Social Justice Warriors, Misrecognition and Homogeneity

Over the past few years there has been a lot of chatter, on the internet and social media in particular, about the rise of so-called SJWs or Social Justice Warriors and Political Correctness within particular intellectual and social communities. SJWs are decried by many people for being illiberal and opposed to freedom of expression, while many others see them as people working towards a better society. However, it seems to me that the phenomenon of the so-called SJW is neither merely something that is illiberal, nor something that is simply working towards a better society. Rather, instead the SJW responds to a real problem in our shared world, but offers a solution that lacks humility and for this reason prevents the fullest development of individuals and communities.

While many would think it would be good to be a Social Justice Warrior, the term is used as a derogatory term to refer to people concerned with the marginalization of vulnerable social minorities who display particular attitudes and make use of particular tactics. In particular, SJWs are concerned with the presentation and visibility of social minorities in popular media and positions of authority, cultural appropriation, safe spaces, trigger warnings and microagressions. In this, sense the SJW differs quite a bit from the traditional activist/critic of capitalist liberal democracy. Rather than being focused on issues of social class inequality and the exploitation of workers by capital, their focus tends to be on identity groups, whether, racial, sexual, cultural or otherwise, and the way in which society disadvantages them through misrecognition of their particular identities. The contemporary SJW as a social agent tends to be more outraged by “white-washing” in cinema and TV than global inequality of wealth. For them, respect for the unique identity of each person is the basis of justice, rather than some notion of equality of opportunity, equality of resources or impartial fairness.

It should be noted that when I use the term SJW for the remainder of this piece I do not mean anyone who supports identity politics, but the specific phenomena described above.

This notion of justice as respect for identity seems to require not only respect for a person as an abstract human subject deserving of the same rights and liberties as others, but esteem for their particular identity. This is why while the political right is often vocal in its critique of SJWs, many on the liberal left, like myself are ill at ease with them, as they not only demand that we respect the right of each to be respected as a free and equal human being and citizen, but to be valued by others in their particular identity whether they are a pious Christian or trans man of colour. The difference between being respected, as a human being and citizen, and this more particularized form of respect can be understood if we look at the difference between tolerance and recognition.

The old ideal of tolerance merely demands that we respect each other as free and equal, even if we find another’s beliefs, way of life or sexuality contemptible. I may find the twisted way in which people pursue career ambition contemptible, but in so far as they are not breaking any laws or acting unjustly I need to tolerate them as free and equal members of society, and cannot use the force of the state to prevent them from living as they please. The old adage of live and let live is an adage of tolerance.

Recognition on the other hand demands more. To recognize someone is to re-cognize someone. That is to see them in a certain way. Consequently, to re-cognize a gay person is not simply to tolerate their sexuality even if you find it disordered, but to respect their particularity as a gay person. This implies some sense in which we see their sexuality as a valuable form of individual expression, rather than something that someone might respect them in spite of.

Once we bring in this more particularistic form of recognition there becomes a possibility for misrecognition. Misrecognition occurs when an individual is bombarded with demeaning or degrading images of a part of their own identity. For example, in a culture where homosexuality is legal, but in which the public images of homosexuality are of degrading stereotypes, homosexual people will internalize these images. This internalization in turn damages their self-respect and self-esteem as Charles Taylor points out in his landmark essay “The Politics of Recognition.” The popular sentiments around an aspect of identity then can be damaging to the ability of individuals whose identity is viewed as less than, shameful or barbaric. In this sense, the danger to the full development of individuals is not merely present in overt legal discrimination, but also in much looser elements of culture and mores. I call the phenomena in which a particular identity is broadly demeaned misrecognition because the culture broadly sees a group in a light that is either overtly negative or out of line with how this group sees themselves.

Now, many people are convinced by this account of the damage of misrecognition, but there are also those who are unconvinced by it. We have all heard that people today are too sensitive today, and need to toughen up so that they are not damaged by non-physical affronts to their dignity. We might see this type of view as the adult version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” A defender of this position could say that part of the full development of person’s character involves learning to value yourself rather than being dependent on the impression that the world at large or particular others have of aspects of your identity that you deem central to who you are.

