"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Essence Not Identity–The Forgotten Nature Of Character And Personality

Human beings have always grouped together since the first hominids.  Association has been important for survival, for no individual can satisfactorily protect himself from human and animal predators; hunt, crop, or forage alone.

Social grouping – at first extended families, then clans and tribes – had no intrinsic value but was only a means to an end.  Individual survival and the survival and prosperity of society was contingent on cooperation.  Identification with a specific group was important both for reasons of solidarity and internal recognition and to distinguish friend from foe.  Feathers, headdresses, amulets, hand signs, hair styles, face paint, and war cries were all emblems of belonging and solidarity.

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As human society grew and the number of distinct social groupings increased, their signifiers became more sophisticated and complex.  Wealth, ownership, territory, and power became the macro-markers of status and authority.

Socio-political status and stability were not the only reasons for belonging to groups. The more complex societies and civilizations became, the more the individual was subsumed or lost within them.  The need for associative identity – i.e. that beyond personality and character – became increasingly important.  Membership to primary societies – family, clan, and tribe – was complemented by association with secondary ones. A person’s recognition, status, and authority could be enhanced through membership in those political, social, and other groups which conferred a different type of legitimacy.  A man was decreasingly identified by who he was than to which groups he belonged.  Identity became collective.

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The need to associate for personal recognition increased the more society became more complex.  A man would be completely anonymous and lost in an urban industrial society without his church, chapter, and club. Personality, character, verve, talent, and unique expression would never be enough in an increasingly large, collective environment.  The assembly line has always been a good metaphor for the de-individualization of modern society.

American society at the beginning of the 21st century is so complex it often seems chaotic.  ‘Divisive’ is a generous adjective to describe a social environment which in many ways mirrors the early 20th century where laissez-faire capitalism left every man for himself.  While today’s America is a far cry from the vision of Upton Sinclair, Dos Passos, and Dreiser; and while new mediated networks have replaced older, more traditional ones and given the individual more breadth and choice of association, the conflict between the individual and his society is no less problematic.

Given the highly competitive, highly populated, international society of today, it is no surprise that belonging to smaller and smaller niche organizations has increased.  It is not enough to be liberal or conservative, but to find a specific, particular place on the spectrum.  For every such point there are thousands of real or virtual groups to which one can belong.

While the markers of identity have changed over time from dress, comportment, and style to electronic imaging, they are as important.  The Internet is filled with petitions which act less as political instruments than personal identifiers.  The more petitions one signs to save endangered species, to protect local waters and forests, to demand recycling and bicycle lanes, or to renew faith in Christ, the more acquired identity one has.  Now more than ever we are defined less by who we are than how we belong.

Such niche identification is logical in a highly complex and competitive environment such as ours.  It is not enough to be Methodist, Democrat, father, and professional; but each grouping must be disaggregated and enhanced.  Catholic and Protestant churches have  become increasingly political and the separation of the two is indistinct.  Congregants choose those issues which most conform to their own particular concerns – abortion, the death penalty, homosexuality, social and income inequality, racial injustice, etc. – and associate with those groups which reflect and act on them.

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Each of these sub-groupings can be further divided.  The issue of homosexuality, for example, becomes more complex every month. The rights of transgender individuals, although they represent approximately 0.3 percent of the population, has become a particularly rallying point for socially liberal activists; and these rights themselves have been disaggregated.  Access to civil ceremonies, the military, retail, private and public institutions must be differentiated in order to formulate a strategy for change.

The major religions themselves have been repeatedly subdivided.  No longer do the mainstream Protestant churches attract the most faithful.  Mega-churches, store-front churches, and vague community congregations have outpaced them by far; and a new brand of religious particularism is common.  It is no longer enough be believe in God, Jesus Christ, and Martin Luther but in the very particular vision of individual charismatic pastors.

