THE EVOLUTION OF THE SELF
The concepts pages and the student works pages show a clear evolution of the self from the modern to the postmodern era. But are we living in the postmodern era now? We are fifty years past the beginning of postmodern thought and trends, yet many academics still place us in this context when they refer to our culture today. I would like to argue that in some very important ways, we have moved past the postmodern, at least in terms of the self and our relationship to enacting change within our society. There is a clear evolution of the self through the modern and postmodern eras that culminates in the self of today. This self functions through narrative storytelling rooted in personal experience in an attempt to connect with others and the outside world.
In the beginning decades of the 20th century, people often focused themselves outwardly. They did not spend as much time attempting to understand their individual selves as those in the postmodern era did. Instead, there was a greater focus on understanding other people. Because this was a generally religious time in Western culture, the model for behavior was Jesus Christ. Because the Bible is filled with calls to selfless giving and sacrifice, this was an area of greater emphasis. When people talked of the self, it was often to encourage the emptying of the self. This was, after all, the meaning of the crucifixion.
When doubt of selfless giving and belief in others began to set in during the postmodern era due to crooked politicians and foreign wars, adherence to religion was less and less important. The emphasis on the self shifted from outward to inward and increased in importance. People became very focused on understanding who they were as individuals. Now, people wanted to get in touch with themselves and consider themselves on a deeper level. This often had the effect of making people feel more alone. When they reached into themselves, they found it more difficult to reach out to other people. Because the self was so confusing and difficult to understand, the idea of fully comprehending another person seemed hopeless. We all have inner worlds that are rich and complex and impossible to relate in totality to the outside world. If this is the case for ourselves, then how can we truly know another person?
This self focus has certainly continued into the contemporary age, yet people have begun to attempt to reach out to others more and more. While we are focused on ourselves, we turn this focus outward to the world rather than inward. This is how we attempt to connect to other people. Instead of attempting to understand another person through their own selves, we attempt to connect to them through our own selves. This is done through creating stories and narratives about ourselves.
CONTEXTUALIZING THE CONTEMPORARY AGE
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. This shocked the country for a variety of reasons and contributed to a great shift that was the postmodern era. JFK was a beloved president by many. He was young, attractive, and Irish Catholic. This was the first time a Catholic had been elected. To many, Kennedy’s presidency represented progression and change. When he died and Nixon was elected, this increased people’s doubts. Nixon was a conservative right wing politician, who proved himself to be untrustworthy. This led many americans to feel angry and hopeless.
In 2016, the United States took a drastic turn when we elected Donald Trump to be the president. While this did not completely shift our conception of self, it was an important event because it highlighted the importance of storytelling through a variety of means. Thus, this is important for a number of reasons when it comes to understanding our conception of the self as it stands today.
Donald Trump’s election is so important in part because of what came directly before his presidency. Barack Obama represented progressive change and diversification for many Americans. Because there was a person of color in the highest position of power, minority communities felt as though they had a sense of belonging in this country. When Trump was elected, this feeling changed. Trump ran his campaign with support of traditional nationalists and blamed America’s troubles on minority groups. Therefore, when he was elected, the general feeling throughout the country was that minority groups were unwelcome. Because people felt that their lives and concerns were pushed aside, there became a push to demand understanding. This often came in the form of individual stories.
MOVING AWAY FROM REASON INTO STORIES
With the rise of relativism in the postmodern era, there was no longer an ability to make an objective claim. Because of this inability people had to find another rhetorical device with which to make their arguments convincing. Thus we entered into the age of appealing to emotion. Story-telling has such importance in this age because it is through stories that you are able to appeal to another person’s emotions. Because we are no longer able to agree on objective truths, convincing arguments are not based upon universal concepts. They are instead based on individual experience that can help one person understand the perspective of another.
This is important in the ways that we conduct movements for change. Like the 60s and 70s, we live in a time where people are angry and looking for change. We can see this in the various protests that have overtaken Washington in the last few years as well as the Black Lives Matter movement and the #MeToo movement. But these days what people share on their Facebook pages, what they write in articles, and the speeches they give are often about personal narrative. Surge is filled with personal stories, and the #MeToo movement was built upon unveiling injustices through sharing. The #Black Lives Matter fight surrounds specific examples of certain people who have been affected by police brutality.
