Thursday, July 3, 2008

An ontological problem

I was having a very interesting discussion a few nights ago. Somebody asked the question "what would you do differently if you didn't care what people thought of you?" In one way, this is a silly question. Because the ability of a person to answer it completely may presuppose that they already don't care what people think of them. If I place a high value on what people think of me such that I haven't already behaved publicly in a certain way, I'm not that likely to tell you about it. So I would not have answered that question in this group of people by telling them that if I didn't care what people thought of me I would strip off my staid Banana Republic cargo shorts and my basic t-shirt to reveal the hot pink satin matching panties and bra set that I like to wear underneath my clothes for kicks. Ooops. Have I revealed too much? You see? I wouldn't be any more likely to reveal that as an answer to a hypothetical question than I would be to reveal it by simply doing it.

Anyway, people answered the question is unsurprising ways. I made the point that the question is very complex. Because the you that is answering the question has been designed to care about the opinions of others. Nature and nurture both conspire to make you care deeply about how other people think about you. Even before you emerge from - well, you know where you came from - you already seek comfort in the voice of your mother. So how exactly are you answering this question in the first place? The question assumes that we can peel away the part of you that cares what other people think, to reveal your "true" self. The one that would do all sorts of things if only that pesky need for approval could be eliminated. The question assumes that there would be a you left if we peeled away the need for approval.

But it's not so clear that this is the case. It might be true that your regard for the opinions of others about you is part of the fabric of your self. That inherent to your self is the need for the approval of others.

Well this is problematic for me. Because I passionately believe that every person is sui generis. That we each have a unique soul or mind and that we are obligated to let our own unique beauty illuminate the world (in a responsible way of course). I believe that both we and the world are better off when we all pursue truth and beauty as we feel we must and when we act in harmony with our inner dictates rather than conform to social pressure. [Subject, of course, to the sorts of limitations that John Stuart Mill would have felt comfortable placing on individual liberty.]

So how can I continue to so passionately believe in Emersonian self-reliance when it is not entirely clear - even to me - that our most precious and deeply personal self can even exist in the absence of conformity?

I don't know yet. But some answers are starting to take shape.

1) We do have a pure soul that is not composed in any way of our regard for the opinions others have of us. Our need for approval is, in fact, a layer placed over that (at a very early age - even before you are born). That layer imperfectly covers our soul and it covers it in different ways for different people. So at times our uniqueness shines through and it does so more for some people than others. This may help explain why, as a fellow in this discussion pointed out, old people tend to lose their inhibitions and just don't care about what others think. Perhaps this layer erodes as people age. Perhaps there's a neurological explanation. Or maybe they just have fewer friends left alive and they don't really care what other people who aren't their friends think (and they're retired so there are no professional consequences).

2) We do not have a pure soul that exists apart from any need for approval. But our uniqueness (which may be a constantly evolving emergent phenomenon) can include the aspects of our soul for which we seek approval, and the manner and degree to which we do so. Clearly we all feel and suppress urges from time to time to express certain thoughts or emotions that we feel would earn us the disapproval of society. So our soul cannot be just a conforming approval-seeker. But it does include that element and that element is wrapped up with the individual element. They live together in a truce. For some, that truce is stable. For others, it is in perpetual upheaval as the need for approval and the need for individuality vie for supremacy.

Alright. Enough for now. But this is an interesting topic and I was glad to have reason to think and write about it.

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