When did you first feel like you?
Go back in time, right now, to your earliest memories. What do you see?
There they are again, those images. Hazy, blurry, but still there. They are lodged forever within you, retrievable at will. You can see a particular room, maybe with your father or mother there with you. Or an outdoor scene. Or traveling somewhere. You can see the colors, recall the textures, maybe even remember a certain smell. You can see yourself there—at least, you can see that scene, even now, through the portal of who you were at that time. You can do more than see. To some extent, you can relive, re-experience it, emotionally, psychologically, as you were then.
The interesting thing is that as you re-experience the past as you were then, you still feel like you. You were young then—maybe only two or three. You lacked experience and knowledge. You were much smaller than you are now. You hadn't even been walking long. You couldn't read or write, and still struggled to speak and understand.
Yet there was, even then, something unique it felt like to be you. And it is still within you. Through all you've experienced since—all the victories and defeats, all the adventures and loves and losses and years and decades—there remains something enduring and fundamental about what it is to be you. That deepest depth of who you are can never be extinguished.
But to say there has always been something, and always will be something, that it is to be you or me isn't to say that our sense of self has never faced obstacles, or weakened, or adapted. We don't exist in vacuums. And we're all born with an ability and instinct to adapt to environment. Without that ability and instinct, we wouldn't last long.
And so, as we grow, our sense of self matures and finishes in response not only to innate biological drivers, but to the world around us. Environment matters. That environment includes the entirety of our social world: family, both nuclear and extended; friend circles; religious congregations; school student body; private clubs and teams; neighborhood, and more. It also includes the broader culture, and every reflection of it: music, news, television shows, films, educational curriculum, national character, and more.
These, and other, overlapping, intermingling domains affect how our selves construct themselves, particularly in our first two decades of life. Once we enter adulthood, our prior adaptations largely fix themselves within us. We are no longer as adaptable as we once were. And our formed selves then affect how we, in turn, shape the world around us for future generations, just as those before did for us.
This interaction between biology and environment also entails the accumulation of important beliefs. As we form them, they sift down within us to help further shape who we are. They come to attach to, and affect, our intuitions, our reasoning style, our awareness, our emotions, our character, and how we mediate our emotions through cognition. As a result, debates about beliefs are usually only that at the surface. Underneath, they're more like clashes between selves. This is why facts alone rarely convince anyone to change important beliefs. It's why people react so defensively to certain facts: you wouldn't just be giving up a belief. You'd be agreeing to jettison part of an integral system of self. To discard an important belief is to discard an important part of yourself. It stings. The typical defensiveness is actually survival instinct—literal self preservation.
Not that we think of our beliefs as subrational pillars of identity. We think they're conclusions we'd be happy to revise upon better information. But we don't work like that. Confirmation bias is only one manifestation of this. There are many more. Part of what it means to be human is to come to embody a suite of beliefs, which then provides fuel for our minds, spirits, bodies. It's a positive feedback loop: beliefs maintain purpose and will; purpose and will maintain beliefs. Without this symbiosis, our selves begin to deteriorate. And then, society begins to deteriorate. Everything does.
Healthy beliefs are the entropy antidote. And they must encode themselves not only in individuals, but within communities. This is the great truth at the heart of all social philosophies, however else they may err. Because human beings are social by nature, no ultimately individualist philosophy will ever find much purchase. Ever wonder why libertarians can't win any elections anywhere on this planet? Or why devotees of Ayn Rand are all insufferable? Outside of a few anomalies here and there—the Unabomber Hermit Demo, we might call them—most people naturally seek society, union, connection, with others. They want to be on a team, and more than that, a team they can be proud of. The instinct is apt. As Aristotle pointed out so long ago, it is only in healthy groups, paradoxically enough, that each of us can fully blossom as individuals. Deep down, most people sense that, if even unconsciously. Our truest self emerges not just from within, but from without, through connection with others.
The conservatives of yesteryear laughed Hillary Clinton to scorn when she published It Takes a Village in 1996. It doesn't take a village to raise a child, they all said. It just takes great parents. Now, in their defense, Clinton used her proverb as a mask for demanding more government intrusion. But that aside, the proverb is on to something.
Certainly raising a child optimally takes great parents. But an extended, safe, supportive, morally-aligned social support system, in the form of a community—a village, or overlapping villages, of one kind or another—at the least certainly helps. The strange thing is, everyone knows this. Even the conservatives who said, "no, they just need good parents" knew this. And we know they knew it because at the very same time they were mocking that old African proverb, they were complaining about how Bill Clinton's sexual predations were "poisoning the culture" and negatively affecting their kids; decrying growing drug abuse; demanding better schools and safer, cleaner communities; steering clear of downtown areas; reminiscing about the good old days when kids could run around the safe neighborhood and play and all the other parents would keep an eye out for them and back each other up.
In short, anyone who genuinely believes it only takes a couple of great parents to optimally raise a child would have no problem moving their family to some inner-city ghetto and enrolling their kids in PS 14,972, where they'll be surrounded by up-and-coming Crips and Bloods. Neither would they have a problem with their child's elementary school teacher reading pornographic story books to the kids, or the ne'er-do-wells next door screaming and fighting every night, or needles and condoms and spasming drug addicts lying all over the sidewalk in front of the house. After all, "as long as our kids have us as their parents, that's all they need".
Uh, no. It doesn't work that way, and no one actually believes it works that way. They show it with their actions. We might as well all admit it.
And not only admit it—we ought to develop a communitarian vision of our own. Or at least, some communitarian vision which could include disaffected leftists. Statist-style collectivism hasn't turned out well. But individualist philosophies have had their own problems. In fact, it might well be that Western overemphasis on individualism has itself provoked the more desperate and dysfunctional forms of seeking out group identity (see Wokism). That wouldn't be a surprising reaction from naturally social, tribal human beings.
So I wonder if, after three plus years of covidiocy dissolving the old political and philosophical boundaries, now's the time. When you have Naomi Wolf, Robert F. Kennedy, Junior, and Tulsi Gabbard agreeing with guys like me, Mark, Tucker, and Steve Bannon, on all sorts of important things, you wonder if a new set of beliefs, a new way of looking at the world, a new worldview, is now not only possible, but necessary.
It would be one in which selves are respected and embraced, even as they work as team members in a noble effort. It would be genetically skeptical of big government, big business, big medicine, big everything. It would strongly support marriage relationships, as well as strong extended family relationships. It would draw from Edmund Burke's insights, as well as from Aristotle, Wendell Berry, American sociologist Robert Nisbet, maybe now-forgotten societal theorists like the German legal theorist Otto Von Gierke and the French historian Hippolyte Taine, and who knows who else. It would, pace classical liberalism, recognize the need for institutional support of religious belief and practice. Tradition; ritual; shared morals; a balance between liberty and order, and individual sovereignty and the common good...it all feels vague right now. But maybe there is something there.
I hope so, because what we have now, as it is, isn't really doing the job. For all those struggling selves out there to flourish the way nature meant them to, maybe we need something new.
Just a thought.
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