The new culture war battleground is you

The shifting definition of identity is changing American society and the very meaning of existence

There’s a famous scene from Lewis Carroll’s classic “Alice in Wonderland” in which Alice is staring silently at a hookah-smoking caterpillar. The larva finally breaks the standoff with a question: “Who are you?” Alice hems and haws until the caterpillar asks again, this time more pointedly: “You! … Who are you?”

This question is the most pressing of our time. And its answer holds the power to shape society. Indeed, the source of today’s deepest and most worrying political conflicts ultimately is grappling with differing definitions of what it means to be human — to be a person.

Carroll’s children’s book prefigured our modern problem. And so, too, did the 20th century philosopher Sydney Shoemaker when he imagined a fictional scenario where a surgeon operated on the brains of two men, Brown and Robinson. At the end of the operation, his assistant replaced the brains in the wrong bodies. Unfortunately, one of the men dies. 

The survivor, however, now has the body of Robinson and the brain of Brown. He does not recognize himself in the mirror but he thinks of himself as Brown, has Brown’s memories, is still in love with Brown’s wife. And as he slowly recovers from the operation, he slowly but surely starts to act exactly as Brown used to act. 

The immediate question, of course, is: Who is he? Is he Brown, trapped in the body of Robinson? Is he Robinson but just with the wrong brain? Is he some hybrid of the two? Or is the human body simply a tool for expressing inner identity and of no significance for who we are beyond that? The answer to these questions rests upon a prior understanding of what it is that gives us our identities. What is the real “us”: Is it our psychological states, our feelings, our bodies or something else?

In the years since Shoemaker’s thought experiment, the political culture of the United States has tilted strongly toward a psychological construction of human identity. In short, public policy is increasingly driven by the assumption that private psychological states or feelings are the basic foundation for personal identity — for who we think we are. The idea that bodies can contain the wrong mind and that bodies ought to be fashioned to our inner will and feelings is now widespread.

“What is the real ‘us’: Is it our psychological states, our feelings, our bodies or something else?”

The political significance of this might not be obvious at first glance but becomes very clear when we reflect upon how our culture is changing as a result. Take, for example, the idea of freedom as traditionally understood in America. Freedom of religion and freedom of speech are — or were — basic to the American experiment. They are enshrined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, a placement which surely points to the priority they held in the minds of the founders.

These ideas, though, were also rooted in a certain understanding of humans: that they were made in the image of God and that they were deserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet these truths — once thought self-evident — are under increasing scrutiny as new, and even revolutionary, ideas of the human person are sweeping Western culture. 

And the alarming news for many is that, as much as religious conservatives might want to view this current trend as a simple battle of good versus evil or us versus them, Americans from across the ideological spectrum are all deeply implicated in the modern revolution of human selfhood. The way out will demand that we capture an older and more truthful understanding of who we are. 

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This new debate over the “self” has emerged as a central battleground in the ongoing culture war. It’s sometimes called “expressive individualism,” a bit of jargon used by modern philosophers to explain how we think of ourselves these days. “Expressive individualism,” the American sociologist Robert Bellah explains, “holds that each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition” that must be expressed “to be realized.” In other words, our inner space, our thoughts and feelings, our emotions, are what constitute the real “us.” And that to be the true “us” we must give expression to those inner feelings. As we’ll see, this idea carries profound implications. 

Certainly, human beings have always had an inner space. This is obvious. The Psalms contain emotion and introspection. The dramatics of Greek tragedy depend on the agonies of soul. Shakespeare’s masterpiece “Hamlet” is an extended glimpse into the inner mind of a melancholy prince. But the rise of “expressive individualism” is not simply about humans having an inner life. No, “expressive individualism” is concerned with the authority — and the importance — we ascribe to our inner life. Today, the power of our inner life is nearly absolute.  Psychological feelings — more than even biology — often play the decisive role in determining personal identity. 

