A couple of weeks ago, Colson Whitehead published an op-ed in The New York Times Magazine titled “How ‘You Do You’ Perfectly Captures Our Narcissistic Culture.” In a glorious moment of online irony, the piece, an anti-narcissism salvo from a writer who just published a memoir about playing poker, showed up on my Facebook newsfeed at least ten times. We are now using media dedicated to self-aggrandizement to share our thoughts on the deleterious effects of narcissism in our culture. Go team.
Whitehead’s main point, which has previously been made by Charles Taylor in The Ethics of Authenticity, is that the “you do you” mindset leaves no room for criticism. If everything is relative, no one action or actor is bad or good. As Whitehead puts it: “‘You do you,’ taken to its extreme, provides justification for every global bad actor. The invasion of Ukraine is Putin being Putin, Iran’s nuclear ambitions Khamenei being Khamenei.”
I agree with Whitehead that the prevalence of narcissism in our culture is a problem. However, the piece is extremely bitter. Someone from Generation X calling someone else “narcissistic” is extraordinarily annoying, in a pot-kettle-black sort of way. My other issue with Whitehead’s piece is that it ignores the positive justifications for the “you do you” ethical imperative, which can be summed up in the phrase “Who am I to judge?” The idea is that, because we can never truly and totally understand the inner-workings of another person, we should not judge that person’s actions. It’s not that I don’t want to criticize another person, it’s that I don’t have the right.
The culture is not nearly as hopeless as Whitehead proposes. There are not a whole lot of people saying “That thing in Ferguson? That was just Darren Wilson being Darren Wilson.” Or “That thing in Charleston? Michael Slager being Michael Slager.” Or “That thing in Indiana? The Indiana State Congress being the Indiana State Congress.” We are willing to make moral judgements about the actions of others in specific circumstances.
I believe the issue is a little bit deeper, and perhaps more pernicious, than critics of the narcissism present in millennial culture wants to admit. The “you do you” mindset is only partly, as Whitehead supposes, about protecting ourselves from criticism and assuaging our fragile egos. It is also about creating a moral horizon that everyone can follow. With the rise of modernism and postmodernism, any and all ethical paradigms went out the window (some for very good reason). But there weren’t any ethical paradigms left to replace the moral horizons flattened by the postmodernists.
About the only ethical imperative left in our society is: never disallow others from being themselves. Which tells me lots of things not to do. But it doesn’t tell me a whole lot about what I should do, besides keep being me.
Our nation is very good about discussing the protection of individual rights from systematic injustice. Taxation without representation. Civil Rights Movement. Gay Marriage. But what we are not very good at talking about is what happens when individual rights battle other individual rights. What happens when a woman’s right to control her body runs up against freedom of religion?
The time is coming when “me being me” will somehow affect “you being you.” The real question is, what will we do then?