The New American Solipsist

The New American Solipsist

by BENNETT WINTERS

We see that which we are, and our eyes project on every side an image of ourselves; if we look with fear that which we behold is frightful; if we look with love then the colours of heaven are repeated to us from the ditch to the dungeon.
— James Stephens, The Demi-Gods (1914)

Many have blamed the problems of modern America on the failings of two of the major structures that polarize it: the media and the bipartisan political system. The media is sensationalist, we say at times. The bipartisan system is broken, at others. Neither statement is entirely unfounded. The media is a business fueled by profit, and its moral compass is as nonexistent as any automaton or corporation. Sensational content puts money in the shareholders’ pockets—journalistic ethics be damned. And conveniently enough, the bipartisan system happens to a renewable source of this content for the media, which then turns around and blames the system for promoting the wrong sorts of policy (both from the left or right). It’s a self-sustaining cycle.

But as evident as this scenario seems, the bipartisan system is merely flawed, and the media simply capitalizing on our own latent desires—as the market says it should do. Capitalism, as heinous as its disregard for humanity can often appear, has proven throughout history to be a working economic option. And as vital as criticism is in any democracy, it’s becoming far too fashionable in ours. In particular, we jump to the kind of criticism that distances ourselves from the problem or puts ourselves above it. I didn’t choose to be born here, we essentially say. I didn’t create these problems.

Yet, to enact change, the lens of criticism needs to turn towards the individual. We spend too many hours gazing at our televisions, our computers or tablets—imagining them as hypnotic prophets of abstract doom when instead we need to recognize them as mirrors. They reflect what we want to see, both in the narrow personal sense of the moment we chose to spend regarding them, and in the societal sense of capitalism’s drive to supply the people what they demand. And what we demand is identity politics. When news stations aren’t picking up the most viscerally jarring material they can, they’re scouring the sea of public figures for the most controversial and personally damaging utterances. When we’re watching the news station allotted for our respective political identity, and some verbal artillery fires in from the other side, we take it personally. Our beliefs are so embedded in our identity, where our sense of pride makes its home, that thoughtless associations trigger at the challenge of these beliefs, creating an excuse for us to reject dialogue in favor of emotional immaturity. Most informed Americans know this to be true, and rightly understand identity politics to be detrimental to politics as a whole. And yet, we still cling to the fallacy that the shouters on television and on the internet make us mere victims of individualized sensationalism. But ultimately, in this crime, perpetrator and victim are one and the same.

The new American who is so obsessed with identity politics as to shield themselves from criticism and ignore unwanted logic by way of claiming personal offense has begun a descent into solipsism. Solipsism is the philosophical standpoint a person takes when they believe only in the existence of their mind, and that the rest of the observable universe is merely a product of the mind’s illusions. This is a belief that follows closely from Descartes’s “I think therefore I am” axiom when the thinking stops there. I might as well be a brain in a vat, and you—a cluster of inputs that resembles but does not constitute a human being.

Solipsism certainly has its attractions. It eternally justifies the self, and everything that emerges from the self, including emotions. However, like drugs, emotions can be abused, triggering the dopamine cycle in detrimental ways. They are beautiful things, but when we let emotions rule us, we fall out of balance. Logic and emotion are far from antithetical, and are needed together for us to be in harmony and stay healthy. The desired balance is not the same for all external situations. In personal matters, emotions should be emphasized just as much as logic. But in impersonal macro-level problems, emotions must be kept in check.

The most pressing concern to us in matters of societal import has become the integrity of our own feelings, which is tangential to actual progress. If we’re uncomfortable with something that impinges on our mind, it has to go—how else will we be comfortable again? When our mind constitutes the world, what better way to make a perfect world than by eliminating the things that make our mind feel uncomfortable? Unfortunately, this does not work in any world that is more than a brain in a vat, a world where other people are sentient and their feelings matter just as much as ours. This emotional approach does not work towards progress, because it is blind. Directed discourse is the only light we have to find the faint path of logic, which runs along the glittering lode of advancement. Subjective concerns that take into account identity and emotion, when spread across a diverse human race, become mere noise, echoing endlessly from the walls, as if bickering. A singled-out echo might even form the semblance of reason, but within the undirected din, it cannot be recognized as such. In any conversation, regardless of which part is more well-informed, chances are all parties think it’s them: subjectivity leads to a stalemate. Ultimately, objectivity is the only way conversation will strike gold. But it must be given the time, space, and trust to do so. The conversation has to run its course, personal discomforts aside. Yet, so many of us want to halt the entire operation as soon as we feel offended. Ironically, though we spend more time than ever on these topics through the internet, most of the conversation is in loose semantic terms that are empty signifiers. An important topic trending on Twitter has no correlation with a meaningful conversation being had about that topic.