This is a valid point in that it is surely indicative of a more developed person that they are not entirely dependent for their self-esteem on being valued by others. But this misses the point that an individual’s self-esteem has at its starting point the broader values and norms in which the individual is immersed, so an individual’s self-esteem cannot be independent of their social context. Our image of what is admirable and contemptuous begins with the broad mores of the society we develop in and it is only from this starting point that we can reflect on these mores, and work out the contradictions or tensions within them to develop our own understanding of what is worthwhile. In this sense to imagine a being with no dependency for its self-worth on social norms is to imagine an omnipotent god, rather than a human being, as an omnipotent god is self-sufficient and has no society. So the risk of misrecognition cannot be simply be dismissed by telling people to toughen up and have a thicker skin.

An example of the way in which misrecognition constitutes itself can be seen if we consider an example where I am a person of aboriginal ancestry and I grow up within a society in which the standard image of an aboriginal person is a negative one in which the aboriginal is a drunk and a mooch. As a result of these images and mores my perception of what is means to be an aboriginal will carry with it the idea that my aboriginalness is merely a burden and something I need to overcome, rather than something that could be a mark of pride. Frantz Fanon made this point quite rightly when he pointed out how colonized groups internalize the norms of their colonizers and begin to see traits associated with their group as lesser, and traits associated with the colonizer as positive and admirable. This damages the self-esteem of members of colonized groups in that a core aspect of their identity becomes a source of shame. This is a clear example of the phenomena of misrecognition that was discussed earlier, and we can see how this would threaten the full development of persons. Seeing a core aspect of your identity as a source of shame is paralyzing and makes projects of self development seem even more difficult and less worth doing. If I am just a worthless X than why should I try to develop myself, as I will always just be a worthless X.

The challenge is that law is not the most effective or appropriate mechanism to deal with the threat of misrecognition. Certainly, overt forms of discrimination against particular identity groups contribute to misrecognition of these groups, but even if discrimination on the basis of a particular identity is made illegal, there is still a possibility that misrecognition of particular groups will constitute itself. This is evidently the case as misrecognition does not simply constitute itself via individual acts of discrimination, but wider norms and values that are constituted by the rhetoric, arts and images of the society. In Canada, for example, First Nations do have legal equality, but the rhetoric, norms and artistic representations that relate to First Nations typically paint them in a demeaning light. Being First Nations in Canada carries with it the certainty of being broadly seen in a particular way which will inevitably put at risk your capacity for individual development. But to try to use the force of law to prevent the rhetoric and artistic representations around this group from reinforcing misrecognition seems somewhat authoritarian, as this would involve the government dictating what people’s views need to be. While Canadian law allows for government acts to outlaw hate speech and other forms of speech that put others at risk of violence, it cannot simply dictate the values and artistic images presented because of the rights of freedom of expression that each Canadian possess. An example of a form of speech that may reinforce misrecognition, but at the same time does not put groups at risk of disproportionate rates of violence would be a citizen writing an editorial about the fact that the way of life of a particular First Nations group was less civilized and less fully developed than an industrial or post-industrial one. This obviously implies that a specific First Nations’ culture may be less than modern occidental culture and so reinforces the view of the aboriginal as less than the colonizing European, but it would be quite a stretch to say this is an infringement on the dignity or rights of First Nations’ peoples.

The reason I say this is a stretch is that every society and person possesses a sense of what is more admirable and valuable and less admirable or valuable; this sense is basic to the way that the individual or society experiences reality. When I see someone so wrapped up in career ambition that they do not make time for their family or friends I do not experience them first as a person who puts a lot of value on their career, and then separately judge them as being shallow or ignorant in some respect. My experience of them as a person who will sacrifice their family or friends for career prospects is itself deeply normative, and reflects my authentic view of how people ought to live.

As a result of the proceeding as long as individuals and societies disagree about what is most admirable, there is a risk that groups will experience misrecognition. To explain, misrecognition constitutes itself through demeaning, or negative images, and other representations of particular groups. Furthermore, these images and representations develop as a result of the association of particular traits or values with a particular minority group; for example the idea that women are emotional, or gay men are effeminate. For example, if I happen to live in a society where religious faith is viewed as a symptom of disorder of the mind and I am a faithful Christian I am at risk of being misrecognized as my identity as a faithful believer will likely be broadly seen as a lower form of human development than more avowedly non-religious or secular identities because of the negative view the society holds about faith. Consequently, all that is required for minorities to be at risk of misrecognition is that society at large has a negative view about some value or belief that a minority group holds, and the society associates with a particular group. As a result as long as there is genuine diversity about the proper way to live is, there will be a risk of misrecognition. As a result, only a society that is utterly homogeneous with regard to the question of how it is best to live will be free from the risk of misrecognition be possible. And while misrecognition is certainly an evil, it is quite simply absurd to try to wish for this diversity to be eliminated as much of the richness of life emerges from the fact that we live among people whose understanding of what is most valuable is very different from ours.

