Identity as Idol

The Modern Cult of the Self

There were earlier ages in which the fine arts flourished. But a defining characteristic of modernity has been the subordination of those traditional arts to a new and higher art: self-fashioning. Before Rousseau’s Confessions, proto-Enlightenment thinkers like Montaigne were already moving us toward the moment that would dissolve the barrier between the artist and his creation. Under the philosophical regime of modernity, the self is the work of art. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche characterizes self-invention as the highest act of creation: “To ‘give style’ to one’s character – that is a grand and rare art!” This emphasis runs through the work of countless modern thinkers: de Sade, Heidegger, Hegel, Freud, Foucault, and many more.

This theme of self-invention was shortly fused with the concepts of authenticity and affirmation. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche characterized his Eternal Return as “the highest formula of affirmation that can possibly be attained.” Only a few decades later, Heidegger would discuss identity formation through his idea of Da-Sein: “The self of everyday Da-Sein [i.e., typical forms of being] is the they-self which we distinguish from the authentic self, the self which has explicitly grasped itself.”

These broad strokes of modern philosophy are meant only to underscore that what were once radical conceptions of self-fashioning, authenticity, and affirmation are now banal – they are the default way of thinking about identity in liberal democracy today. But these ideas are so deeply entrenched in our society that they have metastasized – they have fundamentally warped our understanding of individuality.

The contemporary acolytes of identity and authenticity are so devoted to the reigning rituals of self-fashioning that they now reflect all the typical characteristics of a cult. The people who are drawn in by the tenets of radical individualism belong to what I call the modern Cult of the Self. It is no mystery why the decline in Christian faith across the West coincided with the ascendence of boutique notions of individuality. Identity-fetishism operates as a rival faith to Christianity: whereas the latter demands kenosis (an emptying out of the self), the former makes an idol of the self. Thus, the modern Cult of the Self is a form of blasphemy: by elevating the process of self-invention as the highest creative act, individuals lay claim to the role of God. The self that they invent is the object of their worship.

The Cult of the Self is different in one important way from “classic” cults like Heaven’s Gate or Aum Shinrikyo. In most cults, members are aware of their status as members, whereas initiates to the modern Cult of the Self are unaware of their membership. This is because mainstream culture presents cult doctrine as self-evident truths about existence: members of the cult are unaware that they hold any particular “beliefs” about identity at all.  

But the modern Cult of the Self is a cult nonetheless – a particularly seductive one because it offers easy answers to complex questions about personal identity. With each passing day, more people tell us about how they “identify.” Sometimes, they identify as a sex other than the one they say was “assigned” at birth. Other times, they identify as “pansexual,” “demisexual,” or some other neologism in the growing array of pseudo-sexual orientations. Others talk about “identifying” as a survivor, or as a victim, as black, or as white. But while it’s easy to dismiss this hyper-concern over identification as frivolous or inconsequential, to do so is to miss what it tells us about our cultural moment – and its message is an important one.

Cult Dogma

If you’re among the uninitiated, you should know that the fundamental premise of the Cult of the Self is that authentic identity is achieved through the expression of individual difference. That is, the more a person’s defining characteristics differ from more common and broadly shared personality traits or beliefs, the closer they are to embodying their “truest self.” We know this because no Cult member, upon having “found himself,” has ever discovered that her “truest self” just happens to be better aligned with traditional values and the status quo. Self-discovery almost always entails nose rings, ayahuasca, tattoos, and weird sex rather than neckties, clean living, church, and modesty. The greater one’s distance from conventional forms of personality and ways of life, the more authentic the identity.

The audience of the person who announces that she has “found herself” also has a role. It is the audience’s job to affirm and celebrate the discovery of this self. Only once this affirmation is secured can the individual actually live out their identity. The technical term for this affirmation is “recognition,” and since the absence of audience recognition delegitimizes the new identity to which the individual lays claim, the Cult of the Self works very hard to shame and censure those who would withhold it. This is why the Cult becomes so abusive when you don’t comply with a member’s “preferred pronouns,” for example.

Despite its narrow focus on personal forms of identity, the Cult of the Self also maintains a theory of society. Throughout all of human history, inclusion in any given group was earned by the individual’s willingness to conform to the values and expectations of that community. In other words, collective recognition of one’s membership in any group requires that the individual suppress his personal differences and prioritize the commonly shared features of the other members. Today’s Cult of the Self rejects this logic as a form of coercion that stifles personal authenticity. In short, it demands that the collective adjust itself to the needs of the individual (rather than vice versa). It even goes a step further and insists that the very value of the individual to society centers on that person’s difference from the characteristics shared by the larger group. The Cult of the Self sees “diversity” and a near-masochistic conception of “tolerance” as the highest virtues of a society.

Most logical people grasp that incentivizing individuals to base their self-conception on what makes them different from the people around them doesn’t create a society with strong forms of community and widespread feelings of belonging. So, if it feels like the members of the Cult of the Self are running a giant social experiment, it’s because they refuse to see this obvious truth. They claim to seek stronger community and a more robust sense of belonging even as they advance a conception of identity that undermines those outcomes.

