The Real You vs A New Creation

In describing his efforts at recognizing privilege and becoming a better (pro)feminist, Malachi at Feminist Allies writes:

A major part of the problem is that I *do* have a lot (some say an excess) of self-confidence, a forceful personality, and some take-charge instincts. Thanks, patriarchy. But disentangling what’s really me form what’s the patriarchy’s influence, what’s self-confidence and what’s self-aggrandizement, what’s inspiring leadership and what’s privileged domination is no mean feat.

What interests me about this bit is the implied distinction between the “real” self and the constructed self, which is a common one in thinking about the effects of oppression systems on individuals. The model here is that there’s some inherent pre-social and morally neutral real personality. Then patriarchy came along and added some stuff on top of that, stuff that is bad because it leads to harming others. Malachi’s task is then to strip away this fake addition to reveal the real egalitarian person underneath.

I don’t want to criticize the substantive changes Malachi is making in how he lives his life, since as far as I can tell from his few posts so far he’s on the right track. (I don’t mean to pick on him personally, he’s just the latest person to raise a common idea.) But I do want to raise some questions about the model of identity — call it “real core with fake trappings,” or RCFT — that he uses to explain himself. I think the RCFT model points us in the wrong direction (at least as far as understanding the identity of those in positions of privilege — not being oppressed in any way myself, I won’t presume to speak for what models are accurate representations of that experience).

The first problem with the RCFT is that it locates the criterion of value in the wrong place. Self-confidence is good because it benefits people, not because it’s a feature of a real underlying self. And self-aggrandizement is bad because it hurts people, not because it’s a fake accretion slapped on by social forces.

But perhaps more importantly, I don’t think you can separate a “real,” presocial core identity from a distorted or less real identity built up by social forces. Your socially constructed identity is your real identity. What exists independently of social construction is at best a set of underdetermined potentials and constraints, not a fully formed identity. If you’re a man living in a modern Western country, being patriarchal is part of who you really are.

In thinking about a better model of how to conceptualize becoming less of a patriarch, I thought of a line from one of history’s greatest sources of sexism*, St. Paul. In 2 Corinthians 5: 17, he wrote:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

Replace “in Christ” with “a (pro)feminist,”** and you have a better way of looking at the process people like Malachi (and myself) are engaged in. Whatever you think of the moral value of the conversions that Paul achieved in building the early church, he had seen quite a few people adopt new outlooks on life by the time he wrote his letter to the Corinthians, so he had some insight into the psychology of it. Becoming a Christian was not a matter of stripping away some sinful trappings that had been added by the devil or the world in order to reveal the real godly core. It was a matter of taking someone who had a real identity as a pagan and remaking them so that their real identity became Christian. So men who want to become better (pro)feminists have to recognize that we have a real patriarchally-constructed identity, and then replace it with an equally real “new creation” — or better, “new construction” — along feminist lines. It’s a matter of remaking, not stripping away.

*Lynn Gazis-Sax has some interesting thoughts on whether Paul himself was actually that sexist, but in any case it’s undeniable that his words became fuel for generations of later sexists.

**My UU side would argue that the two are equivalent, because the Bible should be read such that to be “in Christ” has nothing to do with holding factual theological-historical beliefs about some carpenter from Nazareth — rather it means nothing more or less than adopting an attitude of love toward all persons, which is achieved (in the realm of gender) through feminism. But these theological issues are beside the point of this post, especially since I presume people not from a Christian background aren’t going to be too keen on being told “you should be ‘in Christ,’ except that that what I mean by that is totally different from what it sounds like or what most people mean by it.”

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9 Responses to The Real You vs A New Creation

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  4. 4
    Amanda Marcotte says:

    Replacing the current personality with a new one is easier said than done, that’s for sure. I tried for years to change into a more socially acceptable woman and the result is not that I became less smart or sassy or whatever, just that I became cringing and self-loathing. When people talk about what’s “real” about them, they mean that part that isn’t going to change.

  5. 5
    B says:

    Our experiences shape not only our understanding of the world but also our expectations, habits and emotional responses. With new experiences (such as feminist debate) our understanding expand or change and we with it. Every aspect of our personality is to some degree a part of the society that formed it.

    It is a little bit like when linguists say that what thoughts you are able to formulate depends on what language you speek.

  6. 6
    Stentor says:

    Amanda: I don’t deny that there are aspects of ourselves that we can’t change, no matter how hard we try. But I don’t like what’s implied by describing those unchangeable things as “real.” There are lots of things about me that I think are no less “real” for being changeable. I’m “really” a middle-class shy person. But those characteristics aren’t unchangeable, since I could easily enough fall into poverty and with rather more effort become more sociable.

  7. 7
    Padraig says:

    Being a reader of M. Sartre, I agree wholeheartedly that there is no ‘self’ that is distinct from society. We’re born into the world, and our only experiences come from the world. However, that doesn’t mean that our selves change as our circumstances change. Selves, like wage-rates, are sticky. The problem I had with trying to change my personality was really similar to Amanda’s – self-loathing and depression instead of metamorphosis.

    Like the man says, ‘wherever you go – there you are…’

  8. 8
    Mendy says:

    I think there are aspects of personality that are present without respect to society. A person that is a low sensation seeker is not likely to take extreme risk, and a high sensation seeker is more likely to engage in risky behaviors, and these traits exist no matter what society the person is born in.

    I am not a huge fan of focusing only on “nature” or “nurture” in regards to personality, but take the tack that there are fundamental traits in each individual that aren’t dependant on societal influence, but that society can and does influence how those traits are displayed.

    I’m not about changing to make society comfortable with me, but rather examining my beliefs and actions to make myself more comfortable within my own skin. It took seven years in a marriage from hell to learn that I cannot be anyone other than who I am, and that trying to be what “society”, the “world”, or anyone believes you should be leads only to depression and self-loathing.

  9. 9
    B says:

    Hm. I’m not convinced that risk taking or sensation seeking behaviour isn’t part of socialisation. I’ve seen far too many family cultures encuoraging or discouraging those behaviours.

    Talents on the other hand I believe can be inborn – musicality, a body useful for athletics et cetera. The question then is how much our abilities affect our personalities. Most talents need encouragement to thrive so nothing really exists in a vacuum. That is why I think that this search for an “uncorrupted” self is futile.

    That said, I myself use to consider how I owuld have turned out if I’d been born a man instead of a woman. And I really think that considerations on self and how expectations, parents and society has affected oneself is crucial for any sort of feminist awareness so, in my opinion, what Malachi is doing is more than just worhtwhile – it is essential.

    Society would be a better place if everyone reconsidered their positions every onceinawhile.