Now that we have elaborated the concept of misrecognition itself, and the conditions of possibility of its existence and elimination, we can return to the our initial discussion of SJWs. SJWs in their desire for a more just, egalitarian society take action to eliminate or cast shame on worldviews they view as toxic because of the way in which these views put marginalized groups at risk of misrecognition. For example, trying to eliminate the view of men as unable to constrain their sexual desire, and women as mere agency-less objects of desire for the male gaze. In this sense, the SJW is responding to a genuine evil and should not be criticized for being critical of a particular worldview.

However, the problem occurs with the tendency among the SJW community to fail to engage with those who disagree with them. SJWs have formed concepts like safe spaces, and trigger warnings to explain their opposition to the expression of particular kind of views or topics in particular contexts. While these concepts differ, they, and the phenomena of the SJW share the common feature that they do not want particular worldviews to be discussed or engaged with. In this sense, the perspective of the SJW is a reified ideology that is used to bludgeon their opponents into silence, rather than as a critical perspective on what they see as a dangerous, problematic perspective. The view that monogamy may be more worthwhile than polyamory for the SJW is not a belief about the best way to live, but just a tactic to shame those who are not meant for monogamy that needs to be eliminated. We do not need to engage with this perspective; it is clearly just a form of oppression of the marginalized.

But, what is wrong with this bludgeoning? SJWs generally do not encourage the use of state power to enforce a particular culture, but rely on legal acts of expression within the public sphere. Isn’t this the same kind of action that any activist would take to get their point across?

It is true that SJWs merely act in the way that other activists do by using legal acts of free expression to support their goals. However, the problem with that, and forms of activism that follow the same model is that they display a lack of humility, which does not allow us to fully develop ourselves as individuals and a community. The lack of humility exists in that they are so confident that they have something figured out that they refuse to engage the other side, as it is impossible that someone who disagrees with them on this issue, could have any insight that they have missed.

Furthermore, this lack of humility harms the political community as we are strongest when we are willing and open to learn from others. When we are willing to fully engage with those we disagree with and hear them out, the community as a whole and the individuals who make it up are able to develop themselves by integrating the insights of others they are engaging with into their own lives.

Relatedly, when people actually engage with the other side rather than trying to bludgeon it into submission, it provides more of a genuine opportunity to change the minds of those you disagree with. If we disagree and I try to prevent your perspective from being given a hearing because it is linked to risks of misrecognition to vulnerable groups, all I am doing is preventing that other from speaking up. I do not attempt to change their mind or heart, and have done little to change the mind of those who contribute to the risk of misrecognition in this particular case. But if we engage with this other than we fully open ourselves to be changed by insights that the other has and we give ourselves fully to trying to convince the others of what we see as wrong with their perspective. This is superior as it opens us to improving our own perspective, and improving the perspective of the other.

As a result, SJWs represent an attempt to respond to the real social problem of misrecognition that is present in any society where the members disagree about how best to live. This attempt while noble in orientation is not the appropriate response to the presence of perspectives, values and images that threaten some with the risk of misrecognition. Instead, we must make the attempt to change the minds of the other and in turn open ourselves up to hearing what the other side has to say.

On our treatment of the apparently homeless

If you walk down the urban core of most cities you are bound to encounter someone who appears as homeless. Furthermore, when we talk about the plight of these people there are few people who can be found who do not see the situation of the apparently homeless as a problem that needs to be addressed. Now, while there are many competing social policies that can combat homelessness I will not discuss them here. What I would like to discuss is the way in which our ordinary relations to those who appear as homeless show that while we might feel that they are in a terrible situation and that society needs to help them improve their lot, when given an opportunity we rarely engage with them as human beings or fellow members of a community who have dignity. Through this disrespect for those who appear as homeless we are complicit in worsening their situation as we participate in a practise that tends to make the apparently homeless less capable of living a fully human life.

