Collapsing Meaning and the Retreat into Identity

It has always been shocking to me that the very many insightful developments in philosophy during the 20th century have gone almost completely unheeded by the vast majority of people. The existentialists freed us from Medieval concepts of meaning decades ago, and yet most people would probably define the meaning of their lives in the same way as our ancestors from centuries ago. This isn’t proof that the old concept of meaning is durable; in fact, the entire enterprise of 20th century philosophy proves that our old concepts of meaning are bankrupt. It is simply that public opinion has not kept pace with academic philosophy.

Even despite broad differences in opinion on every subject, the overwhelming conclusion of 20th century philosophy is an existentialist one. Regardless of your thoughts on metaphysics or theism, we know today that meaning comes from within.

So why do so many people still believe their meaning or purpose comes from On High? Why do so many people exist as if the entire 20th century of philosophy never happened? Why would people be surprised, in 2021, to learn the basic conclusions of the 20th century’s biggest names?

The obvious answer is that existentialism is scary. It takes an enormous psychological and emotional toll. It asks more of us than the alternative. The reality of being is much harder than the lies humans fabricated over millennia. The very reason they fabricated those lies in the first place was to avoid having to confront the very issues which existentialism forces!

But the conclusions of the existentialists are inescapable, and decades later we’re seeing inescapable effects of their thought as it continues to infect our cultural consciousness. Lately, the collapse of meaning has lead to problematic epistemological problems, as bad actors have attempted to manipulate misinformation to their advantage.

We are also seeing an increasing fervor in replacing traditional concepts of meaning. As religion or God or authority slowly evaporates from our cultural concept of meaning, we’re seeing people supplant that with other external concepts. Because of its personal and individual nature, this takes the form of identity, even if it is identity prescribed by another (or worse, by the vague demands of an amorphous group).

Take the example of a super-fan: they desperately seek something to “grab onto,” a limb of meaning as they free-fall through the void of meaninglessness. Previously this was provided by religion, or for the non-religious by a cultural idea (rooted in old religion), but since those have faded in our public opinion, our super-fan is left only to grab on to things he likes. He feels an affinity to, say, Star Wars, and so he begins to build a sense of meaning around that. In fact, there is a community of people who already feel strongly, and so the blueprint to meaning is ready-made for him. Star Wars may not tell him how to live like religion, but it does tell him why to live, and with whom. Star Wars becomes like a religion to him, and he is a zealot.

Although there is a philosophical opinion expressed in something like Star Wars, it does not a metaphysic make. So the meaning of “Star Wars” to him simply becomes his whim; when something challenges him (for instance, a certain actress or director challenging his deeply ingrained misogyny) he unilaterally decides that this isn’t “his” Star Wars. He retreats deeper and deeper into fanaticism, arbitrarily assigning elements of his fandom to his worldview without any thought beyond what “feels good,” sometimes even ignoring the facts of the world around him.

But Star Wars isn’t even his! He appropriated someone else’s creation into his entire identity. His own identity becomes hollow, then, and his sense of meaning continues to avoid the difficult reality of existentialism.

This happens not just in fandom, of course, but in politics or national identity, in nationalism or racism or any group which provides identity. Worse, it is difficult to address, because identity is ultimately inviolate. So the way out of polarization isn’t to get people to stop identifying with their groups, but rather to face, culturally and as a whole, the conclusions of philosophers who have (mostly) all been dead for decades.

The hopeful hegemony of Personal Identity

One of the really fascinating insights from Don Cupitt’s book After God is a very short, late book discussion on the nature of organizing cultural principles. He notes that humans have organized themselves first around tribes, later around nation-states, and in the 20th century around religious ideologies and ethno-nationalist sects. There is more complexity to this, of course: people living in a country with a state religion will both simultaneously be organized around a religious structure as well as a political one, and America (and the increasingly democratized world) has parties organized around both religious and nationalist tribalism.

Most importantly, he notes that the progress of globalization has moved people away from these geographical or historical structures to ones which are multi-national and inclusive: brands. By their global nature, international mega-brands need to alienate as few as possible while garnering support from people in far-flung geographical locations with wide-ranging philosophical beliefs. He says:

Interestingly, our great multinational corporations and systems of communication and exchange already practice a kind of global political correctness. They rather deliberately bracket out, set aside, any consideration of gender, nationality, race, color, creed. A worker is a worker and a customer is a customer, regardless. It is conventional to criticize the multinationals for being mobile, rootless, anonymous, and interested only in profit, but I’m pointing out that it is precisely these features that make them morally superior to our old locally based national and religious identities. Being mobile and global, they cannot afford to operate by generating and excluding an Other, and they therefore had to find a new basis for communal loyalty.