Therefore, the basic error of the Cult of the Self is a general misunderstanding of what culture is – a mistake that is all too common in American society. Most people think that your “culture” is all the things that make you different. For instance, this belief explains why members of the Cult of the Self insist that whiteness is “invisible:” Since white people still constitute a majority of the population, the distinctive features of their identity become harder to see. “Culture,” then, is wrongly thought to be the property of the various minoritarian communities of our atomized society. There is black culture, there is gay culture, there is trans culture, there is anime culture, there is Muslim culture, there is Hispanic culture. In other words, “culture” is thought to be the unique features that differentiate the individual from the bland uniformity of the broader community.

Properly understood, “culture” is the shared routines, beliefs, and values that bind a group of people. It is these commonalities – not individual differences – that create the possibility of community by forging in-group affinities and a shared sense of destiny. Although the Cult of the Self does represent a kind of community, it is one doomed to perpetual dysfunction. Whatever unity it has depends wholly on a single value shared by its members – namely, they all agree on prioritizing individual identity over the needs of the larger community (and the self’s obligations to it). By choosing this particular value as the binding agent for the Cult of the Self, its adherents ensure that they can never have any meaningful community: any collective identity will be sacrificed to the whims of the non-conforming individual. The Cult is always subject to the tyrannical whims of whichever person happens to exhibit the greatest difference from the group (usually the one who is loudest in expressing that difference).

Identity vs. Identification

With the Cult’s worldview in full view, its confusion on matters of identity is more evident. “Identity” and “identification” are often thought to be synonyms – or at least complementary ideas. In fact, they are opposites which are mutually antagonizing. When we talk about adolescents trying to find their “identity,” we are referring to a search for individuality. “What is it,” the typical teenager asks himself, “that differentiates me from my family and the other people in my community?” Thus, identity refers to personal difference – the things that make a person an individual (understood as an indivisible unit that exists independently of the larger cultural groups to which it belongs).

In contrast, identification is a much different affair: in order to “identify” with something, the individual must express affinity and allegiance to some group outside the self. When a biological man says “I identify as a woman,” he lays claim to membership within the larger community of women, and implicitly suggests that he possesses the defining characteristics that make women women. It works the same way when someone says “I identify as an American.” In short, “identity” is a concept that is hostile to community and aims to disaggregate the individual from its totality, while “identification” is a concept that aims to build community by subordinating individual difference to the values, routines, and characteristics of some larger group.

This difference between identity and identifying exposes the solipsistic nihilism that defines the Cult of the Self. They say they seek belonging, inclusion, and community (the fruits of true, outward-directed identification), but rather than subordinating individual characteristics to larger communal values, they assert various micro-identities – ones that are so small, so obscure, and so unique that they ultimately rule out any meaningful relationship with any large-scale community. By coopting identification for the purposes of individual differentiation, members of the Cult of the Self don’t merely forego belonging in the larger collective, they actually erode whatever unity remains in the broader culture. The Cult of the Self, in the final analysis, is a vanity religion. But it’s a powerful one.

Revitalizing Faith, Culture, and Community

In order to deprogram those captured by the Cult, we Americans – those of us who are still dedicated to larger forms of communal identity that enable a sense of belonging – have to reclaim our right to police the membership of larger society. This duty is especially incumbent upon confessing Christians because the Cult of the Self imposes demands to which we cannot faithfully consent. The Cult presents itself as the rightful claimant to the role that traditional religious faith once played in the culture. And since identity fetishism ultimately dissolves the ties that bind a community, defeating the Cult will be a necessary prerequisite to creating an environment where genuine faith can flourish again.

Rather than adapt our traditional values and beliefs to accommodate non-conforming individuals who demand membership without assimilation, we need to find the courage to demand that people conform to the group’s criteria for inclusion. When the Cult of the Self demands recognition of their identities without assimilating to the norms of the collective, they also demand that the broader community must compromise long-standing criteria for belonging. They claim that these compromises are required to facilitate higher forms of belonging and inclusion – that morality and justice require us to acquiesce. In truth, their demands are a ploy to dissolve the very same communities from which they demand recognition and seek inclusion.

To repair our shattered society – once united under the concept of a single community, but now reduced to the various shards that we label as “communities” – we must reject the diktats of the Cult of the Self. We achieve this by redirecting our attentions and our affirmations from individual differences to the characteristics that we share in common. Only by looking to the past – remembering who and where we came from – can we restore a shared sense of identity. Knowing who we are collectively will allow us to rebuild the foundation for genuine community. This is the only way to recover a civic culture that is worthy of the name.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Adam Ellwanger

Adam Ellwanger is a professor at the University of Houston - Downtown, where he teaches rhetoric and writing. He is editor of The Peerless Review, an online platform for publishing dissident scholarship. His commentary on politics and culture regularly appears in various right-of-center publications online.

One thought on “Identity as Idol

  1. Not commenting on your overall thesis, but regarding Heidegger, I don’t think that by authenticity Heidegger means “invent your identity”, but instead “embrace what you already are”.

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