The Good Fight
Tara Isabella Burton on the Myth of Self-Creation

Tara Isabella Burton on the Myth of Self-Creation

Yascha Mounk and Tara Isabella Burton discuss the shift in modern societies away from external truths to a new gospel of finding one’s authentic self.

Tara Isabella Burton is a writer and novelist. She is the author of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. Her latest book is Self Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Tara Isabella Burton discuss the trend towards religious non-affiliation and the rise of à la carte spirituality; the challenges such a world presents for creating community and political solidarity; and whether we can pursue self-creation while also fulfilling our deepest obligations as citizens of a liberal society.

The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: You've been thinking a lot about the nature of identity in this particular cultural moment and how it's changed over the centuries. 

What are we talking about when we're talking about identity, and how does sort of an understanding of our intellectual history help us to reconceptualize the practices in our society today?

Tara Isabella Burton: I argue in Self-Made that our fundamental sense of identity is primarily about trying to work out what exactly makes us us. And when I started writing, I wanted to do something narrower and more specific, which is a history of this idea of self-creation, the self-made man, the entrepreneur, the dandy who lives life as art. But increasingly, I found that this kind of distinctly early modern and modern cultural shift about what makes us us became more at the heart of the project, even as these paradigmatic self-makers kind of exemplified it. And I think increasingly, from roughly the Renaissance to the present day, we've seen a shift in thinking in what you might call our circumstances, our social selves, as increasingly being seen as arbitrary or contingent—these are not the things that make us us; rather what makes us us increasingly comes to be understood as our hopes, our dreams, and ultimately, our desires; that our affective states are the most accurate window into who we “really” are. 

Particularly in the post-internet iteration of that cultural moment, where more and more of us are not only disembodied physically but also isolated from wider communities, we become all the more insistent that we are who we want to be, and that these other elements of our communal life are at best irrelevant or something to be transcended (and, at worst, are actively repressive) and are holding us back from who we “authentically” are.

Mounk: Let me take a couple of steps back to understand this right. I've had Joe Henrich on the podcast as well, who has talked about the idea of “WEIRDness,” people who are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. The basic divide seems to be between more traditional societies all over the world that say things like, “I am a son, I am a husband, I am a father,” and populations that are WEIRD (and those include literally Western societies, but also many university students in Nairobi, Bangkok, or all over the world) where people are much more likely to say, “I'm a university student, I'm an economist or somebody who has these political beliefs.” They define themselves in these different ways. 

How does your story sort of intersect with that story? Is it a different way of expressing a similar point? 

Burton: When I'm talking about this cultural shift, I am speaking not globally, but specifically about, let's say, 2023 America and to a lesser extent, Europe, places that are specifically sort of within this cultural remit. With that said, I think I'm telling a parallel story. I think that there's a broad strokes overlap there. I'm a trained theologian, and I joke that maybe when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But I think that this is a story largely about theology and religion, which is to say, particularly it is about, in the European West, and then in America, a transition from, roughly speaking, a vision of a God-ordered universe where our relationship to one another and our own selves is mediated by an awareness of ourselves as created beings who are subject to divine order and divine plan. You can find this in Aquinas on natural law, the sense that, just as God makes the birds and the trees and the flowers, God makes kings and princes. Because of this sense of social and natural order being intertwined, your average medieval peasant’s sense of who they are is deeply intertwined with a sense of a world in which they are not particularly important, one might say. 

Now, particularly in the Renaissance, this idea comes under certain kinds of tension. But it's really in what is broadly called the European Enlightenment onwards that this starts to change significantly. As ideas about God's representatives, particularly the Catholic Church, and their legitimacy start to wane, increasingly, the sense that “I am created by God for a purpose I do not know and cannot access” gives way. Particularly in the 19th century, there becomes the sense that whatever is divine in the world is some kind of force that human beings can access through their psychological affective states and harness in order to basically manifest what they want in this earthly life, rather than achieve a reward in some afterlife. And so traditions like the New Thought tradition in America become the sort of new theological account of what it means to be human. New Thought, which gets founded in the 1860s (basically a proto-The Secret, proto-Law of Attraction), runs on the idea that if you just think positively enough, you will bring health and wealth into your life. This became a hugely, hugely influential cultural phenomenon during the Gilded Age. At the core of it is the sense that if you just want something badly enough, you can make the universe give it to you, and that that is sort of how the universe functions theologically. 