After God pg. 98, italics in original

Cupitt then goes on to mention the growing trend to “other-ize” Islam, but that this effort is a death throe of the old order. This was written before 1997! He both predicted the war which was triggered by the events of September 11th, 2001, and also, in a sense, predicted how public opinion would turn away from that war with our increasing sense of globalization.

What I find interesting about brand loyalty as a culturally unifying concept is both how notable this rise was and how quickly it seems to have burnt out. The extreme ethno-centrism and nationalism that was the reaction to 9/11 hasn’t faded, of course. Creating an enemy is a time-honed and effective method of galvanizing a tribe. But Cupitt’s observation that globalization has created an allegiance to, an organization around multinational brands was certainly a verifiable trend leading up to 2001 and several years after. It seems crass to us today, but people really did identify strongly with, say, Starbucks and their ability to get their favorite latte in any port. Fanatics for Apple products could be located the world over. People began to value their employer over their parents’ church, to protect their company’s interest over their country’s.

This is a moral alternative to Other-ness, one which encourages world-wide unity over adversarlism. It is objectively better than warring tribes. But it is hard to maintain- all it takes is one “big bad” to scare people back into polarization, which is why we are constantly fighting a cultural battle of globalization against ethno-centrism.

More than that, we quickly realized how brands are exploitative and don’t have our interests at heart. These multinational corporations turned out, it seems, to be just as destructive as warring tribes. Worse, a geographical or religious tribe is made up of the interests of its members so it has their well-being at its core. Brands and corporations have at their core the interest of their owners, stock-holders, and board members, meaning that people who willfully pledge themselves in service to a brand are working against their own interest (so long as they don’t have an ownership stake).

We also know that brands have lost this globalist clout because of the way brands now must act in the marketplace of ideas; brands assert a sort of identity with which people can find an affinity as opposed to gaining loyalty by virtue of their equanimity. This is best exemplified by something like a brand of frozen meat products positioning itself as a political radical, or a burger chain becoming irreverent and edgy. These brands are demonstrating the new ideal around which we organize ourselves, which is no longer the brands themselves.

We pivoted to a new organizing principle: personal identity.

In the past few years we’re seeing an increasing trend towards personal identity as an answer to tribalism. By this I mean any signifier which you choose for yourself independent of an institution, although your self-identification may qualify you for membership in some groups. We now believe that we have ultimate autonomy over our identification in a way we never have before: Your gender identity used to be assumed by your sex organs, now we understand that gender is a personal identity. Your sexual orientation was assumed by your gender, now we understand that orientation is a personal identity. Race used to be assumed by the appearance of your skin, now we understand that race is a constructed identity. Religion used to be dictated by your parents or cultural heritage, now we understand that religion is a personal identity.

This has manifested itself in many ways: The “me too” movement, for instance, relies on a fundamental personal identification as a victim of sexual violence and harassment. That’s why when we say we “believe women,” we’re not just unequivocally accepting their recounting of events as objective truth; we’re acknowledging that they personally self-identify as a survivor, which is an identification we cannot take away from them. The objective truth of the situation in question doesn’t change someone’s personal identification.

This idea, that personal identity isn’t contingent on objective reality, means that identity is inviolate. Identity is a subjective, unverifiable quality. An individual has only to claim a specific identity and no one can argue against it. You can’t tell someone else their chosen identity is wrong, whether it involves gender or sexual orientation or sexual assault victimhood. Of course, who would want to anyway? The only reason why someone would choose to invalidate someone else’s personal identity is as a way to gain their fidelity to another tribe. In this way, invalidating someone else’s identity becomes an act of aggression.

I wonder how we will look back on certain moments of self-identification as we evolve this inviolate sense of identity. For instance, viewed in this light the race-swapping Rachel Dolezal isn’t necessarily the shocking story it seems: she simply is identifying with a race to which she lacks genetic relation, but it doesn’t invalidate the affinity she feels towards that identification. We already know that race is a construct and certainly isn’t based in genetics, so why shouldn’t this apply to her? Of course there is the question of appropriation, but where does identification begin and appropriation end? Are drag queens appropriating feminine identity? Are sexually adventurous straight people appropriating homosexuality? I don’t know the answer to these questions other than to say that one’s own personal identity must be treated as valid.

This emerging sense of organizing around identity has the added benefit of being truly ecumenical in a way that brand-identification never was. We can gather in tribes related to our identities, but we can’t fight about which should reign supreme, because we recognize that identity is subjective and inviolate. We might form groups around one identity, but they stop from becoming monolithic because of the vast diversity and intersectionality within each group. And each group can’t demand homogenization, because we can’t dictate other’s personal identities! I find this extremely hopeful, but a little counter-intuitive: it is actually by our acceptance of labels that we transcend division. We’re more peacefully connected because of the ways we describe ourselves and others, not in spite of them.