Our Plastic World—And Plastic Selves

Published February 22, 2022

Public Discourse

The idea that the self is something plastic—that, we believe, we can shape in any way we wish—is the West’s reigning idea of selfhood. This idea especially shapes our thinking about our sexual natures. The sexually autonomous view of the self gained widespread prominence during the 1960s and has remained influential since then. Our changing understanding of “the self” is closely tied to shifts in our understanding of the world. Indeed, this idea of the self is arguably just one example of a much broader view of the whole of reality.

To clarify this, it is useful to engage in a thought experiment. If I had been born in England in the fourteenth century, I would have lived in a world that I would have considered stable and fixed. Wherever I was born in the social hierarchy—peasant, noble, or king—that is where I would have remained. In all likelihood, I would have been born to a family that worked the soil as peasant farmers. My career path would thus have been determined at birth: I would grow up to be a peasant farmer. My geographical placement would have been fixed as well, as travel, let alone emigration, would have been difficult and pointless. Everything I needed would have been in the village or town where I was born. I would have had a wide extended family with whose members I was familiar. I would probably have met the girl I was to marry fairly early in life. I would have been baptized, married, and buried in the same church. And my children—as well as my children’s children—would have experienced much the same. My religion would not be a choice, since the Catholic Church was the only religion available in my town. And my life on an annual basis would have been shaped decisively by the rhythm of the seasons: I needed to sow my crops in the spring, not the winter, and harvest them in the autumn, not the summer, praying for appropriate rain and sunshine in the interim. In short, my world would have been very fixed and very stable.

Our world is very different. Mass transportation, migration, education, social mobility, technology, science, medicine: all of these things and more have served to make the world a much more plastic place than it was in 1400. I will look at a few specifics below, but notice here the general picture: where once the world was fixed and therefore I needed to find my place within it (a place that was itself rather fixed), now its lack of fixity inclines me to think that the world can actually be shaped to my will.

I was born the son of a small-town accountant and lived in Gloucestershire as a child, attending a state grammar school; but, unlike my parents, I went to college, gained an undergraduate and a postgraduate degree, and, having worked at four previous institutions on both sides of the Atlantic, I am now a professor of humanities at a college in western Pennsylvania. My fate was not set by the circumstances of my birth; the world in which I live is one that I consider to be largely the result of my own free choices. Now, emigration might not be part of everyone’s experience of life, but most people in the West today think of the world as far more flexible, even fluid, than anyone in 1400 would have thought. In 1400, the world seemed fixed, stable, and solid. Today it seems as pliable as Play-Doh.

Technology and Plasticity

To put it bluntly, the modern cultural imagination sees the world as raw material to be shaped by the human will. Perhaps the most important factor in shaping this has been technology. To return to the medieval farmer: his life was utterly dependent on the soil available in his locale and upon the rhythm of the seasons. Today, irrigation means that we can farm in the desert; greenhouses, insecticides, and fertilizers mean that the soil and the seasons lack the omnipotence they once possessed. Nature’s authority has not been eliminated, but it has been significantly mitigated. The same goes for medicine. Diseases that were once death sentences can now be addressed with simple medications. Some, like polio, have even been eradicated. And geography is no longer the force that it was: with cheap transport, public and private, distances that were once measured in days or weeks can now be measured in hours.

From agriculture to medicine, from automobiles to computers, technology is not simply a means of doing perennial human activities with greater speed and efficiency. It changes the fundamental relationship of human beings to their environment and to each other. Neither the seasons of the year nor the geography of the land are as significant as they once were. Technology shifts the balance of power from nature toward human agency and the competition between agencies.

Technology also reinforces the focus on the individual, and on individual satisfactions. Take something like music, a basic part of human societies throughout history and across the globe. In the past, music was always a live, and often a communal, activity. Somebody had to be playing music for it to be heard; and somebody had to be present in order to appreciate it. Now we can listen to whatever music we choose, whenever we want, and, perhaps most significant of all, we can do so in privacy. Music has been transformed from something with a primarily live and communal focus (live concerts notwithstanding) and has become most commonly an item of consumption for the individual. If expressive individualism has come to focus on personal satisfaction as the meaning of life, technology has served that cause well.

All of these things contribute to, and reinforce, a cultural imagination that tilts toward seeing the world simply as “stuff,” the future as something we can make in whatever way we desire, and nature not so much as a fixed reality as something that is to be overcome and remade through technical mastery. If the modern person considers himself to be something he can create for himself, so he tends to extend that same notion to his relationship to the world in general. We no longer think of ourselves as subject to the world’s fixed nature, or of it as having an objective authority or meaning. We are the ones with power, and we are the ones who give the world significance.

