Humanities & Social Thought Non-Fiction Uncategorized

The Case Against Narcissism: Donald Trump and the Horror of Being

About a year ago, I came across an article about how mindfulness can be bad for middle class white people sometimes. At the time, I was taken aback by the sheer hubris of The Guardian writing a “story” about this- like, you can just imagine them “recovering” over their Starbucks Vente Soy No-Whip Chai Lattes, right? But in the wake of the Trump presidency, and the growing question of what it means to be accountable and to whom one is accountable, the same article floated back into my mind, framed somewhat differently: can the simple condition of awareness cause pain?


In my own, brief existence, there has never been a moment when it is clearer that we are what we believe, and that those beliefs together produce a reality in which each of us individually must exist. This observation has taken the political world stage as we watch Donald Trump go to town on this thing we think of as “truth.”  But it would be naïve to assume that this phenomenon has suddenly sprung into existence. Rather, Trump calls our attention to this collective act of being by rejecting it outright. In the analysis of why Trump rejects consistency, most media and individuals have concluded that it must be because he doesn’t want to acknowledge anything that might reflect badly on him, or his brand. His fragility and defensiveness, his overly literal solutions (such as the wall and the ban), and his overly literal measurements of what is allowable (when he doesn’t pay people or businesses he hires, when he talks about assaulting women),  are all taken as evidence that Donald Trump is mainly interested in Donald Trump. I would like to assert the opposite: Donald Trump is on the run from Donald Trump.

Martin Heidegger, author of Being and Time, is famous for two things- for introducing the idea that we, humans, are concerned with being, and for being a Nazi. How, one often wonders, do the people who have so much insight into the human condition always end up being such lousy examples of human beings themselves? It may be that those who are most sensitive to world disclosure are the same as those who generally make the conditions of the lives of the people around them worse.

World disclosure, identified by Heidegger in Being and Time, is the process by which any entity (living or non) gains meaning. However, the warning here is that this is not the cultural notion of meaning. Rather, it refers to becoming intelligible in the world.  The assumption here is that an entity’s existence does not automatically make it intelligible. A baby looks at many things and few of them are disclosed to it, in the sense of “world disclosure.”

And yet, moving beyond Heidegger perhaps, although certainly still to do with being, a human is unique among entities, for at the same time he is disclosed to the world, that is the moment when he becomes complicit.

There’s that word again, that seems to rise like a tide of self righteous anger: complicit. Still, it’s worth remembering that we are complicit not only in suffering, but in the all. And perhaps that is still terrifying, but it’s a different kid of terrifying. Just a few days ago, an article was rising on this tide and floating through my feeds. The woke misogynist, this article argued, was the guy who identified as feminist, even spoke like a woke man, but was in the end, merely a hypocrite, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, undeniably Part Of The Problem. And, bracketing the grievous act of sexual assault for the moment, we are confronted with a question that this article shies away from addressing: in the messy relationship between ideology and practice, what does it mean to be? For the unspoken rare universal truth is that no human escapes the grasp of hypocrisy entirely, we all struggle to embody the change we want to see in the world, and we all fail sometimes. The question here is not, “should we forgive someone who commits sexual assault if he’s really a feminist who just slipped up,” no, the question is “who or what is a feminist accountable to?” And put as the philosophical question that underlies the practical question, “what is accountability?”

There seem to be two conflicting definitions. The first is the degree to which a person’s deeds match the belief sets they explicitly subscribe to, and the second is the degree to which a person shows up for and on behalf of other people. These are not the same thing by a long shot. The former, the consistency between a person’s alleged belief sets and his actions, is measured most often by the category of potential victim: feminist accountability is judged by women, anti-racist accountability by people of color, and so on. This measurement is then adopted by the larger group as a social conviction.  The latter, the comprehensiveness with which one is accountable to other people, is measured through the response one has to the expression of experience by another. This latter definition requires first the ownership of experience, and second the expression thereof not couched in any kind of rhetoric, but rather true because by definition, experience cannot be false. We cannot have false experiences, and in expression, they are only false if we are lying. To take the tremendously upsetting example from the article as a way of showing this point, the experience of sexually assaulting someone may not be that of committing a sexual assault, even if that is exactly what is happening. If a perpetrator of sexual assault says, “I did not experience sexually assaulting someone,” that is true. If he says, “I did not sexually assault someone,” that is false. The question here is not, “should we forgive someone who commits sexual assault if he doesn’t experience it as sexual assault,” no, the question is, “what is the relationship between experience and accountability?” And put as the philosophical question that underlies the practical question, “how does experience become intelligible?”