This is a stark contrast to the protest publications from students at Gettysburg College in the late 60s and early 70s. These students were looking for change, but they often did so by making logical arguments or simply making fun of something that they disliked. They rarely related these issues to their individual experience. “Acid Express” has editorials that speak about topics surrounding eye-opening drugs, but does not simply rely on the writers’ experiences with these drugs. They attempt to somehow make the experiences overarching and objective. EATSIT attempts to expose the problems with the school by writing about injustices against the student body. The Junto has many editorials in which they call out cultural practices that are unjust and why we should fix them. They do write about how these injustices directly affected them. Even the publication, “Black Awareness” built many of their ideas off of principles of right and wrong. We have discovered recently that narrative is a powerful tool. Personal experience cannot be challenged in the same way a moral statement can.
HOW WE RELATE THE SELF TO OTHERS
When we relate to other people today, there is always an element of the self that is brought to the table. We will always bring our own histories with us to every connection we make. This is because we attempt to make a connection based upon shared history and experience with another person. Rather than looking to understand another person through their own lens, we look to connect with them through our own.
We also relate to others by asking them to understand our inner self, and we do this by very carefully presenting this inner self to the world in a calculated way. This is the very real byproduct of the way in which we use technology today. We have platforms on social media in which the goal is to create very specific narratives about ourselves. On Snapchat and Instagram, they have a section that is entitled “Story” in which one may post photos and videos that remain for the day. We choose what photos to upload; we choose what to share. We are in control of our own narratives, and through social media we have learned to be very careful in the creating that public facing self.
Many say that our generation is both the most and least connected to have ever lived. We always have the ability to contact one another, and we always have the ability to see what our friends are doing. But we are seeing propaganda, specifically placed there in order to make us think in a certain way. Furthermore, many people’s ability to be in contact at all times lessens the likelihood that they will reach out to connect with another in person. In this sense, it is hard to know how many people we can truly say we know.
We also relate to others through placing ourselves into larger narratives that fit with the ones we have created for ourselves. We place ourselves into groups that fit the mold of the stories that we have created for ourselves, but we have not lost the postmodern wish to remain individuals. This is why the individual story is so important. It represents the group, yet it maintains its honesty through the personal aspects.
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR THE FUTURE
When we are so focused on our individual stories, it may become difficult to have a completely unified message. In retrospect, this may have been the case with the #MeToo movement. In December of 2017, a woman named Grace came out with a story of an experience that happened on a date with the actor and comedian, Aziz Ansari. Aziz’s actions over the course of that night were complicated and brought up even more questions surrounding the definitions of sexual assault and harassment and what is okay and what is wrong. While many women stood behind Grace and supported her, others thought that she had stretched the definitions too far. After this, the movement began to sizzle. Today there is an increased sensitivity and awareness surrounding topics of sexual assault, but many have lost their zeal for the reckoning that once was.
While stories may not solve all our problems, we know they are an effective tool for getting people to listen, and they have affected great change in our society. They have allowed people to give voice to movements through their own experiences, and this has encouraged people to care. Change can now be brought about through the entire range of human emotions because it is inspired by a range of human experience.
When we choose groups to align ourselves with, we have to make sure that we are not generalizing ourselves too much. We have a tendency to want to fit in, to make sense within the confines of the story. But individuals are as diverse as the backgrounds from which they come. If we truly want to celebrate our stories, we must honor the reality that they are messy and will not be perfectly in line with someone else’s. We must find a way to make connections without letting go of our innate complexity.
Will we ever understand another person or will we delve deeper into self-focus and fragment the self so much that there is barely any left to understand? Though we are complicated, though it is tempting to create narratives that work and to forget about the fringe aspects of ourselves, we must celebrate and recognize our diversity. Once we are able to do that, we can move forward to understand a person on their own field, rather than imposing our story onto theirs. Hopefully someday we will be able to reconcile the evolution of the self to incorporate aspects from the modern, the postmodern, and the contemporary in order to understand both ourselves and others on a deeper and authentic level.