The Personalist Project

Authenticity as a moral ideal

Herder put forward the idea that each of us has an original way of being human. Each person has his or her own ‘measure’ is his way of putting it. This idea has entered very deep into modern consciousness. It is also new. Before the late eighteenth century no one thought that the differences between human beings had this kind of moral significance. There is a certain way of being that is [i]my[/i] way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s. But this gives a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life, I miss what being human is for [i]me.[/i] This is the powerful moral ideal that has come down to us. It accords crucial importance to a kind of contact with myself, with my own inner nature, which it sees as in danger of being lost, partly through the pressures toward outward conformity, but also because in taking an instrumental stance to myself, I may have lost the capacity to listen to this inner voice. And then it greatly increases the importance of this self-contact by introducing the principle of originality: each of our voices has something of its own to say. Not only should I not fit my life to the demands of external conformity; I can’t even find the model to live by outside myself. I can only find it within.

Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity

A year ago, I started an early-morning workout program which, to my shock, is working for me. It's taught me a lot about the non-workout parts of my life, too. 

But something else occurred to me, something with ramifications far beyond whether you can teach one sedentary, fifty-something grand multipara new tricks or not.

The way the program is set up, you get a point every time you come to class, keep a food journal, participate in a 5K, and so on. You can also earn a point for going to orientation. Once in a while, if the roads are icy and class is cancelled, everyone gets a point for their unfulfilled desire to show up. Rack up enough points and you get a generous discount next time.

But give us human beings a system, and we'll find a way to game it. At some time during each session--usually perilously near the end-- Uncle Larry, our coach, starts getting emails, calls and queries from us, his coach-ees, asking just how many points we've racked up, exactly how complete our food journal has to be, precisely how late we can arrive and still count as having attended a session, and so on. We start wondering whether, perhaps, there's a way to get credit for perseverance and consistency without, well, persevering and being consistent.

We start focusing on points for their own sake, forgetting that the only reason the point system, with its promise of a discount, exists is to encourage us to succeed. We fall into the What's the Least I Need to Do? approach. We try to get away with short-changing ourselves and sabotaging our success for the sake of of the reward that was put there to facilitate our own accomplishments.

Students are the same way. They sleep in; they miss their deadlines; they don't open their mouths all semester, and then, a week before finals, they appear in the professor's office, announcing earnestly that they're worried about their grade. The grade, rather than an indication of accomplishment, becomes an end in itself. They're industriously trying to rack up points while missing the point--to count as educated without the labor of learning things.

We religious people fall into the same trap. We put our faith in checking off the boxes--the rosary box, the devotion to St. So-and-So box, the novena box... The practices were meant to draw us closer to a Person, but we act as if they're invested with magic powers that will allow us to sneak past St. Peter without the slow building up of virtues and genuine acts of love.

I'm not talking about the idea that we can earn our way to Heaven--that we, single-handed, could be virtuous enough to deserve eternal bliss. That would be a mistake, but a different one. The points mentality is more subtle, because we don't always notice we're falling into it. We're not trying to sabotage our own accomplishment--we slip into thinking that of racking up points and becoming holy are one and the same.

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It used to be that people who preached tolerance worried about the homogeneity of geographic communities. If diversity in relationships leads to tolerance, then homogeneity makes room for ignorance. The non-geographic relationships of the internet must have appeared at one time like a beacon of hope, a way to build relationships and encourage dialogue between people who might never have met otherwise.

It certainly can still be that, but it can also be used to screen out differences in belief before any relationship is even attempted. Or, more troubling yet, it can be the place isolated people turn to find a sense of belonging—imbuing the online communities they found with a significance, weight, and influence that the ideologically-minded can exploit to promote radicalization.

If our fear of trusting “the wrong people” leads us to strict ideological purity tests for friendship, we make ourselves vulnerable to this same movement towards extremes, a movement based on false dichotomies: If you aren’t with me, you’re against me.

There is no middle ground, there is no nuance, there is no room for different experiences or opinions. There’s no distinction between essential points of unity and non-essential areas of custom or taste, no space for people of goodwill to disagree.  

Vulnerability and shame researcher Brene Brown writes,

 We normally don’t set up false dilemmas because we’re intentionally bullshitting; we often rely on this device when we’re working from a place of fear, acute emotion, and lack of knowledge. Unfortunately, fear, acute emotion, and lack of knowledge also provide the perfect set-up for uncivil behavior. This is why the bullshit/incivility cycle can become endless.

