Kids no longer have to build character, they pick an identity

Kids no longer have to build character, they pick an identity. By Lionel Shriver.

Once upon a time, a fully realised person was something one became. Entailing education, observation, experimentation, and sometimes humiliation, “coming of age” was hard work. When the project succeeded, we developed a gradually richer understanding of what it means to be human and what constitutes a fruitful life. This ongoing project was halted only by death. Maturity was the result of accumulated experience (some of it dire) and much trial and error (both comical and tragic), helping explain why wisdom, as opposed to intelligence, was mostly the preserve of the old. We admired the “self-made man”, because character was a creation — one constructed often at great cost. Many a “character-building” adventure, such as joining the Army, was a trial by fire.

These days, discussion of “character” is largely relegated to fiction workshops and film reviews. Instead, we relentlessly address “identity”, a hollowed-out concept now reduced to membership of the groups into which we were involuntarily born — thereby removing all choice about who we are. Rejecting the passé “character building” paradigm, we now inform children that their selves emerge from the womb fully formed. Their sole mission is to tell us what those selves already are. Self is a prefabricated house to which only its owner has a key….

Child abuse:

The idea that your psyche is set from birth is intrinsically deterministic and therefore grim. The vision it conjures is fatalistic and mechanical: all these traits are hardwired, and life involves winding up the clockwork toy and watching it totter across the floor until it runs into the wainscotting. If a newly emerged self already exists in its entirety, there’s nothing to do. In contrast to becoming, being is an inert affair.

We haven’t given these young people a job. Contemporary education strenuously seeks to assure students they’re already wonderful. Teachers are increasingly terrified of imposing any standards that all their wards will not readily meet, so everyone gets a gold star. The Virginia school district of the once-renowned Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology now aims for “equal outcomes for every student, without exception”. A pedagogical emphasis on student “self-esteem” became dislocated from “esteem for doing something” decades ago. Why should any of these kids get out of bed? No wonder they’re depressed. …

Adults have an obligation to advise, comfort, and inform — to provide the social context that children have none of the resources to infer and to help form expectations of what comes next. Instead, we’re throwing kids helplessly on their primitive imaginations.

The first time I remember being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I clearly remember answering, “a bear”. I wasn’t trying to be a wiseass. I just wasn’t up to speed on the ambitions to which I was expected to aspire. Little wonder that kids are now “identifying” as cats. Next, they will be identifying as electric lawnmowers, and we will have asked for it. …

Sexual orientation:

I’m leery of venturing into the prickly no-go of sexual orientation. Yet while I’m open to the idea that some people are born gay, choices can affect what gets you off. We hear repeatedly from big consumers of online pornography that their tastes begin to change, and it takes more and more extreme videos to become aroused, until actual humans in real life will no longer do the trick. Watching porn is a choice. Even sexual proclivities exhibit some plasticity.

Following the modern script, 14-year-olds have learned never to say, “I’ve decided to be trans”, because all my friends are trans and I feel left out, but always, “I’ve discovered that I am trans”. This passive, powerless version of self has implications. We’re telling young people that what they see is what they get — that they already are what they will ever be. How disheartening. What a bore. Whatever is there to look forward to? …

Mass shootings are the result:

By withholding the assurance, “Don’t worry about not knowing who you are; you’re just not grown up yet, and neither are we, because growing up isn’t over at 18 or 21 but is something you do your whole life through”, we are cultivating self-hatred, disillusionment, bewilderment, frustration, and fury.

Young women often turn their despair inward — hence the high rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and cutting. Young men are more apt to project the barrenness of their interior lives onto the rest of the world and take their disappointment out on everyone else.

In a trenchant essay last autumn, “Mass Shootings and the World Liberalism Made”, Katherine Dee seeks a deeper explanation for the mass murders committed by disaffected young men, whose blind rage and misanthropy now express themselves in the US at a rate of twice per day. Gun proliferation, Dee claims, is not the core driver. Rather, “we have a nihilism problem”. The videos left behind by the Sandy Hook child killer Adam Lanza suggest a belief that “even if we could free our ‘feral selves’ from the shackles of modern norms, there would be nothing underneath. Just blackness. A great gaping hole. For many mass shooters, the only reasonable response to this hole is death — the complete extermination of life. Not just theirs.”

According to Dee, all these atrocities have hailed from “a world where everything revolved around the individual”. The result is narcissism, which “is expressed through our perpetual identity crises, where chasing an imaginary ‘true self’ keeps us busy and distracted. …

Young men who feel no personal sense of purpose are inclined to perceive that nothing else has a purpose, either. They don’t just hate themselves; they hate everybody. In telling people who’ve been on the planet for about ten minutes that they already know who they are, and that they’re already wonderful, we’re inciting that malign, sometimes homicidal nihilism.

Less gun control, more woke control.

hat-tip Stephen Neil