The channels of the internet have strange and dangerous properties of magnifying both mob mentality and solipsism simultaneously: nigh everything in the world comes at you through a single screen that encircles your perception, and reduces other people to background noise that might as well end at their opinion. This explains recent instances of “hashtag activism” and “internet witch-hunting,” which occur when a subjectively offensive opinion is taken up by a Twitter user whom can choose to set off a domino-effect of outrage in 140-character intervals, and the original statement—now distorted—surges through the internet, gathering up the impetuous fury of millions and comes down upon the original perpetrator as a bolt of Old-Testament “justice”. When the sanctity of our mindscape—in this case, the internet—becomes so precious to us that we will resort to malicious attacks to eliminate the opinions that threaten it, with no regard for the adverse effects on the actual physical situation of the entity on the other side (such as their job security) not only have we become an antagonist to our fellow man, but to ourselves, because we have crossed the threshold into solipsism and have become too mentally weak to break out of our bubble of comfort and experience unfettered life. Civilization itself feels the weight of lives that cannot aggregate the experience necessary to contribute to the greater good through enlivened discussion.

Of particular worry is that this solipsism is most often embodied in the younger generations. College students are now beginning to request trigger warnings on classics of literature that contain jarring material; this defeats the purpose of the material. But we have become so spoiled by our culture of appeasement and instant gratification that our experiential avoidance has gone off the charts. Our minds have been too happy for too long in their solipsism, and now we can’t stand a negatively-valenced feeling long enough to reap the reward of its passing—whether it’s the pain of writing a boring paper or the pain of reading a disturbing scene. Almost a truism, it is worth stating here that life is not supposed to be comfortable. Its peaks and valleys are what give it beauty, so when you want a warning sign at every turn so you can realize the only safe place is right where you are, you are giving in to solipsism—a sorry, stagnant fate.

Whether we embrace solipsism or not, we are almost always given the choice of how to receive any experience in life. Yes, different readers will have different experiences with the same text, but it is in our interest to largely go with the curriculum, because even if the texts are not guaranteed to be sensitive or perfectly well-reasoned, they are guaranteed to be representative of our society. They introduce us to real phenomena, and we are allowed to interpret it in any way we like, perhaps even using it as ammunition to fight back against the ideas presented. If I am turned off by the racism in Huck Finn, and decide not to read it for that reason, all I am doing is giving my trauma power over me, and letting it eclipse other far greater potential value from the book. If I go the next step and try to get it dashed from my school’s curriculum, I am imposing my own personal feelings onto separately feeling entities, which is solipsism, which is homogenizing, and which is ultimately enabling censorship.

Take the opposite mindset: taking the feelings of others’ and translating them into your own. This is empathy, which is unequivocally a good thing. Empathy opposes solipsism, and is an elusive cure-all for the modern problems that solipsism brings. When we want our own identity politics to remain unchallenged for the sake of our feelings, but turn around and challenge someone else’s, we aren’t practicing empathy. Even if you feel like it’s your sound logic rather than your emotion that is being transgressed, remember that no one has all the answers, and giving effort and thought to the other side’s argument will always leave you more informed than when you began.

Just as it is not empathetic to believe that everyone thinks the same as you, so is it not empathetic to believe that everyone thinks differently from you. Both are manifest forms of solipsism, because the latter is the belief that one’s own plight is unique, and thus somehow exalted, whereas the former contrives bliss from ignorance. No—it is for everyone exalted, and for everyone lowly. Humanity’s struggle tolls eternal, and, as many have claimed, every story we can know has already been written. For there is no man against man, no man against god, no man against society. There is only man against himself, the one for whom he always searches and always mourns. Know that even far across the continents and across the years, your solipsism, and your stagnation, are always reflected:

I’ve never done much, but I’ve lived my whole life thinking of myself as the only real man. And if I’m right, then a limpid, lonely horn is going to trumpet through the dawn someday, and a turgid cloud laced with light will sweep down, and the poignant voice of glory will call for me from the distance—and I’ll have to jump out of bed and set out alone. That’s why I’ve never married. I’ve waited, and waited, and here I am past thirty.
— Yukio Mishima (trans. John Nathan), The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1965)

References

Aitken, Robert. The Gateless Barrier: The Wu-Men Kuan. N.p.: Farrar Straus & Giroux (Northpoint). Print.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1972. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. The Unconscious. London: Penguin, 2005. Print.

Mishima, Yukio. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. New York: Knopf, 1965. Print.

Pater, Walter, and Donald L. Hill. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry: The 1893 Text. Berkeley: U of California, 1980. Print.

Stephens, James. The Demi-gods. New York: Macmillan, 1914. Print.

 

Bennett Winters can be reached at winters@aesirlab.com.

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