One of the most important sources in influencing society’s move to prioritizing inner feelings is the 18th century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s most famous saying was “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.” This memorable statement is a neat summary of his philosophy that individuals left alone in a “state of nature” are the most authentic humans. By “state of nature,” Rousseau means “free of social conventions.” In short, Rousseau’s thought is emblematic of the tradition of thinking that sees society — and collective norms — as the source of human ills.

Rousseau articulated this philosophy in numerous works, including his autobiography, “The Confessions,” which focused on his own inner life and demonstrated how the various wicked acts he had committed over the years — from stealing a neighbor’s vegetables to framing a co-worker for another theft he committed — were really the result of the environment in which he was raised. And in “Emile, or On Education,” he wrote what was to become a foundational text in modern child-centered approaches to education: The purpose of education, he argued, was not to press the child into being that which society demanded but to allow the child to develop according to the voice of nature, undamaged by society.

The artists, poets and composers of what is now called the Romantic movement built on Rousseau’s ideas. When William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published their poetry collection, “Lyrical Ballads,” in 1800, they included a preface that explained why their poems largely focused on ordinary, rural characters and scenes: It was because they were unspoiled by social artificiality. Their poetry was not simply entertainment; it was designed to help readers become truly authentic, appealing directly to “natural” emotions.

At the heart of this project is an assumption that humans are best when untainted by their community. 

But what if that assumption is wrong? 

Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud identified the inner space of the human psyche not as the home to universal human empathy but rather as an often dark and potentially destructive space. For Nietzsche, the desire for power and control, and the exhilaration of humanity’s creative and destructive urges, were central to the inner life of humans. With no God, in his view, there was nobody to whom humans were accountable except this potentially dark inner self. As for Freud, the inner voice was more often consumed with — and defined by — extravagant sexual desires. Happiness in this view was found in embracing and giving full expression to such desires.  

After Freud, then, sex was not something we did, but something we were.  

“Even our own bodies are now negotiable in the context of a notion of selfhood in which inner feelings have supreme authority in shaping our sense of purpose and happiness.”

These three ways of thinking — Rousseau, Nietzsche, Freud — have come to influence today’s brand of “expressive individualism.” It’s why we are slightly more individualistic, hedonistic and impatient about external authority. We are self-creating in profound ways, but we are also troublingly self-orienting toward psychological states of our choosing — from curated social media bubbles to ideologically affirming news feeds.  

Modern technology and modern consumerism both make us feel like masters of the universe. Ever more impressive technology allows us to construct identities of our choosing, whether online or in person. Consumerism permits us to pick (and perhaps even design) what we buy and what we wear and, therefore, in a certain sense, who and what we claim to be.  

Ubiquitous pornography encourages us to view others as instruments to our own pleasure. Elective abortion allows us to think of babies in the womb as intruders into our bodies and lives. All of these things, and more, are predicated on the notion that what we feel or desire is fundamentally who we are, and is of the highest importance. 

Thomas Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” clause has slowly, and ironically, become a foundation for social disintegration rather than cohesion. It’s read today as an invitation to do as you please, rather than a uniting mantra aimed at shared ideals and the common good. Even our own bodies are now negotiable in the context of a notion of selfhood in which inner feelings have supreme authority in shaping our sense of purpose and happiness. Does your inner self feel uncomfortable in your body? Then the body should be significantly altered to fit the real you.

Some of these trends might seem innocuous or even benevolent. After all, shouldn’t we foster freedom for people to make meaningful choices, to govern their own lives and to help different people feel a sense of self-determination and self-ownership? These do seem like beneficial goals. But, as conservative writer Rod Dreher has observed in reference to Dante’s “Divine Comedy”: “In Dante, sinners — and we are all sinners — are those who love the wrong things, or who love the right things in the wrong way.” Modern society’s impulse on matters of personhood is, at its best, a well-intentioned effort at inclusivity that becomes strangely tyrannical when not properly harmonized with other worthy concerns.

Indeed, while these trends would suggest that society is tilting in a fully individualistic and libertarian direction, the paradoxical truth is that it is actually driving us toward a new and worrying ideological authoritarianism. The emerging consensus in many influential circles is not that all “identities” are made equal, but that some identities are actually incompatible with a healthy society (i.e., those whose identities may offend another’s identity.) 

