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Expressive Individualism and the Death of Mental "Illness"
In a world based around identity, even our psychological ailments are tokens of social meaning.
Everyone who knows anything at all knows you must never attribute someone’s character or behavior to their identity. It is universally agreed in polite society that no person is ever good or bad at something because of their gender, or their race, their family, sexuality, etc. To indulge in this reasoning is at best a crude stereotype, at worst an expression of flagrant bigotry. A president of Harvard University was once forced to resign simply for observing that male students displayed more consistent interest in and aptitude for mathematics and science than female students (an observation which was backed up by all the relevant data, and still is). The unwritten law is clear: A person’s ethnic, genetic, or sexual identity must never explain anything about them.
This makes the cultural fascination with personality profiling all the more intriguing to me. To listen to people talk to one another about their Enneagram numbers is to listen to urbane, educated, and socially conscious people insist on being labeled. It’s not simply that the Enneagram is fun in the same way that all self-knowledge tools are fun. There will always be a market for figuring out the “secrets” about oneself. But the Enneagram fandom I’ve seen takes it quite a bit further. Your Enneagram number is not simply descriptive, it is explanatory and authoritative. Listen closely to enthusiasts talk about their experience with the test, and you will hear explicit appeals to one’s profile as an explanation for even the most trivial facts or behaviors. Their conversation is peppered with phrases like, “I’m such a 7,” or, “Yeah, that’s a very 4 thing to say.”
The same thing happens with in introvert/extrovert conversation. Depending on which you are, certain kinds of habits or tendencies can be expected from you, and it’s a matter of social decorum for others to recognize this. Introverts get nervous at invitations to gatherings; they’d rather watch Netflix at home. Thus, relating well to the introvert in your life means (among other things) not taking offense when they don’t show up. You should also learn how to work with introverts, date them, and recognize the dozens of signs you’re probably one of them.
It took me a long time to realize just how odd this kind of pathological self-categorization really is. For one thing, I’ve always believed myself to be an introvert, and I’ve claimed the label throughout most of my adult life whenever I was uncomfortable or wanted to protect my time. For me, introversion has often been permission: permission to not be like those around me, to make choices others didn’t understand, and to be my own person.
But then I started realizing that it no other aspect of life was I as ready to sort myself into a prefabricated category. Why did I so readily accept the logic of personality profiling when that same logic, if applied to my skin color, my childhood, or anything else about me, would likely deeply offend? More to the point, why did so many people around me — people who rejected all species of stereotypes and determinism — make an exception for their personality?
Here’s one guess: Personality profiling is the last politically-acceptable way of receiving an identity, rather than crafting one. And many people today are weary of crafting their own custom identity and would very much like to belong to something instead.
These thoughts were freshly triggered as I read Scott Alexander’s reflections on the “Hearing Voices Movement.” Yes, you read that correctly: this is a social phenomenon involving psychosis patients who hallucinate voices. A recent New York Times profile on this group described how an activist-led movement is convincing these folks that they don’t need medication or therapy to counteract their condition. Rather, they need to accept their psychological experiences as a part of their felt identity, celebrate the unique things such experiences say about them, and ask for and expect a level of normalization and acceptance from society.
Alexander acknowledges the dangers of this kind of narrative about genuine mental illness, but he defends the social acceptance-angle from critics like Freddie deBoer. I don’t have anything close to insight on the relationship between mental illness, medication, and acceptance. What stood out to me in Alexander’s post was his correct sense that many contemporary people are suffering precisely because they feel they don’t have anything about themselves that rises to the level of a celebratory identity. Alexander calls this identity “quirkiness,” and he makes an important point about it:
Right now, our society demands you be a Special Snowflake. Women who aren’t quirky enough are “basic bitches”, men who aren’t quirky enough are “yet another straight white dude”. Just today, I read some dating advice saying that single men need to develop unusual hobbies or interests, because (it asked, in all seriousness) why would a woman want to date someone who doesn’t “stand out”?
Someone on Twitter complained that boring people go to medical school because if you’re a doctor you don’t need to have a personality. Edward Teach complains that people get into sexual fetishes as a replacement for a personality. I’ve even heard someone complain that boring people take up rock-climbing as a personality substitute: it is (they say) the minimum viable quirky pastime. Nobody wants to be caught admitting that their only hobbies are reading and video games, and maybe rock climbing is enough to avoid being relegated to the great mass of boring people. The complainer was arguing that we shouldn’t let these people get away that easily. They need to be quirkier!
…In this kind of environment, of course mentally ill people will exploit their illness for quirkiness points! We place such unreasonable quirkiness demands on everybody that you have to take any advantage you can get!
If you’ve been online for any amount of time at all, you will instantly recognize the term “basic” or “straight white male.” These are something like the linguistic base currencies of the Internet. To admit to being “basic”—by which people mean you shop at Target, drink Starbucks, and enjoy Stranger Things—is to admit to a kind of deficiency, a deficiency that may affect how trustworthy your experiences or opinions are. “Straight white” is even more of a social death sentence. It connotes an inability to understand the Most Important Things.
From here we could pivot to talking about identity politics or the rise and triumph of the modern self. But I think Alexander makes an interesting point: in a society where our validity and existential meaningfulness are measured completely by the things we choose to be and do, any physical or psychological ailment becomes, by necessity, a potential token of identity. If you hear voices when you close your eyes, you can choose whether this means that you have an illness or you have a Story.
The same is true of personality profiling. If you get nervous around other people and rehearse every potential embarrassment or failing after any social situation, you can, through your self-determining will, decide that this means you belong to a certain group. Once you’ve decided this, what matters about you is not this uncomfortable habit of hyper-introspection. What matters is that this is who you are and everyone needs to understand that you are this and not that. “Enneagram 3” and “INFJ” are just code words that mean the same thing: I am this way, so deal with it. And as Alexander points out, having something like this in your life is very important if you want others to respect you. If a “quirky” identity means the difference between appearing wise and interesting and appearing boring or even bigoted, the more intensely you can turn your pathologies into a label (a Story), the more successful you’ll be. Your life will say, “Listen to me, because I’ve had Experiences.”
And now I’ll go where I don’t think Alexander or deBoer are willing to go. Given a world where even hallucinatory psychosis can be leveraged as a marker of social signifiance, is it not possible that other mentalities and behaviors could likewise be dysfunctions masquerading as identities? Could we, perhaps, see other significant psychological conditions sanitized, redefined, and extolled as virtuous? Could it be that the very concept of mental illness itself stands to lose all physiological meaning if the symptoms of certain illnesses are considered politically or philosophically relevant? Honestly, I think such a world sounds very much like the world many people are living in right now.
But of course, I’m preaching to the choir here. The point I’m getting at is not really about gender ideology. The point is that behind gender ideology lies a method of extracting meaning from our lives in a way that makes even our sins and sicknesses tokens of social currency. But here’s the thing: This is an exhausting process. It’s a meritocracy. Expressive individualism is said to cultivate equality, but what we’re realizing now is that the Identity Olympics are a very unequal enterprise. Not everyone has the Quirks. Not everyone has the Stories. This environment of trying to achieve meaning and avoiding at all costs the fate of “basic” is more legalistic and punishing than many fundamentalist churches you’ll find. It wears you out. And it might just be causing us to literally lose our minds.