Sandlund: “I’m Ron Burgundy?”

Are our identities truly our own choice— and are our leaders different?

by William Sandlund | 1/5/17 11:05am

Of all the leaks of former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s personal emails, one that attracted the least attention in the end was her description of having both a private and public stance on Wall Street. Clinton was articulating something deeper here: the idea of politicians having differing — perhaps untruthful — personas in public. In itself, this is not a bad thing. As long as public promises are kept, or there is at least an attempt to keep them, I see no reason to care about a politician’s personal beliefs. That said, this notion of a divided identity can only work when it is not public. And keeping it secret is increasingly improbable in a time of hacks and leaks — those grown-up offspring of yesteryear’s tabloid journalism. Today, politicians’ private lives are fair game for the public eye — but so are everyone else’s.

The world we live in is one where public and private personas have been collapsed by the growth of technology. Modern technology allows for a pre-articulated presentation of us, a sort of edited text of our instinctive reaction to the outside world, to take centre stage in how peers see us. The cult of personality that existed in the 20th century was clumsy in comparison to this subtle beast, groomed by the advent and encroachment of reality television, that perfect conflation of private and public life unfolding before our eyes. Through social media, we create our own reality television for peers giggling at parties stuffed with other gigglers, all fixated on separate stories unfolding behind separate screens.

Technology is the primary force responsible for changing how we understand ourselves. There is usually a lag in the emergence of a technology and its impact on subjective experience. To appreciate how our understanding of ourselves has changed over time we must consider the development of language. Language itself is a technology, as is the ability to disseminate it through the printing press. In Europe it was Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press of 1440 that preluded one of the earliest momentous shifts in subjective experience. It took Martin Luther another 77 years before he articulated a new conception of subjective experience. His Ninety-five Theses were the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation, a rejection of Catholicism’s monolithic, monarchical understanding of church doctrine. Protestants favored vernacular translations of a Bible previously only available in Latin, as well as promotion of a personalized interpretation of its text.

A similar intellectual trend took place in China during the advent of neo-Confucianism around the turn of the second millennium as a response to Daoism and Buddhism. Buddhism in particular had a sophisticated theory of mind that questioned the nature of reality and human subjectivity in a way that Confucian doctrine had not yet considered. Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming were the main articulators of a neo-Confucian philosophy that promoted an exploration of self. It is no coincidence that this intellectual trend inwards started during the Song dynasty, when moveable type printing presses made access to Confucian teaching more widespread. Seemingly, as we become more connected, we become more inward looking. Is this to balance our inherent social limitations? After all, humans can only have so many meaningful relationships — our brains are not adapted to the technologies we have created.

The trend inwards spiraled downwards in the 19th century, with Friedrich Nietzsche questioning the utility of language based on eradicating differences among concepts, and describing what was arguably a veiled nihilistic appraisal of a human world rendered thus by the construction of language. He was turning inwards on the inward-turning movements in philosophy, going down the rabbit hole of subjective experience and coming up seemingly empty handed. He had inherited the scientific use of reason and the notion of self-exploration. He went insane. Was the modern dissonance between objectivity and subjectivity too much, or was it simply a case of an intellectual Sisyphus with syphilis?

In America, the 20th century solution to this intellectual malaise was to embrace objectivity as a way of understanding the world. We developed the nuclear bomb, spaceships, the internet. Technology swept forward, and our nation became wealthy. Our religion of science was a faith grounded not just in objectivity, but in the outward surface of things. We gobbled up images of Marilyn Monroe and were disgusted by Communist leaders’ crude attempts to politicize what we Americans had made. Andy Warhol was onto something when he manufactured prints of Monroe as well as Mao. These public personae existed because of faith. Just as we used to believe in God, so in the 20th century we believed in science, in leaders, in the technology that exposed us to those leaders.

But then the internet changed everything. We started to go down the rabbit hole once more. The idea that we are all trapped inside our own echo chambers is once again the perceptive thing to expostulate. Of course it’s true, but it never ceased being true. What’s different now is that as we have a new form of communication, of fame and politics, that intentionally blurs the line between what is real and what is a performance in a way that was previously reserved for postmodern art, something that makes accountability increasingly elusive. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy is based on such uncertainty — as are Kanye West’s rants, or President-elect Donald Trump’s endless contradictions. Part of our rage at the ridiculousness of their spewings is the uncertainty over what is sincere, what is deceptive and what is, well, self-aware inanity. Even amidst the accusations of “shiftiness,” Clinton was at least a known entity. The mask is now fused to the face in a grotesque masquerade she was not invited to. And now our existential angst is being manufactured into a strange new political tool for mobilizing media coverage and gaining political exposure.

So when you smile and utter ironically “you do you,” that anthem of the celebration of self so prevalent across college campuses, please ask — what are you really saying? Who are you really “doing”? And where is the answer? Nowhere, probably. But you knew that already. So just try and figure out whether other people have too.