I’ve pointed out on several occasions that identity – as in “self-identity” or “personal identity” – is a construct that emerges from social interactions; it is something that is actively made, not something we simply have or is “given” to us. The evidence for this claim is much too dense for me to spend any more time rehearsing it (some representative discussion and citations can be found HERE.) So I will treat the fact of the constructed nature of personal identity here as a, you know, fact. And while the intention to construct an identity might, in some sense, be “built in” to us, the actual construction itself is something we must learn from our interactions with others. Were the construction primarily or exclusively instinctual, then the identity formed would be no more “constructed” than a bird’s nest is “designed;” the bird just gathers sticks and puts them together in the pattern that is instinctive to the bird.
No, our personhoods, our selves, our identities, come to be assembled through our various forms of community based interactions. Obviously our genetic background provides a significant input beyond just our outward appearances. Things as diverse as shyness and psychopathic tendencies, intelligence and aesthetic tastes, all have a significant genetic components. But these things can be cultivated or suppressed, discovered or ignored, rewarded or punished, in unboundedly varied ways. Sociopaths might be born, but not every sociopath becomes Ted Bundy (some become Bernie Madoff or Martin Shkreli.) So how these biological bits and pieces come to be assembled into the persons we are is an open ended, and highly creative process. So what happens when that process is artificially truncated in some form or other?
In a recent Al Jazeera America opinion piece, Jamie Bartlett seeks to explain the recent mass killing in San Bernardino, CA, in terms of the construction of self-identity – and the manufactured radicalization of that identity – through sustained and highly focused virtual communications and interactions. The piece is a gloss of (and, in essence, an advertisement for) the book Bartlett has written on the subject. But this, I would argue, is a perfectly acceptable form of self-promotion: no complex argument can be made in any format shorter than that of a book, and it is an argument worth examining. The even-shorter-form than Bartlett presents in his opinion piece is this: extreme disconnect from genuine human interactions is made possible by faux “social” communities on the internet. Lacking any of the messiness of actual interaction with physical persons, the range of interactions can (and often is) progressively narrowed to an entirely truncated caricature of interaction, such that the formation and construction of the person’s own self is entirely lacking in breadth and depth. The self thus created has no capacity for substantive cognitive evaluation (beyond narrowly utilitarian sorts of puzzle solving), nor any ability to engage in nuanced moral judgments that would otherwise emerge from a diversity of contacts and experiences. The person becomes dogmatic, judgmental, and closed to reasoned argument; in the worst cases, they become fanatic and even murderous.
The internet makes possible the creation of a very tightly defined “bubble” of interactions, from which the self that emerges can no longer realistically be viewed as genuinely whole. Like “foot-binding of the soul,” all that is left is a mutilated caricature that has abandoned the possibility of real growth in the name of a “purpose” that has canalized the identity to something that is external to any vital or organic connection to the world.
The fact is that “social media” are only “social” in the same way that a pet rock is companionship. Real community is busy, and imposing, and impatient, and tolerant, and different – and different from you. The uses of the internet invariably move toward narrow self-selection. In a real community, you have to be patient of others to a significant degree. But the internet allows, and even encourages, a dismissal of difference so as to reinforce modes of personally selected uniformity that will tend to strangle genuine growth of the self. What is then constructed instead is a chimera of bits and pieces, stuck together without particular concern for their intelligibility or coherence as a total form.
There are obvious comparisons with Fascism and authoritarian thinking, with its habits of extreme compartmentalization. Central to these forms of thinking and acting is the fact that their adherents live in a tightly controlled bubble of thought and interaction. But the real issue is not right-wing extremism, even though that is where all my examples are coming from. It is about savage ideology that violently truncates the development of the self by shutting the doors to real interactions with real people in real communities. This can happen at any extreme of the political spectrum.
But this process began well before the internet became an everyday experience defining everyone’s experiences. The “bubble machine” started well before the internet; arguably, the beginning is with cable news. Organizations like Fox “News” began with the express purpose of stove-piping right-wing ideology into its audience. While broadcast news was actually broadcast, it operated under the purview of the FCC, and was required to live up to certain basic standards of factual accuracy and serving the entire community. However, even this story may understate the forces at work. Jacques Ellul made a number of prescient arguments in the the 30 years before Fox “News” began the systematic evisceration of meaningful news reportage.
Cable news, the internet, and other forms of non-personal interaction do not necessarily lead to a catastrophic truncation of the self. But it requires a particular and personal decision to avoid such a result. And the decision must be toward growth, and not merely reinforcement of a single selected trend. Certainly persons who score high on Altemeyer’s RWA scale (see the links above) will be particularly susceptible to the kinds of narrowing and truncation of self that can occur here, since such persons are already strongly inclined toward “us-vs.-them” attitudes and highly focused “in group” sorts of identity politics.
The alternative to this sort of stultifying truncation of the made self is growth. This is an argument that John Dewey advanced with considerable persuasion. Growth, for Dewey, was largely synonymous with education. Furthermore,
All education which develops power to share effectively in social life is moral. It forms character which not only does the particular deed socially necessary but one which is interested in that continuous readjustment which is essential to growth. Interest in learning from all the contacts of life is the essential moral interest.
John Dewey, Democracy and Education, final paragraph, my emphasis.
The emphasized sentence – the very last sentence of the book, so an appropriate capstone to the entire argument – particularly highlights the catastrophic problem with a truncated construction of self. It means the moral education of the person has been brought to an end through a systematic DISinterest in learning from ALL the contacts of life, abandoning along the way the possibility of moral engagement with the world. Those contacts are not to be found in the self-reinforcing bubbles of the internet or Fox “News.” They are to be found in the real communities of real people, and the genuine, expansive interests that we and they take in one another. Only identity in community can hope to foster the capacity for moral judgment.