In some ways we intuitively get this: The “inner life” and “identity” of, say, a serial killer, is rightly deemed illegitimate, and we attach drastic legal sanctions for any person who gives expression to this inner life. Other identities, however, we privilege and protect in more subtle ways. For example, any action that seems to not affirm someone’s identity — say, by refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding — can become a matter of public concern that merits punishment.

For Jefferson, if something neither picked his pocket nor broke his leg, he did not think it something that the government should take an interest in regulating. But once the self becomes defined not by property or by a physical body but by an inner psychological space, the words and actions that hurt start to become rather more alarming.  

That is why wars over words — pronouns, epithets — now dominate the public square, and why a careless tweet can ruin a career or reading the wrong Dr. Seuss book might get you canceled. And it is why society is becoming more authoritarian in the name of protecting the vulnerable. To protect the pursuit of happiness in a time when each decides what that means, some individuals and groups need to be suppressed so that others may flourish, especially if one group chooses to not privilege another’s chosen inner identity.

This is particularly difficult for religious conservatives. When traditional attitudes toward sexual behavior collide with modern notions of identity, religious conservatives may be labeled as anti-social or harmful to the sexual identity of others. When the belief that bodies are fundamental to who we are, and therefore no one can be “born in the wrong body,” crashes up against the notion of inner identities, those who hold such views are considered bigoted.  

The causes for this are not entirely the election results over the last two decades or the consequences of a few liberal appointments to the Supreme Court. They are much more long-standing and deep-rooted. What we are witnessing today in the new culture wars is the latest stage in that inward, psychological turn of the human self. Only by recognizing this intellectual error can we find a way forward.

The new way forward, however, is in many regards an old way. It’s restoring the common understanding of personhood that once united disparate colonies at the nation’s founding. As Bari Weiss recently wrote in Deseret, this “consensus view relied on a few foundational truths that seemed as obvious as the blue of the sky: the belief that everyone is created in the image of God” and “everyone is equal because of it.” 

This doesn’t mean abandoning our inner life, which is fundamental to who we are, but it means placing it within the balance of the outer life that hopefully reaches toward family, community, country and God. The Jewish and Christian understanding of creation and hope of the resurrection point to this: “We” are created as bodies; and our salvation is the salvation of the whole, body and soul. This identity is divine and calls upon us to be better and rise above our dark desires and ambitions. 

Flowing from an acknowledgment of our bodily identity, we must confront our necessary dependence upon others. As bioethicist Carter Snead has argued, we humans are always characterized by dependence. As babies and children we are utterly dependent upon others. As we grow, we become less dependent to a degree, but then as we reach old age, we become more dependent once again. At no point are we ever the free-standing autonomous creatures of Rousseau’s thought experiment. And it is our bodies that are the source of this dependence, our physical constitutions that connect to others and define the nature of those connections. Acknowledging this reality should transform how we think both of ourselves and of others. 

“We all exist for the sake of one another.”

“Others” do not exist for “our” satisfaction or self-actualization. Rather we all exist for the sake of one another. And that, of course, has implications for sexual morality and behavior.  To those who acknowledge their bodies as who they are, not simply the raw material of self-creation, and who understand the rational, dependent nature of our life, sex can never be simply a means of personal pleasure whereby others are reduced to being mere instruments of our own satisfaction. Nor can it come to occupy a central place in how identity is understood. It is not sexual desire that defines us but the relationships of which sexual activity is a meaningful part.

None of this may make a great bumper sticker, but it has this in its favor: It is the full account of what it means to be human. Expressive individualism is a distortion, because we are not born free but rather interdependent and embodied. This may not be the modern self we want, but it’s this true self that we must ultimately confront to answer the caterpillar’s penetrating question to Alice — the question we all must confront as we look into the mirror.

Carl R. Trueman is a professor of religious studies. He is the author of “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution.

This story appears in the June issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.