Over 50% of Americans believe that manifesting works, about 20% say they regularly do it. And purely anecdotally, if we're talking generationally, all the zoomers are doing it.

Mounk: We might call it the WEIRD-ification of our culture, right? When you go back to before the beginning of your story, most people in Europe and North America are not weird; they are living in communities in which the sense of belonging is much more determined by their social relations and a particular theological conception of what those signify and what justifies them. And what you're telling is the broad story about the cultural transformation of a large swath of West from continental Europe, North America, of what the specific moral content of our WEIRDification is. 

I’m interested in the span of beliefs that people have. What do you, as a theologian (who only has a hammer, so everything looks like God), actually perceive underneath the surface of that secular, rationalist self-description of our society?

Burton: I think that there's two ways to answer the question. And I think, on the surface, America in 2023 looks quite religiously diffuse, which is to say about 25% of Americans are now religiously unaffiliated (that goes up to 36% when you're talking about younger millennials and Generation Z). But about 72% of those religious “nones” will say they believe in something. And there's this sort of general tendency on the part of both traditionally religious and spiritual but not religious Americans alike to do what I call “religious remixing”—this idea that, alright, a little bit of yoga here, a little bit of sage cleansing here, try some tarot, go to synagogue on the High Holy Days. That there are religious and spiritual elements of our lives that exist to be curated and brought together in the service of us creating our own religion. 

There's one way of looking at it and saying, “This is kaleidoscopic, this is fractured, everybody's doing their own thing.” But as your question suggests, and as I become increasingly convinced, between Strange Rites and Self-Made, a lot of these phenomena are downstream of a very specific and relatively narrow set of assumptions. And I'm surprised now to think about how self-evident it is for so many people in this sort of WEIRD world, to use your categorization, that the purpose that we have as human beings is for us to choose, and one of the things that makes us human is the ability to choose our purpose. If you want to find a historical antecedent for this, it is Giovanni Pico della Mirandola's “Oration on the Dignity of Man” in 1509, where he basically is among the first Renaissance humanists to somewhat controversially argue that human beings have no fixed place, no fixed form, and we may fashion ourselves. And I think that, deeply intertwined with this sense that our purpose is for us to choose is the sense that either nothing matters, there's nothing out there, and so all that exists is human will and human desire to shape perception (which is maybe the more Nietzschean version) or a slightly more New Age, spiritualized account that there's energy flowing through the universe, and whatever is divine is kind of a force like electricity that can be harnessed and can be contacted; but most importantly, the closest we get to that force is when we investigate our own desires, our own feelings, our own thoughts, that the closest thing to an authentic self is, by exploring what we want and by thinking of those things that put limits on what we want—especially family, community, societal restrictions—as worrying at best; at worst, just plain evil. 

There is much to be said for the liberal tradition, and, in particular, the way in which human dignity is affirmed at the level of the individual rather than merely as the result of certain kinds of collective; that there is something that we can preserve in valorizing, the part of the self that is not reducible to birth, blood, class, what have you. But I do think (this is where I do become a bit of a crank), the pendulum has swung too far. I am concerned about this sort of spiritualized individualism and its relationship to our ability to make the kinds of compromises necessary to form a genuine political community or think meaningfully about our obligations. 

Mounk: What is the nature of the individualism that is now culturally dominant, and how does that relate to the ideals of liberalism?

I think that there's a popular misconception about liberalism; that philosophical liberalism, as a political ideology and a prescription for how to sustain affluent, peaceful, and diverse societies, somehow prizes a radical form of individualism over any form of traditional community. And I just think that that's a misdescription of liberalism's historical concerns as well as its contemporary principles. Historically, liberalism was forged out of the wars of religion, out of the clash of different religious convictions, but the goal was not to liberate people from any form of embeddedness in community, it was to figure out how to keep the peace. Now, of course, one of the freedoms it gives you is the ability to leave your communities to go and become a radically self-creating individual, but there's nothing in liberalism that says that that is the superior way to live. Today, there is this idea that you should go out into the world and have fun and interesting experiences and somehow, in the process of that, you will discover your real self, which is certainly not rooted in a particular traditional community that you come from. It involves a quest: you have to go find it, and yet you’re discovering something that is somehow pre-existing—it’s already out there, even as you’re self-creating it. 

That part of it is very interesting to me, and I'd love for you to help me understand what the component parts of this very popular and widespread ideology are. 