"Uncivil behaviour" may be the outcome of normal political polarization, but the inevitable end of extreme polarization that repudiates any possibility of dialogue, relationship, or change between "enemies" is something more than incivility—it is violence.

How can it be anything else? If the Other is experienced as a threat to every person and idea you care about, and relationship with anyone associated with the offending group is considered suspect and itself threatening, then there is no avenue for conversion or change. The Other cannot be reduced in power through empathy or reason-based conversion or persuasion—they can only be reduced through coercion, whether social, emotional, legal, or physical.

This is a road that leads to some very dark places.

Am I saying all ideologies are equivalent? Not even close. Ideologies which deny the inherent value of the human person, dividing humanity into more and less valuable subsets, are pernicious and must be vigorously repudiated and refuted. While any community united by shared belief or opinion is vulnerable to the creeping movement of ideological isolationalism and false in-group/out-group dichotomies and all the other communal emotional responses to fear, that doesn't mean that there aren't important differences in the core ideologies or beliefs which unite each group, or real historical reasons to feel fear or desire redress.

Made to choose between historically oppressed group A whose fear is based on centuries of discrimination, exploitation, and debasement, and historically advantaged group B whose fear is based on confusion and insecurity over shifting dynamics in power and fear of change, I'd throw my weight in with group A.

But I don't want to ever lose sight of the truth that the same emotional, human drives feed into both groups. None of us is immune. We need the moderating influence of non-ideological relationships.

That so-human fear of vulnerability and desire for security through belonging may be at the root of group polarization, but I believe—I hope—that they can also be the key to reversing it.

Image credits: Crowd image and fingerpointing image both via Pixabay

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David Brooks is not a philosopher, but yesterday he made a good argument for personalism in his op-ed in the New York Times. 

Writes Brooks, 

Most actual human beings are filled with ambivalences. Most political activists I know love parts of their party and despise parts of their party. A whole lifetime of experience, joy and pain goes into that complexity, and it insults their lives to try to reduce them to a label that ignores that.

...This might be a perfect time for a revival of personalism.

Here, he echoes my own recent thoughts:

Where so many ideologies reduce people to roles or identity groups, Christian Personalism resists this flattening of human experience and interaction to insist on the importance of humility in the face of the incommunicable: there is in each person a depth of subjectivity that resists simple definitions and a freedom of will and mind that cannot be compelled. If you know one person intimately well---you know one person. 

What I found especially interesting is the way Brooks then encapsulated personalism as a set of "responsibilities"---challenges, really. 

The first responsibility, according to Brooks, is to "see each other person in his or her full depth." Here, he draws on Buber's distinction between two modes of relating, the "I-It" and "I-Thou." Here on this blog, we also often distinguish these as objectification vs. relating to the other as a subject. 

The second challenge of personalism is the call to self-gift.

The reason for life, Jacques Maritain wrote, is “self-mastery for the purpose of self-giving.” It’s to give yourself as a gift to people and causes you love and to receive such gifts for others. It is through this love that each person brings unity to his or her fragmented personality. Through this love, people touch the full personhood in others and purify the full personhood in themselves.

This is what one professor of mine used to call "taking hold of yourself so that you can give of yourself." An important distinction needs to be made between the challenge or responsibility of self-gift and the idea of owing or being owed a debt in a utilitarian, mercenary sense. Self-gift is called for as a value-response to the good of the other. "Value" in this sense refers not to monetary or trade value, but to intrinsic worth. This elevates charity beyond a sort of dutiful pity and challenges us to recognize and respond to the intrinsic good in each person we interact with. 

The third responsibility Brooks names is really a condition for the other two: "availability: to be open for this kind of giving and friendship." 

A little over ten years ago, Katie and Jules van Shaijik founded The Personalist Project as an organization to encourage discussion, sharing, and expansion upon philosophic questions outside of the limited boundaries of academia: 

An important aspect of our mission, then, is to help restore in practice the original sense of philosophy as a search for wisdom and as “care for the soul,” rather than exclusively a professional academic discipline. We want to reach ordinary thoughtful people, who would like to give some time and attention to “the permanent questions:” Who am I and why am I here? Why is there suffering in the world? Is there a God?—and who would like to do it through reading great books and in conversation with other living minds asking the same questions.