Also, it should be noted that this entry will only deal with those who appear as homeless. For example, those who look ragged and are dressed in ill-fitting dirty clothes with unkempt hair and dirt all over their faces and hands. There are many homeless people whose homelessness is invisible as they dress and appear just like anyone else, and their situation is certainly worth investigation, but my object here is to focus on those who appear to us as clearly homeless.

Anybody who has lived or worked in the downtown core of a large city has likely had the experience of an apparently homeless person coming up to us or a person we are near and asking for change or some other form of assistance. This person stands out from the rest of their crowd with their dirty, unkempt appearance and often people ignore and do not respond at all to the question raised by the apparently homeless person. Similarly, if someone spots an apparently homeless person they often will either go out of their way to avoid them or say “No” to them before the homeless person has had a chance to speak thereby preventing themselves from being asked a question. Likewise, even when an apparently homeless person is merely interested in chatting with someone on the street many of us are afraid to engage with them, and either ignore them or try to talk to them in the most minimal way possible to get away from them as soon as possible. I say all of these things not in a finger waving way, but because I, and many other seemingly compassionate people that I know, are guilty of this kind of action at one time or another in our lives.

But this raises the question of why seemingly compassionate people react this way when confronted by the apparently homeless? It seems to me that the core of this issue is that we have become deeply ingrained to fundamentally see the apparently homeless as predominantly an unpredictable, and possibly threatening force, rather than as vulnerable human beings looking for assistance. Consequently, when the apparently homeless appear before us our most basic reaction is to avoid engagement with them. After we react in this way to the apparently homeless or during our brief interaction we may have a thought in the back of our minds that this person is just a human like me and is just unfortunate enough to fell into a difficult situation, but our more visceral reaction is to perceive them kind of like a wild, possibly dangerous animal that we do not want to hurt, but we also do not want to engage with. More than once late at night an apparently homeless person has come up to me, and my first reaction is often to avoid interacting with them at all or for any extended period of time. After the fact I feel guilty about not engaging with the person and treating them like I would treat any other person, but treating them as human beings who should be engaged with respectfully when they ask a question is something that I need to work with myself to do against my more fundamental response of fear. What, in fact, has led to this mode of reacting to the apparently homeless is an interesting question, but not one that I have the time to discuss in this entry.

When we interact with the apparently homeless by ignoring their presence or trying to flee from them as quickly as possible because of our fear we are complicit in worsening their situation. The apparently homeless often are in fact homeless and suffer in that they lack shelter and consequently their health and physical prosperity is always at risk. But on top of this the apparently homeless also are faced with being devalued and misrecognized in the social world they inhabit. It is not just that as an apparently homeless person I cannot find shelter from the elements, it is that whenever I try to interact with a person I tend to be either ignored when I merely ask another a question or dismissed as a parasite just trying to get money for myself for drugs, alcohol or some other apparent vice. In being seen in this way the apparently homeless suffer much in the way that persecuted ethnic and other minorities do, in that the gaze of the other, presents a demeaning image of themselves before their eyes, and when this occurs it tends to negates their ability to live a fully human life. This occurs as those who are seen fundamentally in society as lesser will tend to interiorize this image of themselves and as a result become less able to pursue what they see as fundamentally valuable. In this sense one condition of possibility of pursuing what is worthwhile is being seen as having dignity by others and so when we participate in the practise of treating the apparently homeless with fear and disrespect, we are not merely making an innocent choice about how to respond to them, we are complicit in depriving them of the ability to live a fully human life.

Inclusion and Public Dialogue: Moving Beyond the Choice Between Tolerance and Identity Politics

A lot of ink has been spilled over the last 50 years concerning the question of how to deal with the problem of how a deeply diverse society can be made fully inclusive for all members of the society. There are two primary approaches to this problem and both of them are implausible because of the deep shortcomings that they possess. The first approach is the tolerance approach and it argues that in order to ensure inclusion within a diverse society we should respect the rights of individuals to pursue diverse practises as long as these practises do not violate the rights of others. The second approach is the identity politics approach which argues that we need to positively value the unique identities of all people in order to ensure society is fully inclusive. To show the shortcomings of each of these approaches I will look at how this approach deals with the question of how we ought to treat others within the context of public dialogue to ensure that society is inclusive. By public dialogue I mean the diverse set of dialogues that occur concerning how we ought to live together. Furthermore, I will sketch out an alternative that, at least at the level of public dialogue, overcomes the shortcomings of both the tolerance approach and the identity politics approach.