Burton: There is a certain account of the boogeyman of liberalism (I'm thinking of Patrick Deneen’s book). The most charitable way I would describe this general line of thinking is that there is some kind of unsettling atomization about contemporary life, that one might have reasons to want to investigate historically, that seemed tied into modernity as a whole. 

But the most liberal self-making tradition is not at all about untrammeled selfhood—I'm thinking of Frederick Douglass and his ideas of self-making, and early American ideas of self-making, which were so deeply rooted in communal virtue ethics; the idea that self-cultivation as a practice was necessary in order to legitimize certain kinds of self-government. How can one expect to govern oneself politically without certain kinds of self-restraint? Freedom is understood as freedom from one's own baser instincts; the quote that I always like to trot out is Douglass's view on temperance, for example, because he says that chattel slavery in America would be ended if only slaveholders got sober—that if we could get people to stop drinking, they would realize that they were doing this morally abhorrent thing and somehow be transformed. And this vision of certain kinds of liberal ideology brought together with the ideology of self-making was absolutely not the kind of untrammeled self that we see just a generation later in America. 

It's that latter vision, this weirdly spiritualized, individualized vision of human freedom as ultimately being about who is more in touch with the secret workings of the universe, which is distinctly American and rooted in various 19th century American bizarre spiritual traditions. But it has absolutely become the dominant one.

Mounk: Can I push you to take off the hat of an intellectual historian for a moment and put on the hat of a social critic or philosopher? 

Coming to the present moment, what do you think, in the most straightforward terms possible, are the sort of key tenets of “Kardashianism,” and what is your case against it? 

Burton: The idea that our selves are commodities that we not only can but should (or else, we're sort of falling out of what it means to be human) cultivate for economic gain and for a kind of social capital; that our bodies, our stories, our “traumas” (to use a common buzzword)—these are all material for us with which to create the content of our lives. And that, ultimately, the way that we can best harness this is thinking about who we really want to be and shaping ourselves towards that. 

My concern about this is not, in and of itself, that I think being who one wants to be is bad. I don't have a problem with anyone who wants to dress up like David Bowie (I, myself, would love to dress up like David Bowie from time to time). My concern is that it becomes almost impossible to think of political community as something worth subjecting oneself to if one does not have a robust notion of a shared external truth that is meaningful beyond our own personal realities. And I think that the gospel of self-creation is indistinguishable from a kind of ideology of reality creation; that there is no order out there, there's no purpose out there—meaning that purpose and reality are for us to create. 

And it goes without saying that in the social media age, where more and more of us are disembodied, more and more of us have access to channels of information, that sense that reality is simply perception becomes all the more palpable. How can anybody be expected to make the kinds of sacrifices necessary for community, to understand oneself as having certain kinds of moral obligations to one another that one does not choose? Because if the things that we choose, that we want, make us truly who we are, if they're what makes us us, what does that mean for those people in society who either do not wish to or cannot make themselves in a particular way? Do they get left behind? And secondly, what does it mean to basically be a person in a society without a robust sense of obligation? 

Mounk: I am sympathetic to much of that point. One of the ways in which I've changed that as somebody who, as Jürgen Habermas once said, is religiously unmusical, who did not grow up in a religious tradition, I used to think that religion inspires a lot of bad things in the world, and I sort of assumed the ongoing process of secularization of America was going to be a positive force because it allows us all to be tolerant and peaceful and so on. It seems to have done the opposite: as people have withdrawn from religious communities into more individualized spiritual beliefs, or into just nihilism, they seem to have gotten sort of lonely and angry in ways that help to explain some of our political moment. I had an interesting conversation, perhaps a debate, about this when Sam Harris was on the podcast. I've become much more concerned about what a deeply secular America will look like for that reason. 

What I'm struck by, and what I've been chronicling recently, is the rise of a new set of ideas about identity categories, about race, gender, and sexual orientation; the fact that many progressive educators in this country now think that their task is to teach students to conceive themselves as racial beings, the fact that in many American contexts are now encouraging, and sometimes mandating, racially segregated affinity groups. Now, the straightforward reading here is that all of that goes against your thesis, that this is the pendulum swinging back and we are re-engineering a world where we're going to be defined by these group identities. Perhaps that is too simplistic a critique, because there's something oddly individualistic about the nature of this, right? There's this weird claim where you are defined by the particular intersection of identities in which you stand, and that, simultaneously, is both supposed to mean that, to understand you, I need to understand you by virtue of your descriptive identity characteristics and you have no choice in this matter (people like Thomas Chatterton Williams, who want to make race a less big part of how society works, and who says he's given up on the attachment to the idea that his children need to be perceived as black, are sort of the ultimate provocation to people in this tradition); but, on the other hand, there is a kind of claim that to be recognized as standing at your particular intersection of identities is what's going to allow you to be seen and affirmed as a true individual. So there is something sort of paradoxical about the promise that this ideology makes. 

