26 November 2012
Tell Them Who You Are
[I wrote this as an Op-Ed for the Yale Daily News back in 2009. Going back to it, I expected to dislike it. Except for the last two paragraphs, I think it's fantastic.]
The urge to confess is among the strongest and deepest in our society. From the little booths in churches to sofas in analysts’ offices, our longing to reveal ourselves moves out into theaters and living rooms.
We are a society driven by the monologue. Our literature is confessional, our philosophy almost morbidly self-conscious; someone is always exposing a viewpoint, a crime, a scandal. Beyond this there is reality television, the passive viewer’s way of fantasizing about disclosing his own life and thoughts about his peers, an expression of desire for an openness and exposure that goes beyond the one-way conveyor belt of the mass media.
Our confessional tendencies have blossomed again through the Internet, yielding millions of blogs and public journals, giving us Facebook and now Twitter. These utilities reflect a deep longing to pour out some encapsulation of our thoughts and struggles, to be heard and recognized.
I have felt this longing myself; maybe that’s why I think it exists so widely. Maybe I’m wrong. But whenever I try to indulge these impulses, my attempts are frustrated.
My Facebook account has caused me tremendous irritation over the years. It is structured on the assumption that my identity can be pinned down through a few lists, quotes and a brief personal statement. Whenever I fill out these things I feel guilty because I’m probably misrepresenting myself. I am annoyed because I couldn’t possibly say anything accurate about myself in so small a space, and I wouldn’t want to post an honest statement for general consumption if I could. That obnoxious text box underneath my profile picture commands, “Say something about yourself!” No, stupid box, I refuse to say anything about myself! I will not submit to your demands for self-reduction!
Self-reduction? I guess I’ve made a leap here into what I’m really interested in saying. When I decided, to the tune of general astonishment, to shave my head this summer, I did it to say symbolically that I was willing to open up and expose myself, to give up my fears of humiliation. And yet since that moment I have felt a tension between my desire to be honest and humble and my inability to truly explain why I did it. Even here, characterizing the act as a gesture of openness, I’m reducing it to one of its aspects at the expense of others. There was more to it, more than I can explain, more even than I can understand at any given moment.
I think life is like that in general, and more importantly people are like that. We can never really figure out the core of our problems or identities, no matter how many psychological, historical or other interpretive schemes we use to divide up our selves or reduce our amorphous masses of “me” into neat sets of predicates or mechanisms. Somehow “I” am still looking at it all, understanding it, living it. This “I” eludes reduction.
So what does this mean for our desire to explain ourselves, to confess? What is the point of all these miserably inadequate encapsulations we offer to ourselves and to each other? The point, I think, is manifold. First, our confessions are the expression of an impulse to work out our selves in a way just as reductive and predictive as the way science works out the material world. Confession can be, in this way, an attempt to blot out the anxieties so deeply engraved in our sense of freedom, in our orientation toward unclear values and ideals.
Second, the need to be recognized reflects the deeply solitary nature of life in our society. The impulse to confess is an impulse to bring the life of my life out into the open and share it with someone. If I cannot share it in particular, in private, I must share it generally, impersonally. Jonathan Franzen writes that we have lost the private sphere to prying reporters and gossip columnists. My confessions arise out of a misguided attempt to counter the solitude of publicness by pouring my private life out into the open.
Third, our confessions reflect a desire to reverse the causal link drawn between body and mind. In the world of the Internet, everyone can be a 23-year-old model. We can all manufacture the mental and physical profiles we want to have. Confessions are, in this way, also a form of concealment. Why else would we so zealously “un-tag” the less-savory images of us, or remove the News Feed items that seem antithetical to who we “really are”?
It seems there is something wrong with this impulse. Instead of fleeing from responsibility, friendship and sincerity, a proper confession should embrace precisely these things. It should do so individually and privately, face-to-face, recognizing the essential irreducibility of my life and yours, and insisting that we are all, each and every one of us, people. Facebook, Twitter and reality TV seem to work against this.
Perhaps all this striving to reveal the truth of our selves is a clever way of evading a more corporate truth. Maybe it’s time for us to rediscover the meaning of personhood, to re-close the private sphere and satisfy that deeper desire for community and communion, which all our confessions so fruitlessly try to soothe.