Environmentalism has never had the impact activists have hoped because of its many sub-divisions.  While saving the spotted owl and cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay may be related in an overall ecological scheme, these and other issues demand specific, earmarked donations and contributor support.

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The neo-civil rights movement is also splintered.  Whereas in the days of Martin Luther King black people marched in unison behind him, today’s black community is politically and socially riven.  While most blacks lament what they see as persistent residual racism, they react differently to it.  Some go to the streets with Black Lives Matter, others work government programs for affirmative advantage and upward mobility, others – like their majority white counterparts – hold down middle class jobs and live comfortably in middle class neighborhoods; while still others look to gangs and street clans for identification, expression, and association. The days of unity, unison, and general collective demands are over.

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What then of the individual? Have we as a society lost all consideration of and respect for soul, spiritual value, character, and personality? It is hard to conclude otherwise.

Our politicians are elected on the basis of image, platforms, and promises rather than rectitude, courage, or principle.  Our pastors may preach a personal relationship with Jesus Christ but are interested more in the growth and prosperity of their congregations.  A thousand church worshipers and five million more televiewers is as collective as one can get.  The individual is not valued for his or her own natural, innate, and God-given uniqueness, but for participation in a collective charismatic epiphany.

Political activists have no interest in individuals but in their numbers.  The more advocates for clean water there are, and the more members PIRG can secure, the more successful lobbying the organization can carry out in Washington.

Individualism itself has been co-opted by secular political interests.  Conservatives beat the drums of Reaganomics and the championing of the rugged individualist and private entrepreneur, but want to create an ever large cadre of such enthusiasts.  Numbers, size, and importance count more than the individual himself.

It is hard then for anyone to take time or even have the interest in unique spiritual or personal evolution.  The Hindu worldview, on the other hand, is one of pure individualism where enlightenment is solely a personal matter.  The accumulation of karma is purely an individual responsibility, and only through attentive passage through the four stages of worldly life can one pass on to the spiritual.

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The very idea of monastic seclusion seems an almost psychotic anachronism.  How can anyone devote his life to such a vain pursuit? The purpose of prayer, well explicated in the New Testament, is to make one mindful of God – not to supplicate him nor to gain favor, but simply to adore and revere.  The Carthusian monks, isolated high in the Alps in a community of silence and prayer are irrelevant.

Yet these monks are perhaps the last remaining examples of pure Western spirituality.  Prayer for its own sake.  Spiritual evolution for no other reason than closeness to the Divine.

Help groups to assist in adjusting to and dealing with grief, substance abuse, personal dysfunction, male ‘toxicity’, female dependency, and a thousand other issues are common.  While alcoholics are encouraged to speak in AA of their own personal travails, it is group affiliation and loyalty which is first and foremost and the way to recovery.  The very first principle of the twelve cited by AA is this one:
Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity. Protecting the group is more important than individual interests. If AA were to fail as an organization it would be harmful to all the members who depend on it. This means that personal squabbles and opinions need to put to one side in order to ensure the survival of the group (AlcoholRehab.com)

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It has become far easier and thus more common for individual responsibility to be distributed within a larger group.  Individual responsibility for dysfunctional, failing neighborhoods; poor academic performance, or lack of personal ambition is attributed to social factors – racism, social inequality, the concentration of wealth; bias, prejudice, and indifference.

This universal socialization of America is troubling.  While it is impossible to recreate the culture of Jefferson and the Founding Fathers who appreciated the spiritual and entrepreneurial nature of the individual and the secondary, supporting, complementary role of society; it is never to late to challenge received wisdom.

Progressives particularly, whose socio-political advocacy is a legacy of the political philosophy of Marx and Hegel who believed even more deeply than any populist democrat in the power of the people, are committed so collective social action.  Only through concerted and unified popular effort – said Marx and Hegel and say today’s progressives can social progress be achieved.

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Tides always turn, history runs in cycles, and this current era of identity politics and the neutering of the spiritual and personal character of the individual will eventually end.

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