Within the context of public dialogue the tolerance approach merely suggests that we ought not violate the rights of others and allow them to espouse their opinions. In and of itself it does not require us to listen to others and try to learn from them in order to facilitate inclusion. It is a merely negative ethic in that it prohibits us from violating the rights of others, or inciting people to violate the rights of others. The problem with this is that members of groups can still be deeply marginalized if no one listens to them within public dialogue, even if their rights are not violated. So, this approach fails to ensure a robust enough form of inclusion to address the problem of inclusion within a deeply diverse society.

Contrastingly, the identity politics approach suggests that in the context of public dialogue we should recognize the value of all diverse perspectives and intently listen to all perspectives as they all provide a distinct value to the public dialogue of a political community. Surely, this would ensure a great degree of inclusion by ensuring that within the context of public dialogue there is real engagement with all perspectives, but the problem with it is that within the context of deeply diverse society it can only ensure this degree of inclusion at the expense of disrespecting people by asking them to say things that they do not necessarily believe. For example, if I believe that Christianity holds more wisdom than other religions and perspectives, it is disrespectful to me to suggest that I ought to affirm the value of other religions and perspectives, as I may not actually value these other religions or perspectives. Consequently, the attitude that the identity politics approach asks people to take within public dialogue may seem effective at ensuring inclusion, but the identity politics approach is disrespectful because it attitude may require me to espouse beliefs that I reject, and thus this approach seems deeply problematic.

Some defenders of identity politics suggest that it is bigoted or prejudiced to think that the perspective of one culture or religion is superior to another and consequently there should be no place in public dialogue for perspectives that adopt such an attitude, but this seems to me to conflate disrespecting a person’s perspective and disrespecting the person. I disrespect a person’s perspective if I say their perspective is inferior to mine, but I disrespect the person if I say they should adopt my values because I think my values are superior. It is absurd that we should avoid disrespecting people’s perspectives, because some perspectives merit disrespect (ie perspectives in favour of footbinding or honor killing) and disrespecting beliefs does not constitute disrespect for persons. Thus, there does seem to be a place in public dialogue for perspectives that say that one perspective is superior to another.

The key to inclusion is not to artificially try to affirm the value of all perspectives, but to develop a citizenry that is reflective enough to recognize that they may not have all of the answers to all questions and can learn from the wisdom of others. Such a reflective citizenry would facilitate inclusion through public dialogue because they would see others as possible sources of insight and consequently listen to them. This would facilitate inclusion as it would ensure that the voices of all members of society were heard and engaged with. Furthermore, it would not require anyone to say or do anything that violates their integrity or any reasonable belief that they hold. Consequently, we should endorse this approach over the tolerance approach and the identity politics approach on the question of how to make society inclusive at the level of public dialogue. Of course the development of such a reflective citizenry is not something that is easy to achieve nor something that we should hope to achieve anytime soon, but by better understanding the kind of citizenry and culture required for full inclusion, we are better equipped to begin making steps towards this goal, and understanding the shortcomings of our current state.

Extrinsic Motivation: Recognition and Monetary Value

I want to consider to what degree rewarding people with money or honours for doing some admirable act is problematic. Rewarding someone with money or honours is a form of extrinsic motivation. To be clear, acting from an extrinsic motivation means being motivated to perform an action by virtue of gaining some reward or avoiding some punishment external to the action performed. This can be contrasted with intrinsic motivation in which one is motivated to perform the act by the nature of the act itself, rather than some reward or punishment.

One reason why extrinsic motivations are problematic has been made clear by Michael Sandel, among others. This stream of criticism argues that when extrinsic motivation takes on a monetary form it will tend to crowd out intrinsic motivations. Consequently, if we pay children to read, the intrinsic motivations to read will be crowded out by the extrinsic motivation for money, such that children will only read if they are paid. Thus the way that extrinsic motivation crowds out intrinsic motivation is problematic as the effect of this “crowding out” is that people seems to be blind to the intrinsic value of an activity and reduce it to a means of making money.

If this criticism applies to monetary extrinsic motivations, there is no reason why it would not apply to non-monetary extrinsic motivations. For example, if we decided to give children awards and social prestige for reading, this too would tend to crowd out intrinsic motivation as children begin to only read if they receive recognition and prestige for doing so. Thus, if we are troubled by the negative effects of monetary extrinsic motivations, we also have reason to be troubled by the use of non-monetary extrinsic motivations.

