risks by sometimes paying with their life and certainly not by committing suicide, it is confused with the ideology we see in the world today. That profound idea was changed with the new politically correct one that we must provide to a person the comfort which he cries he is lacking because otherwise we refuse to recognize something that he considers his own “self”. Let’s take for example a 12-year old which pretends is an agender or poly-gender. Does he truly know himself? Certainly puberty is the time when we all begin to discover who and what we are, but what do we really know about ourselves at this stage in life?

Is the long, dark, dangerous and painful journey that all great philosophers refer to the one we’re dealing with in this ideology today? Or could it be a fantasy and whim which may die off after a certain age? Finding yourself is not a revelation that comes all of a sudden when you’re 11 or 12 years old and people unfortunately don’t try to understand you, it is on the contrary a long and risky journey. No matter how long the journey or how deep within you are searching, the chances are dim to find your true “self” and what you find eventually it’s still an illusion, your own fantasies and imaginations. This is what we often fail to teach our young, to be patient, continue to learn, discover and persist in searching for their true “self” instead of demanding unwarranted respect for something that doesn’t yet exist. We certainly must offer support, understanding and other means necessary for them to complete the long journey. It is one thing when a cisgender, transgender, agender, or poly-gender is willing to go the entire journey, suffering and paying the price for a noble and elevated “self” and another when a confused teen joins in with other teens online to experiment with whims, demands and the type of “self” our society currently produces! Today, it seems our society increasingly supports individuals that only contribute with whims and fantasy demands to the world among other things, while taking away support from those that make real contributions.

What is really our true “self” then? After a very long journey, perhaps a lifetime of self-analysis and observations, it is those things that brought us up to a more noble life. The ideas, experiences, type of activities, and emotions with a particular effect upon our life which brought us to a higher level as a person, regardless of gender or any other type of identity. We must continue on this road looking for our true “self” being guided by things that elevate us to our highest potentials. We could refer to it as our empirical self, conventional self, or the self that society gives us (genes, education, environment, friends, enemies, society). However, this “self” assembled from a variety of factors is not something within us but it is always built above us. This “above us” doesn’t refer to a god or place (heaven, etc.) but a product of our will power and determination in life, always aiming for a higher standard than today. Thus, the highest “self” which we could possibly build should be our true “self”. However, today we see an opposition between post-modernism and Nietzsche in regards to how self-knowing and self-expression is identified. We, therefore should not accept an easy solution but rather the building of a “self” requiring substantial effort. Instead of saying we are something all of a sudden, we must strive to be something corresponding with our highest ideals. Stirner says the only reality that exists is the ego, and all other things must be considered ontologically somewhat deriving from the ego [5]. The only thing that matters, thus, can only be our own ego which should not be subordinated to a certain cause such as patriotism, religion, family or some other altruistic cause.

Freud takes this a step further and explains that our ego is ultimately a sexual illusion [6]. We have sexual fantasies deriving out of our libido from desires seeking sexual satisfaction that ultimately can never be satisfied. We build fantasies in regards to our own selves and our entire life is therefore encapsulated in them. In order to find our true “self” we must constantly poke away these soap bubbles which encapsulate us. As we combine the various ideas from Nietzsche, Stirner and Freud, we ultimately recognize that Freud is right, our ego is a world of fantasies, not our true ego and we often confuse the two. Whether we are a heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, poly-gender, transgender, agender, or anything under the sun we may choose to identify ourselves as, it does not ultimately represent our true self, but an image which our subconscious makes in regards to self fed by a sexual libido. Our ego is a product of power which exists through the state, school, family and all its other instruments which then gives it a certain place in society. By resisting this subjective ego created by power, we discover another ego by trying to liberate ourselves from the one others give us. We arrive again at Nietzsche; whether driven by sexuality or bio-politics we must fight to define and construct our ego, a long and rather painful journey.

In post-modernism we encounter an opposite journey of “self” due to the creation of an umbrella rather than the current once seen during the enlightenment. The ego is nevertheless something we each feel, some more profoundly than others; we are twelve and we feel something, especially our sexuality and its drives. If we go deeper, besides the fact that sexual orientations or disorientations do not reflect our true self but are ultimately fantasies, they’re also not emancipatory, they rather imply a certain conformism. Undoubtedly, they are models of behavior created by power, a subtle power which diffuses aka Orwellian style which divides our world in many parts and pieces [7]. In this new ideology, we find the renouncing of all noble ideals for an easy solution which is the exact opposite of all we have learned and gained thus far by riding the backs of those that were willing to travel the entire journey, risk on their own (not at the expense of others), suffer and die along the way, not expecting others to pay the price and/or suffer in exchange.

