By: Brad Rogers
“You be you.”
“Be true to yourself.”
“Follow your heart.”
“You do you.” That’s the one I hear most frequently these days.
I’m sure you’ve heard one of these slogans, or one like them, because they are ubiquitous in American culture today.
There are certain situations where I hear these sentiments voiced and I think they are quite fitting, and I am glad somebody said them. These mantras have certainly been on my lips.
Sometimes, though, I wish they had not been said. Occasionally, I hear someone make a “You do you” type statement and I think to myself:
“I don’t want him to be himself right now. Somebody needs to tell him he needs to change.”
“How am I going to find myself? What does that even mean? I have been looking a long time and I am still right here.”
“I don’t want to ‘do me’ right now because I am trying to help someone else and be what they need me to be.”
“Isn’t it best to conform for the good of others sometimes?”
“Sure, you feel better after giving full vent to your feelings about how I have ruined your life, but did it occur to you that it might feel terrible for me? Do my feelings matter when ‘you do you’?”
Feel free to judge whether or not I am judgmental much of the time, (of course, I am), but is it possible I am on the right track in certain instances? Is “you do you” really an all-encompassing lens through which we should be viewing all of life?
Trevin Wax, a professor at Wheaton College, recently wrote a compelling series of articles on the “You do you” mentality, otherwise known as expressive individualism, which is a powerful movement sweeping Western culture.
You Be the Judge
Wax defines expressive individualism as making the purpose of one’s life “to find one’s deepest self and then express that to the world” while disregarding the input of “family, friends, political affiliations, previous generations, or religious authorities . . .” It means that you alone are the judge of who you are, what you should do, what is best for you, and how you should interact in society.
This isn’t about being genuine, though. “Authenticity,” is one of the highest values in a culture of expressive individualism, according Charles Taylor, a Roman Catholic philosopher. Yet, authenticity isn’t being used as a synonym for honesty, integrity, credibility, and purity. Instead, as Taylor writes, “it pits authenticity against conformity” – including conformity to parental, political, and religious authority.
Western countries are especially vulnerable to fall into expressive individualism due to their historical roots in individual freedom, personal autonomy, self-definition, and self-expression. In the West, we have a great deal of individual freedom and personal autonomy with respect to others, and this is a great thing. In fact, I think it’s worth fighting to keep. However, it is problematic to make individual freedom and autonomy the ultimate value. As an ultimate value, it runs counter to the call of Jesus to seek him and his righteousness first. He says the greatest of all is the one who serves rather than the one who expresses whatever one feels the loudest and longest. I do hope you can see the contrast.
I am a Christian minister, but I still live and breathe the cultural air. If I am to follow Jesus, I must consider how our particular cultural moment may pull me away, even unwittingly, from Jesus. If following Jesus matters to you (and even if it doesn’t), I invite you to consider the possible impact of expressive individualism in your own life and in the lives of those you love through this series of posts. Let me leave you with one more nugget that I hope will help you better understand expressive individualism and set the stage for a more detailed critique in my next post.
Expressive Individualism and Identity
Expressive individualism is all about forging and expressing a personal identity.
American journalist Yuval Levin describes expressive individualism as more than picking your own path in life. It is also “a yearning for fulfillment through the definition and articulation of one’s own identity… and to live in society by fully asserting who you are.” It isn’t just about self-direction in life, but the drive for public self-pronouncement to advance your self-ness.
Is this a problem? What could possibly go wrong?
In part two of this series, Expressive Individualism and Identity, we explore the problems that occur when expressive individualism influences identity formation.