The Revolt of the Elites

Another unusual hallmark of modern Western society, in contrast to the societies that preceded it, is the role of the cultural elites. The historical role of such elites was traditionally to transmit values from one generation to the next. Thus, the religious authorities passed on the faith and taught respect for the church; national leaders encouraged patriotism; and the family cultivated respect for parents and grandparents. In education, particularly in the humanities, teachers sought to draw on the perceived wisdom of the past in order to shape people to be good citizens. Each promoted a vision of the self that had obligations to others and indeed to the past. While there were inevitably changes as time went on, a basic respect for the past characterized their role.

Today, this cultural role has been transformed into its opposite. The fields of politics, art, education, and corporate business are now all marked by an aggressive negativity toward the past and its values and beliefs. The political drive on the left to overthrow traditional notions of sexual morality and human identity, and that on the populist right with its rhetoric of contempt for traditional democratic institutions, both witness to a deep commitment to tearing down the values of the past. Burn the past to the ground is the underlying mantra of political radicals on both sides.

Education—at universities and colleges but also increasingly at high schools and below—is permeated with the politics of identity and the various critical theories that see the purpose of pedagogy as unmasking social inequalities in the pursuit of social justice. The underlying logic of Rousseau’s theory of culture—that it is necessarily corrupting and oppressive—has found a myriad of expressions in the modern classroom as traditional social mores are decried as colonialist, sexist, imperialist, and racist. Battles over which books should be read in literature courses and which topics studied in history curricula bear eloquent witness to this. And the sex education of minors is an area of ongoing and acrimonious debate, focusing attention both on the clash between the values of the past and those of the present, and on that between parental rights and those of the state.

The world of the arts and entertainment is much the same. Movies, sitcoms, and even commercials now promote the mores of the sexual revolution and mock those who dissent from the consensus. As to music, we have come a long way from the moment in the 1960s when the Rolling Stones had to change the lyrics of the song “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” in order to be allowed to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. Songs marketed to young teenage girls now routinely contain sexually explicit lyrics far beyond anything Mick Jagger ever recorded, and often accompanied by videos that flaunt the singers’ sexuality in graphic ways.

And to this mix we can add the world of corporate business. While for many years big business was identified in the West with conservative political causes—probably in large part because the concept of free enterprise stood in obvious opposition to old left thinking on socialism and economics—this has now given way to support for radical social causes. One can debate the reason for this—an inherent libertarianism in the philosophy of big tech firms such as Amazon and Facebook? A cynical attempt to capitalize on youth markets?—but one cannot deny the reality. When in 2015 the Indiana state legislature attempted to pass a Religious Freedom Restoration Act to protect the religious consciences of business owners in light of the emerging push for LGBTQ+ rights, the backlash from big corporations was so swift, widespread, and effective that the final bill signed into law was considerably weaker in its stipulations than the original.

Big business had shown that it too was committed to a market that was overthrowing the values of the past, particularly in matters of religious freedom and sexual mores. And that scenario has been repeated with matters such as transgender bathroom policies and voting reform. Big business is firmly on the side of progressivism, as the ubiquity of the LGBTQ+ rainbow flag in store windows and corporate websites during Pride Month now testifies.

In short, the role of the cultural elites today is not to maintain continuity with the past, to preserve its beliefs and practices, or perhaps to modify them to make them fit contemporary conditions but still to do so in a way that respects and stands in continuity with previous generations. Rather, it is to overthrow them in the pursuit of establishing the new values, those of expressive individuals who need to be liberated from those historical cultural chains that inhibit them from being truly themselves and inhibit society from being truly free and just.

Selfhood Today

It is likely impossible to present a watertight account of why we modern men and women think intuitively about the world in the way that we do. Yet one can certainly offer an account that piles up various necessary preconditions for this and observe how these tend to tilt us in a particular direction. The collapse of traditional, external anchors of identity—perhaps most obviously those of religion, nation, and family—explains the attraction of the turn inward. The rise of technology feeds the notion that we can bend nature to our will, that the world is just so much raw, plastic material from which we can make whatever meaning or reality we choose. The loss of sacred order reinforces this subjectivism, as Nietzsche anticipated in The Gay Science.

And then there is the role of the elites, political, educational, cultural, and business, who have all decided both to repudiate the past and to press home the pathologies of the modern, expressive, sexual self with all the power available to them. The expressive self of the sexual revolution may not be a necessary development; but all of these factors make it a most coherent and explicable one.

Adapted from Strange New World by Carl R. Trueman, ©2022. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

Carl R. Trueman is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Grove City College, Pa, and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He writes regularly at First Things and is the author of numerous books, most recently The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution.

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