The preceding raises many questions about a variety of social practises, but one that I would like to highlight is the use of grades. Grades are both a measure to see how well someone has understood the material for a course, and an extrinsic motivator. Many people take great pride in getting good grades, and strive to get their A, because of the positive recognition that getting the A confers. As a result the formal practise of grading may tend to crowd out the intrinsic motivation to learn for its own sake, as people only learn when they get the positive reinforcement and recognition that is associated with getting a grade. If this is the case then the practises of most educational institutions are pushing aside the intrinsic motivation to learn for its own sake.

However, the non-monetary extrinsic motivation that grades present is less problematic than a form of monetary extrinsic motivation as monetary extrinsic motivations have no connection to the meaning of education, whereas grades have a substantial connection to the meaning of education. Getting an “A” in a course can signify one, some or all of the following: diligence, intelligence, being knowledgeable, attentiveness and industriousness. All of these values are related to education. We educate ourselves to become more intelligent and knowledgeable, and we must recognize that being truly committed to educating ourselves requires that we are diligent, attentive and industrious, as there is always more we can learn. Therefore, those who are motivated by the extrinsic motivation of grades want to be seen as being intelligent, knowledgeable, industrious, attentive and diligent. Now while their desire is still only to be seen as intelligent, knowledgeable etc. The fact that they want to be seen as intelligent, knowledgeable shows that they esteem these values, and if they esteem these values they are more likely to esteem the value of education on its own account, because if someone esteems the value of being knowledgeable they are likely to see the quest for knowledge as something that is valuable on its own account. Thus, while this extrinsic motivation may crowd out intrinsic motivation it can also reinforce intrinsic motivation because the meaning of the extrinsic motivation is related to the intrinsic value of education. Consequently, we can see someone quite effortlessly going from being motivated to be seen as intelligent, knowledgeable and diligent, to being motivated to possess these qualities as they are a constitutive element of what it means to be an educated person.

On the other hand, a person who was motivated to do well in school in order to get money does not necessarily esteem any value that is associated or connected with education. Consequently, in this particular case, while grades and monetary rewards can both crowd out intrinsic motivations, money is a much more problematic extrinsic motivation as it has a much stronger tendency to crowd out intrinsic motivation as there is no connection between having lots of money and valuing education. The two are certainly not mutually exclusive, but valuing one will not tend to ensure that one values the other.

The preceding tells us that non-monetary extrinsic motivation can help support, and will not necessarily, crowd out intrinsic motivation. However, this is only so when the meaning of the non-monetary extrinsic motivation is connected with the meaning of the goods intrinsic to the practise. If we gave someone a non-monetary award for doing well in a skiing competition and this award suggested that they were generous and kind, this would certainly crowd out intrinsic motivation as the award has no connection to the particular excellences of skiing. But, if the award signified that they were a fair competitor and that their landings were very clean this could tend to reinforce intrinsic motivations associated with skiing. Thus, if a non-monetary extrinsic motivation has a meaning that is connected with the excellences intrinsic to a particular practise it will not necessarily crowd out the intrinsic motivations of that practises. Contrastingly, if a non-monetary extrinsic motivation has no relation to the meaning of the practise then it will crowd out intrinsic motivation.

In light of the fact that post-industrial liberal democracies rely on monetary and non-monetary extrinsic motivation we must necessarily be careful to ensure that these do not crowd out intrinsic motivation. Furthermore, if we have to use extrinsic motivation we should rely more heavily on non-monetary extrinsic motivations that relate to the meaning of the practise for which they are a reward or punishment, and avoid spreading monetary extrinsic motivation into all spheres, or relying on non-monetary extrinsic motivations that do not connect with the meaning of the practise for which they are a reward or punishment. If intrinsic motivation is crowded out our practises become less enlivening and rich and as a consequence our own excellences will be degraded.

Uniqueness and the Desire to Distinguish Oneself

The desire to distinguish oneself by being unique is highly regarded in the popular culture of post-industrial liberal democratic societies.  It is repeatedly said that all people are unique and that they should be able to express their uniqueness. Consequently, this desire drives us to adopt our own unique personal lifestyle and tastes. Furthermore while this desire has taken on a particular form in post-industrial liberal democracies, it seems to be tied to the general human desire to distinguish oneself, whether it be through excellence or uniqueness. In this entry I will claim that the desire to distinguish oneself by being unique is at once something that moves us to live a more fully developed life, and at the same time is something that can drive us to lead a superficial, impoverished life.