None of those of us writing for the Personalist Project blog have been social media experts. We use no fancy tricks to fool Google's search algorithm into giving the site a better ranking. We have a Facebook page, but don't create or post memes or viral material. We don't do Insta, we don't Tweet, we don't write listicles or limit our discussions to trending topics. We aren't great at writing clickbait. 

Still, we have chugged away, hosting thoughtful discussion, part of a quiet movement that Brooks calls "still something of a philosophic nub." 

Ten years is a long time for a quixotic project like this blog, and I am afraid it will wind down soon, though the archives and discussions should stay up for a long time to come. Those of us who have written here will almost certainly continue writing about personalism, wherever we write. Every action changes the actor first of all--writing for the Personalist Project has formed and shaped each of us over the years. 

But it cheers me to see personalism discussed in the pages of the New York Times, with the impressive reach of that publication. 

David Brooks is not a philosopher, and he has probably never visited The Personalist Project. But he does represent the spread of personalistic thought in a non-academic sphere, as Katie and Jules dreamed a decade ago. 

And he is right. 

This is the perfect time for a revival of personalism.  

NYT building image via Pixabay

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Do you know anyone who has seemingly transformed from a reasonable, moderate person to an impassioned ideologue? 

A few months ago, there was a small furor in my circles when a former pro-life activist was revealed to be a white nationalist. She hadn't always held these opinions—in fact, when she was young, she'd started out on the liberal side of the political/social spectrum before shedding those beliefs to become moderately right-wing. Her political and ideological "conversion" gave her a platform and perspective that made her popular among social conservatives.

Somewhere along the line, though, without many people noticing, her ideas had shifted further and further into an extreme that now horrified many of her former admirers. 

This isn't the first time someone—a convert to a cause, a religion, or a political ideology— has journeyed from one extreme end of the spectrum all the way through moderation and conversion towards the opposite extreme. What does it mean? How do you make sense of it when someone you identified with turns and rejects values you'd once shared in common?

The easy way out is to conclude that the virtue or commonality that seems to have been lost was never really there to begin with. We were deceived as to the true nature of this friend-turned-foe. They succumbed to a hidden darkness or hatefulness, or they've sold out for something selfishly satisfying like attention or monetary gain. 

But when we assign the basest of motivations—or even worse, simply relegate those who hold objectionable views to an inexplicable "other"—when we explain away different ideologies as sympathetic only to the very stupid or very evil, we lose sight of the common humanity of our ideological opponents. They may differ in opinions and agendas, but the human motivations and desires that drive ideological extremism are common to many of us.

There is a common set of human emotional responses which drive a deep compulsion towards the safety of belonging to an ever-more-exclusive community. Community, of whatever kind, both requires and engenders trust, and that trust predisposes us to listen and be open to persuasion. 

Our "enemies" may not be that different from ourselves. They may have merely stumbled into a different place to belong.

There but for the grace of God go I.

This came up in discussion with a friend a while back, and she agreed:

Who you are around absolutely impacts your views! I was on the brink of anarcho-libertarianism while hanging out with a group in which a man with a strong personality was preaching that. I saw the light when another young man came to me and some other mods in a message board asking for help because he was being abused. And while the response from CPS was weak, in anarcho-libertarian land, there would not have been a response at all. [Other friend] stayed there a whole lot longer, and was still anti-police and skewing MRA after I left. 

The research bears this out. It isn't intelligence, knowledge, education, or analytical skills that determine which sources of information we trust. It's about who we trust. 

An examination and comparison of Italian online conspiracy and science-based groups showed that both groups showed similar patterns of in-group polarisation and emotionally-based engagement with outside information and topics. In both the groups dedicated to scientific ideals and the groups that united over conspiracy theorising, frequency of activity within the online community was found to correlate with more negative emotional responses. 

The more deeply invested in belonging to the community a user was, the more they displayed fear, anger, and distrust of  information and ideas originating from outside the group—regardless of the actual substance, veracity, or soundness of the information.

When someone helps you when you are down, supports you when you are ill or in trouble, encourages you when you are discouraged, and affirms your strength, goodness, and independence when you feel uncomfortable with mainstream ideas or norms, you are going to tend to care about that person’s opinions, trust their motivations, and let them influence and guide you.

So what’s the lesson here? Merely to be careful not to associate with the wrong people?