Through the process of world disclosure – that is when an entity becomes intelligible to the world – it becomes an element of that world, in fact it collaborates in the very constitution of the world. For that reason, the mere act of awareness is world-constituting. This is a process that can be described in technical terms, philosophically, but it can also be described in the disquiet of a middle class white woman who breathes in and out and counts her breaths. It can be described in the pain of a sexual assault victim in Brooklyn, New York, who faces the deeply disturbing gap between the ideals we hold up and the actions we take. Our very thereness makes us complicit in something far more horrifying than the narrow and deep suffering of people who are not us. It makes us complicit in constituting reality.  A person is because he or she is intelligible to us, and if we did not recognize him as such, he would live in a different reality, based on a set of conditions that are still entirely imaginary, that we have constituted together and subjected him to.

This is not a new claim, but it is quite a large one. The border between a person and the conditions in which he or she lives is porous, and the conditions themselves are constituted by all people together, but not to equal degrees. The President of the United States of America, alternatively called The Leader of the Free World, has, according to many, the largest amount of complicity. My assertion is that his own complicity in the constitution of reality already terrified Trump before he was president. Consider that if people are partially or wholly a product of the conditions in which they live, then accountability to belief sets is far less relevant than accountability to each other. We are constituted by each other, and that is true because of the fact of our existence, not because of any choice we can make. What we owe, we owe to each other and not to anything greater than or external to each other (take that, nation state).
And if, as is reasonable, we find this complicity terrifying, some of us will react, unreasonably, by avoiding accountability. What does avoidance of accountability look like? My assertion: narcissism. Consider that once we have disallowed the measurement of meaning to be a reflection of our complicity, the ways we have left to measure value are identical to those which Trump uses:

-How much human effort can we get on our own behalves for how little of our own resources? This is the measure of the value of work.
-How many other bodies besides our own can we claim for our own use at the cost of the least amount of our own emotional labor? This is the measure of the value of status.
-And of course, the literal barrier, the wall, as a measure of the value of protection.

The reason why these things are all absurd and offensive behaviors in our view is that we take into consideration accountability to each other. We do not, on the whole, sexually assault each other, because we constitute each other, and because we hold ourselves accountable for our own role in creating the conditions that define our experienced reality.

And finally, we reacquaint ourselves with the plain truth that this complicity is not a choice, it is true because of the fact of our existence- it becomes true as soon as we exist, and it remains true as long as there is human society. Indeed, even after death, what we have done and thought and shared continues to constitute people and the world.

But accountability is a choice. A person can run from the very notion of himself to avoid the complicity the fact of himself creates. Of the multitude of ways a person can run from himself, I have briefly approached two: to hold ourselves accountable to rhetoric instead of each other, and to measure meaning in the intentional absence of each other, using the literal mechanism of more and less. Trump does not want to be held accountable; no one is surprised by that statement. But what Trump does not want to be held accountable to is his own complicity, which requires him to avoid the very fact of himself. Donald J. Trump is not a narcissist, he is exactly the opposite. No one’s home.

As in the case of  the sexual assault perpetrator, the question is not, “Do we forgive Donald Trump because he is acting out of a place of pain, fear, and guilt?” The question is, how do we approach Donald Trump from the perspective of a man running from himself, instead of a man who is only interested in himself? And put as the philosophical question that underlies the practical question, “what does the fear of being mean?”

If what we are seeking is a more accountable society, forgiveness is never the question because on the societal stage, ethical jurisdiction and accountability are not the same. The relevant measurement of the perpetrator is not how right or wrong his experience is, as if his experience can be right or wrong. It cannot be either of those things any more than it can be false. Rather, the measurement that is a reflection of societal accountability is the one which tells us how the experience of perpetrators of sexual assault is produced. We hold ourselves accountable for the production of that experience, and we send him to prison not because of his experience, but because of his action.  If you think your own moral judgment of an admittedly immoral human helps constitute the change you want to see in the world, well — that’s just narcissism.

By jtp

Joanna Tova Price has a lot of heart.

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