This desire to distinguish oneself through uniqueness is at once a desire that is deeply problematic and something that pushes us to lead more fully developed lives. This desire allows us to live more fully developed lives because it drives us to engage in a richer set of practises, than the conformist engages in. The person who is driven to distinguish themselves by being unique will engage in many valuable practises that the conformist will not. This can help us to lead more fully developed lives because as someone engages in a wider set of practises they will develop greater self-knowledge than someone who merely conforms. This greater self-knowledge is intrinsically valuable, but it also equips someone to live a richer life as they begin to realize what is fundamentally important in the development of their life.

However, it should be noted that the desire to distinguish oneself by being unique can become problematic when someone lives their life as if the point of their life is merely to be unique.  The desire to distinguish oneself by being unique is a valid desire, because the desire can often lead people to lead a fully developed life, as I explained above.  But when someone begins to live life as though the point of life is to lead a unique life they are leading a deeply impoverished life. In such a case they are not focusing on living a life that embodies their reflective perception of the good life, they are focusing on being unique for its own sake. This is why everyone dislikes “hipsters.” “Hipsters” desire to distinguish themselves by being unique, but rather than putting value on leading a life that embodies their reflection of what the good life is, they try to lead a life that is unique even if it is impoverished.  The elitism of the hipster is superficial, because they think they are better than others as their tastes are unique, which is a pretty terrible reason to think that one is better than others.

The preceding commentary reveals the  way in which our desires to distinguish ourselves is at once something that can drive us towards the highest goods, but also something that can direct us to lead a life of petty elitism. Thus, we should not merely eschew the desire to distinguish ourselves, as it truly can help us to lead richer lives, but we must be mindful of the negative possibilities of this desire. Treading this middle path is full of hazards, but it is surely our best choice, as we often learn about the good through our desire to distinguish ourselves.

Love and Recognition

Steven Kruppe and Jasmine Walker were a couple deeply in love with one another.  They were similar in all relevant ways, yet their energies and personalities complemented each other to create a perfect whole. The most peculiar, yet admirable trait, that they held in common was that each did not care what any other thought of them. Neither person was bothered by negative reputation, nor did they feel shame if they did something that “society” deemed inappropriate. Jasmine was known to fart loudly in elevators rather than hold it in, as she was unconcerned with what others thought of her, and Steven would reveal any detail of his personal life at the drop of a hat if he felt so inclined. He once shared the details of his genital warts with a cashier that was ringing up his groceries. The cashier felt deeply uncomfortable, but in Steven’s mind he was just trying to warn the youngster about the dangers of unprotected sex.

Further, the fact that Jasmine and Steven did not care about what others thought of them was not confined to strangers; rather Steven and Jasmine had agreed that within their relationship, they should not do things that they did not enjoy just to please the other. Consequently, Steven would wash the dishes, not because Jasmine would appreciate such an act, but because washing the dishes was an activity that was truly fulfilling to Steven. The same principle applied to all of Jasmine’s activities; Jasmine cleaned the toilets twice a week, not because Steven was obsessed with cleanliness and she wanted to please him, but because her authentic calling in this area of her relationship was to clean toilets. In fact she only felt whole if she cleaned toilets.

One day Steven received a diagnosis that he had terminal cancer, and that he had only a couple of months to live. Unexpectedly this diagnosis was shocking and upsetting for Steven. At first Steven just thought about all the things that he would not be able to do in his life, but then he began to have a new concern, and a concern that he had not experienced in a long time; he began to worry about how he would be remembered by Jasmine. He now had an intense desire for Jasmine to remember him as a loving, honest, courageous man who deeply cared for her.

When Steven told Jasmine the news she was devastated. After finding her soul mate she was now bound to lose him; “how could she find somebody like Steven again?” However, she was perplexed by certain changes that began to occur in Steven’s behaviour. Steven began to do things that he did not enjoy doing, that Jasmine appreciated having done. At first she saw this as a betrayal of her and Steven’s philosophy. She thought to herself that “this diagnosis must be driving Steven insane as he has betrayed the very element of his lifestyle that formed a bond between us.” But over time she began to see that Steven’s “insane” acts were enhancing their bond, and she began doing things that she did not enjoy to in order to please Steven.