Friday, July 29, 2011

Be yourself

What it means to be one's real self is an interesting, if not important, question in itself. It might also shed some light on the meaning of reality more generally. Three quotations come to mind.

The first is from Hawkwind's "Be Yourself" (not a good song, by the way, but simple and repetitive enough to be hard to forget):
Be yourself
See yourself
Try and find
Peace of mind
The lyrics are banal, but, perhaps partly for that very reason, get across a common idea of what it means to be yourself. It means achieving peace of mind.

The second is from The Specials' "Do Nothing" (a better song)
People say to me "just be yourself,
It makes no sense to follow fashion."
How could I be anybody else?
This is a sort of joke, but with some truth in it. Even if you're a stereotype then that is what you are. A phony person is phony. On the other hand, the claim that such a person "doesn't really exist" (a line from the song "Stereotype") has a point too. Someone who just does what everyone else does, mindlessly, lacks something that might be called real existence or a self. Such vacuity might seem like peace of mind, but it is (surely?) closer to despair than the kind of mindlessness that one might aim to achieve through meditation. It is a desperate attempt to fit in, to get along, to conform. (Kelly Dean Jolley's fine distinction between transitive and intransitive silence might be helpful here. Transitive silence involves silencing something, while intransitive silence is simple silence. I hope I'm not cheapening his point by referring to it in this context.)

The third quote is Stephen Colbert's line that reality has a liberal bias. Unless you're attacking "the reality-based community," to call something part of reality is to pay it a certain kind of tribute, to recognize it as having a particular kind of importance. Not everything real is good, and not everything real is non-trivial, but what is real ought not to be denied or contradicted. So most of us believe. To say that something is real is not only to make a normative claim, but it is partly that. And since we don't have an agreed upon method for identifying anyone's real self, claims about such selves are always likely to be (potentially) controversial.

People who focus on the normative aspect of the concept of reality tend, in a crudely relativistic way, to treat such things as empirical facts as belonging to one side of the debate. So a stereotypical journalist will say something like this: "Scientists report that..., but a spokesman for the Republican Party responded that..." Colbert is parodying this kind of relativism along with the neglect of the fact that 'reality' is not a purely normative idea. Not just anything can intelligibly be claimed as part of reality, and not just anything can be denied to be part of reality. (Is that proper English? I hope you know what I mean.) Although what is intelligible does depend on what is sane, what is ridiculous, what is remotely plausible, and so on. And our once-seemingly-shared sense of all this is being attacked by propagandists. Perhaps it always has been. But perhaps it is worse now than before, and perhaps the contrast between the reality-based community and the faith-based community is part of what makes some atheists so angry.

So, what if you only feel like yourself when you've had a couple of drinks, or have taken some drug (legal or illegal, prescribed or self-medicated)? Within limits I see nothing wrong with this, but it seems that this kind of action could only lead to peace of mind by silencing something or other. It isn't the kind that comes from self-understanding or self-acceptance. What if the thing silenced is itself a silencer? For instance, a drug might reduce your inhibitions. Then you might be closer to being your real self with the drug than without it. But I don't see how any chemically-induced state can reasonably be called the real you (even if it is more real than other versions of you). If you have those inhibitions then that is part of who you are, like it or not. And only if you get rid of them with your own internal resources can an uninhibited you be really who you are. But, as I say, I don't think we have agreed standards for such things, so I'm really just expressing my own opinion.


  1. There's a funny moment in I [heart] Huckabees where Jude Law's character says with exasperation, "How am I not myself?" and Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin (I think) just keep repeating this over and over. See it here.

    I've been thinking about "peace of mind," in relation to my paper about integrity and struggle, and Cottingham's picture of integrity as tranquility. I guess the encouragement to "try and find / peace of mind" makes enough sense. But at the same time, I guess I would say that one might try to do this in ways that are dishonest (not true to one's reasonably conflicted self). That might be related to what you said about only feeling like yourself when you've had something to drink, etc.

  2. Thanks, Matt. I like that movie, but I'd forgotten that bit. Very appropriate. And the repetition of the question both questions the question and suggests that there might be serious ways in which one fails to be oneself.

    Yes, peace of mind seems obviously better than disquiet, but not just any peace of mind is desirable. It does need to be honest. I don't think chemically induced peace of mind is necessarily dishonest, exactly. If someone needs Ritalin to function, say, then I wouldn't count this as a strike against their honesty. It might not count against their integrity either, although there could be room for debate about that. But if you only have something like peace of mind as a result of the continued use of something external to yourself (such as a drug) then I wouldn't say you were being yourself. Maybe it doesn't matter, but this just seems like the wrong language to use in that kind of case.