What Are Students Thinking? Part IV: What's Wrong With Expressive Individualism?
My last blog post was “story time.” I articulated some examples of Expressive Individualism in the culture, in the curriculum at school, and in my students’ thinking. You might be wondering “what’s so bad about this ‘Expressive Individualism’? I don’t get what all the fuss is about. Being free to be who you are--that seems healthy and good, a big improvement over the more restrictive and oppressive past.” Well….it turns out that lots is wrong with this dogma of our day. Carl Trueman has written a whole 400 page magnum opus about it. It is a must read if you want to understand our times and parent your kids effectively in the midst of it. At least read Neil Shenvi’s review of the book. While I can’t explain what’s wrong with Expressive Individualism in the depth that Trueman does, I can make a few cursory remarks that should suffice. To paraphrase Shenvi, these ideas that we all--you, me, your kids and my kids--are marinating in are deadly. They have the additional disadvantage of being antithetical to the teachings of Christ.
As I’ve pointed out earlier, our culture’s individualism is not a healthy individualism--the kind of individualism that gives kids strength to resist the madness of crowds. If anything, it leaves them more susceptible to it.
For one, it presents a false view of human nature. We are not designed to derive our meaning from ourselves by looking inward. We cannot, Promethean-like, give meaning to the world by fiat from looking within. The self is a very poor creator of meaning. We are wee little, and don’t have the heft for that sort of thing.
Secondly, it rejects unchosen limits as intolerable, but these sort of limits are part of reality, and recognizing them and learning to live with them is part of what it means to do life well. I have social limits, moral limits, metaphysical limits, bodily limits, and if you really think about it, these limits are good. They keep me grounded. The body is a limit to my autonomy, and the body is good. My maleness has been given to me by God--it is not simply created by me as a social performance--and I am to accept my male body as a gift of a good and holy God and seek to take care of it. Anyone who rejects this outlook courts chaos. As G.K Chesterton said, before tearing down a fence post, pause long enough to figure out why it was put there in the first place. This expressive individualism regards as oppression that should be dismantled.
Third, it regards the past as a repository of oppression that we need liberation from. We moderns, so the thinking goes, in the everlasting now, know better. While our past was not a glorious age to which we should wholesale seek to return to, and while our history has its fair share of blight, it is not all blight. Deep in our tradition, right along with the dark parts, are depositories of shining treasure--an inheritance for us to preserve and pass on to the next generation. Within the past is a tradition worth stewarding well, a baton of the good, the true, and the beautiful that must be handed on, not dismantled. The thinking of our ancestors, while not perfect by any stretch, is, as Chesterton quips “the democracy of the dead.”
Chesterton goes on: “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”
In short, we must find, protect, and imbibe the permanent things. To Expressive Individualism, this is impossible, because nothing is permanent--except, well, power and oppression.
Fourth, those who adopt this way of thinking have an awfully hard time explaining why, exactly, the inner self and it’s feelings are the right place to look for truth, identity, and meaning. Why *should* we be looking within to our feelings first when it comes to identity and meaning? Why is that *good*? Why should each person’s identity be equated with their inner desires? Why is the inner life the trump card, over things like the body, family, tradition, or transcendent sources of meaning? Why does authenticity amount to publicly expressing the inner life? How is it that such an account of authenticity is obviously better than, say, Jesus’ account of authenticity in Matthew 16: 24-26? Most people just take the “inside move” as an axiomatically obvious one, almost self-evident, and have a difficult time justifying the move in any sort of non-question begging way. It is an open question, and we should press it hard.
Lastly, and this is the easiest way to see through the facade of EI, it’s just plain weird. Kids say all the time “be who you are,” or something like that, and I often respond by asking “yea but what if you’re a jerk?” We instantly recognize that there are some identities not worth having, there are some feelings not worth expressing, some loves not worth loving, and you come at that not by examining your inner feelings, but by consulting an external standard, MLK jr’s “law above the law.” (read his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” for more on this) Some of the anecdotes I’ve pointed to here show that EI isn’t conducive to a society focused on the common good. It is incoherent, and leaves us with no solid measuring stick to tell the difference between good and bad desires, besides a cursory head nod to "consent" and maybe vague notions of "harm" (but what harm is is left undefined and is largely subjective and plastic). You can't build a strong moral foundation and meaning upon consent and harm. It is not nearly enough. A society of individuals who are constantly gazing at their navels and pumping their fists in the air for their “rights” doesn’t jibe with the common good. It does not produce strong adults capable of sacrificing for a worthy higher cause; it produces children who can’t think outside themselves.
As Shenvi says, EI is “grounded in a denial of human nature, they are predicated upon an understanding of reality that views God’s commands as evil and oppressive, and they sow seeds of misery, fragility, and discord wherever they go.”