This new ideology emphasizes that you don’t need a long journey to realize you are in desperate need of a pronoun to reflect what you are; instead, quite often all you need is a whim or fantasy and all others are obligated to accept it. This is also completely different than being bullied or abused to the point where you want to give up on life. In this new ideology there is little if any effort to build above a whim or fantasy. This brings out the important question post-modernism ought to address, “What do I want to be”. To do so, let’s define the illness of our time in Nietzsche’s terms which bring the most actual and courageous answers for our generation. What seems to take place now is a loss of “the will to power”. Of course this is not the loss of will to dominate others, but that of being in control of our life, our emotions, our destiny and nature. The will to power which is the will to have a purposeful life seems to be drying out in post-modernism and what we see is the decomposing of a carcass. We decompose in gender without any ideological conflict in this movement since on the other side there is no solution either. There is a symptom, not that man today no longer knows what he is, because he believes or assumes that he knows, by living at the level of illusions and that of ideologies.

We are in a world of ideological illusions and sexual fantasies and certainly we don’t want to leave from it. Why? The answer is simple; some of us are lazy or conformists, others are both and few care to oppose illusions and discipline themselves. We do not want to fight our ego nor search within it, but most of all, we do not want to build above it. We may have arrived to face the last human which is now subconsciously chanting “A little poison makes the sleep sweet and a bit more brings the end of all suffering; we’re tired of life, no one gives us what we demand, we’d rather die. But, at least is going to be a quick and painless death.”

Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now states, “If you measure health, wealth, safety, knowledge and quality of life generally, humanity overall is better off than ever.” We thus should be happier, more motivated and more rational, especially the young which have so much available and so much to look forward to. But is this really the case today? Imagine the young men dying in agony from war inflicted wounds due to lack of medicine and young women also dying in agony from the lack of a C-section not too long ago. Interestingly, young men and women were less likely to commit suicide in the past even though they had no way to stop suffering and pain; today, young people with all kinds of options and much more wealth and means to stop pain, unfortunately feel hopeless and end their life. Is emotional pain becoming more painful than physical pain in our days or is pain more painful than before? Can we even phantom torture to death for scientific progress, the progress of humanism and enlightenment which was the norm in the past? Since those days are long gone and forgotten by most of us, are we becoming addicted to poison and turn to it for every little discomfort? Did wealth, technology and wellbeing bring us to a state of mind and/or being which poverty and lack of technology would never have?

If we look at the history of life from the Cambrian explosion until now, circa 600 million years, we observe that species appear and disappear. There were all kinds of specialized and powerful species that disappeared and we might be a species on its way to extinction with one significant difference. We are conscious, something that no other species ever were, at least nowhere close. As Sagan astonishingly puts it, “Through us, the universe opened its eyes and realized it exists.” Will this biological self-consciousness be gone in the future? Biologically speaking, homo sapiens is in a state of degeneration; if we dare look around we must refrain from illusions and admit it. Would there be something post-human, superhuman?

If life on earth and the entire history of the universe tell us anything, the answer is yes! Life will find a way, better yet, rationality will find a way. Sapiens will move forward as the eye of this universe will only close with the universe itself passing billions of years later. If we want to move forward, Nietzsche’s advice is probably one of the best, “Don’t be lazy, don’t be a conformist, look for your true self and don’t forget, you will never find it in easy solutions and whims.” Thus, our self is something that we must build, likely in opposition with current ideologies, expectations, our conformist society and our own fantasies. Today, it is very easy to feel something and demand unwarranted respect for it. However, it is much more difficult to build a noble “self” independent of gender, fantasies, emotions, comforts and other things that we desire. A self that follows the highest ideals, the most noble of our emotions and builds upon the experiences that brought the best in us. Such self, very unpopular today, would give up life for the benefit of others, not give up on life because of a “selfie” pronoun of otherwise no significance.

References

  1. J. Peterson defending his stance on pronouns. Minute 12:15. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-nvNAcvUPE&t=348s

2. F. Nietzsche. 1873. Schopenhauer as Educator.

3. M. Ram Murty. 2012. Indian Philosophy: An Introduction.

4. N. Adams, M. Hitomi, and C. Moody. 2017. Varied Reports of Adult Transgender Suicidality: Synthesizing and Describing the Peer-Reviewed and Gray Literature. https://doi.org/10.1089/trgh.2016.0036

5. M. Stirner. 1845. The Ego and Its Own.

6. S. Freud. 1923. The Ego and the ID

7. G. Orwell. 1949. Nineteen eighty-four

8. S. Pinker. 2018. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

Many, many thanks to Edmond Constantinescu for his presentation which inspired me to write these words.