I don’t think that’s enough. The same group movement towards extreme opinions can happen even among people initially united by positive ideals.

Individuals more extreme than average in the group-favored direction—the direction favored by most individuals before discussion—are more admired. They are seen as more devoted to the group, more able—in sum, as better people. This extra status translates into more influence and less change during group discussion, whereas individuals less extreme than average in the group-favored direction have less influence and change more. No one wants to be below-average in support of the group-favored opinion, and the result is that the average opinion becomes more extreme in the group-favored direction. [Emphasis mine]

In contrast, in people who have a fairly broad set of relationships with different foundations, the movement from relationship to trust to empathy and identification can be a fairly healthy, important force in promoting moderation and true tolerance—not relativism, but respect for the good will and ideals of those with different perspectives and beliefs.

For many of us, the greatest diversity in our relationships comes precisely from those people we bonded with over shared experiences and hobbies: the friends we made in high school, the coffee-shop Scrabble opponent, the gym buddy, the choir friend, the pickup game opponent, the fellow volunteer, the co-worker, the good neighbour. When we have close friends, family, or spouses with differing beliefs, we tend to become more moderate with time, rather than more extreme. 

We cannot have or maintain these friendships if we divide the world into "us" and "them." The best of these friendships are based on interacting with persons as subjects.  Our friends are people with intrinsic value who have their own understandings, their own histories, their own journeys.

These person-based friendships challenge us to find compassion and humility even in the midst of disagreement. 

Images via Pixabay and Flickr

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That advice, which I'm trying to live by, comes from St. Josemaría Escrivá, "the saint of ordinary life." He meant it as encouragement to avoid pessimism and discouragement about what's wrong with the world, or how revolting other people's sins are. Instead, you try to do all the good that's in your hands to do  You avoid defeatism and passivity in one fell swoop. 

But it has another application. Never mind what's wrong with the world: let's talk about what's wrong with me. What about when I want to overcome some vice, break free from some bad habit, but it's just too unpleasant to keep saying no to myself? Here's an everyday example from my own very everyday life.

After years of an all-devouring Facebook addiction, I've decided to try to limit myself to half an hour or so a day. It's an idea that has occurred to me before--with shocking regularity, actually--but I never tried it because I didn't think I could do it, and furthermore, I really, really, really didn't want to. So there.

Eventually, though, it became clear that the addiction had to go. I was lavishing more attention on people I'd never met than on those I'd sworn fidelity to, or given birth to. I'd sit hunched over my phone, oblivious to my kids' childhoods speeding past, trying to set straight some virtual friend of a virtual friend who believed something that didn't sit right with me. 

Just then, I got some good advice.  Someone helped me to see that while I had no desire to white-knuckle it through the day saying no to social media every ten minutes, I did want to reclaim all those hours by saying yes to other things. 

Obvious enough, but still just theoretical. So I made a list of things to do instead--from reading War and Peace to myself and The Hobbit to the kids, to setting up a home office, to writing a book, to getting out my oil pastels, to planting blackberries, to baseball in the park, to painting a family tree on the garage wall.

These particular things may or may not spark excitement in other people's hearts. But they're good, positive things.

And I took some common-sense measures to help myself. I deleted my Facebook app, and I got some podcasts ready to help me not feel too deprived as I went about my business.

It's been weeks now, and It hasn't been a white-knuckle experience at all. 

And when it comes to more obviously spiritual things than pursuing your hobbies and catching up on your housework, here's something from Pope St. John Paul II that's helped me. I'm pretty sure it's in Veritatis splendor. Here it is in layman's language:

The Thou Shalt Not's give us a lower limit--they tell us: You don't want to go below this line--trust me, you'll end up unhappy. But there is no upper limit. This means:

  • You can't steal, but there's no limit to how generous you can be.
  • You can't commit adultery, but there's no limit to how good you can be to your husband or wife.
  • You can't covet, but there's no limit to how grateful you can be for what you do have.
  • You can't take the name of the Lord in vain, but you can praise Him all you like, with all the prayers and poetry and songs and artwork you can dream up.

The Thou Shalt Not's are real. They're there for a reason. it won't go well with you if you ignore them on the plea that they're too negative or judgmental.

But we go wrong when we imagine that the whole point is to excise sins and vices (and even innocuous time-wasters) without putting anything in their place, as if the only choice were between indulging in evil and remaining passive. 

That would be giving evil way too much credit.

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