the negotiation of a fully-[variable] identity


South African Religious Studies scholar David Chidester defines his subject as the negotiation toward a fully-human identity.

Indeed, we make this negotiation on a daily basis, with whatever it is that is our ultimate concern, borrowing from Tillich. We establish our identity based on the trade-off we make for existential validation. The vegan orders her world in a way that exemplifies the absence of animal products. The politician puts on the million-dollar smile and says whatever he can to win votes and campaign cash. The gamer plays until she levels-up and masters elementals or something. I take my dog for a walk daily, work full-time and, twice a week, end up at an establishment to write for a blog. We all do things to earn a sense of validation. In this respect, we are all Pelagians.

[EDITORIAL ASIDE: Seneca’s sense of fully-canine identity is being walked, laying around with chewies and snuggling at night with whichever puppy parent is most convenient. And chasing squirrels. Such is the life of a canine ascetic. Disciplined.]

What’s interesting, though, is how we, in the age of mass dissemination of media and information, gauge the negotiation of someone we don’t know. On the one hand, with people in our respective spheres of influence, we tend to have greater access to people’s negotiating; on the other, with a celebrity, or a business mogul, minister, musician or whomever, we can be ruthless in our criticism. I can be ruthless in my criticism. Often, it’s unfair, sometimes even cruel. In the process of judging someone’s identity, we have this brutal tendency to sub-humanize. Fundamentally, we end up existentially cannibalizing the subject which, in turn, makes us something less than human. We love to stand in the bully pulpit. I love to stand in the bully pulpit. And that’s probably not a good thing.

This process is seen all over American society: CEOs are power-mongering tyrants who will trample over everyone and everything to make a buck, the other political party–particularly a president or governor, or the political target du jour–epitomizes all that is evil in America. A celebutante orchestrated a wedding in a shameless attempt to make money, the talking head on the news channel is a partisan hack.

Frankly, we don’t give a crap about what gets people to that point, we only want to marginalize. We want to condemn without knowing, arrive at a conclusion without thinking.

In fairness, some people do become caricatures of themselves, and public figures tend to have more laundry out there than we plebes do. Regardless, the invective with which we want to crucify a person is more indicative of our own frailty than the flaws we perceive in someone else. And even if that perception is rooted in reality, what is the point of hurling stones at someone we don’t know? (And there is plenty of room for a difference between a valid criticism of a subject and the typical mortar shells we fire off at our personal scapegoats.) Something about casting the first stone without a thorough self-check first.

A great case study of the problems with criticizing negotiation from afar is Bob Dylan. The folk-nazis crushed him when he plugged in at Newport, and then tried their damnedest to neutralize him after Bringing It All Back Home. The zeitgeist wondered what he was thinking when he started recording country records. The professional music appreciation community/ivory tower absolutely crushed him when he had a [seemingly inescapable] religious experience and started making [really, really quite good] gospel records. Now, he’s a man-myth-legend of American popular culture and, cynically, all sins are forgiven.

He had and has no one to answer to for his craft and output but himself, no recording artist or musician does. We don’t have to buy the records, pay to go to the shows, see the movies or read the books. The market is not democratic in this way, nor should it be. One person’s negotiation is only beholden to the self, or perhaps to those who are chosen to be privy to the negotiation, hence the absolute need for community in meaningful relationships. What one can say is, ‘You know what? I really don’t care for Rob Bell, and here’s why.’ Criticize the output, even the argument, but anything beyond that is ad hominem or poisoning the well.

You know what? Brent Sirvio is an idiot, and his writing sucks! While both of these may or may not be true, that’s for me to discover. You pointing it out only makes you look like a douchebag. But thanks for reading! ; )

The same works conversely, too: we can be overly fanboyish in our adulation of a subject. The great example of this was with the passing of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. One would think he was part-Jesus, part-Lincoln and part-Gandhi with the network news coverage and social media feeds blowing up with pro bono public mourners. Consider what would have happened if one of the Koch brothers bit the big one. Few, if anyone, out there had the access to Jobs’ life to truly mourn him. If we are supposed to feel bad because the boss of a company from which we bought a [disposable] item died, then we are more fascist in our orientation than anyone of us would particularly care to admit. And selfish.

Perhaps in the process of focusing on our own respective negotiations, and investing into those with whom we welcome sharing our lives, we can begin to turn the tide toward being more thoughtful and respectful people, bringing life and justice to those around us. After all, is there anything more noble or virtuous about humanity than being a gracious and generous person? Is that not full humanity, to be a subject without a clause?

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