As you see, I have many thoughts about this, and I'm confused about it. So please help make sense of it, for me and for my listeners. 

Burton: I'm very grateful, because you've made part of my argument for me. Which is to say, I'm very glad you asked me about the kind of social justice left, precisely because I think that both the social social justice left and certain forms of the reactionary right (and I'm saying this without drawing any moral equivalence, but simply as a phenomenon) I would describe less as the pendulum swinging back and more attempts to work out what seems to be a cultural malaise about individualism with the tools of individualism at hand. There is a shared sense, particularly among people my age and younger (millennials and zoomers) that there is something missing in what they might refer to as the “neoliberal” account of the world. It's a sense that something about human givenness is important, and this is missing, and this leads a lot of people with various prior political convictions to various ways of working it out. But I think that, as you say, the precise nature of the ways in which this is being worked out often ends up being kind of not fully cohesive, precisely because the endpoint is the individual and the individual self-description: speaking for myself, I, Tara, am ethnically Jewish, half Italian, and half American, and these things do very much shape who I am. But I think there's a way to think about it as: the political communities I'm part of, and the responsibilities I have to various people in my life, and the ways in which I'm informed by those things, are part of what makes me me

That's a very sort of neutral thing to say. But I think the point at which using this kind of language as a form of affirmation in a culture where every single thing we do and consume is a kind of other form of self-affirmation (our New Yorker tote bag, or our Twitter avatar, or our social media presence) becomes an act of very specific, very targeted self-disclosure. And my sense is, and perhaps I'm just an old crank, that some of the more social media-based ways of thinking about capital-I Identity do come from the tension between a real cultural hunger for acknowledging elements of communal givenness and a lack of shared cultural tools about what that might mean to exist in a wider political community, including ones where people don't share several of your characteristics (regardless of what those characteristics might be). 

Mounk: So what does all of this interesting analysis mean for people who want to preserve our politically liberal system in terms of our own personal practices or the kind of culture that we should encourage? If you recognize that we have this danger of a sort of superficial individualism that is spiritually suspect and seems to make it hard for us to actually have the kind of political solidarity we need with each other to sustain those kinds of policies; and that the most common attempt to remedy that among young people seems to be a sort of neo-identitarianism that pretends to be progressive but actually ends up smuggling in some of the same suspect spiritual claims about how to truly find themselves, what would a “third way” on personal identity look like? 

What would it be like to embrace a spirit that gives people the freedom to self-create their lives in appropriate ways while recognizing the importance of various forms of community, and that could help to be one of the bases, at least, for a set of political commitments, habits and instincts that will help to sustain our basic societies?

Burton: As an Episcopalian, I’m always a fan of a good third way. My intuition is that the best potential avenue we have out of this crisis happens at this very, very hyper-local level. We are not going to get anywhere in terms of national politics, and an individual's relationship to national politics mediated via Twitter discourse. But where I do see an avenue for building these kinds of communal self-conceptions towards change are at the hyperlocal level of your town, your neighborhood. I live in a neighborhood in New York City called Red Hook, where what's very strange about it is, unlike many New York neighborhoods, we all know our neighbors. It's very isolated, it doesn't have a good public transit system. 

If you've got trash on your block, you're gonna have to work with your neighbors to deal with the trash on the block. If you've got flooding, you're gonna have to work with your neighbors to deal with flooding. And I think the kind of what I would like to see on a top-down policy level is more investment in local communities and local community infrastructure. It sounds perhaps a little idealistic of me to think that public parks and bike lanes will solve everything. And I don't think that. But I do think that the only way that most people will have access to the kind of political life that involves knowing people who are in community with them that are different, and also working towards an actual outcome, does tend to happen at that hyper-local level. Unless we're gonna have National Public Service Corps, or something like that (which, by the way, I think would be great), the closest opportunity we have to provide people—whether they live in cities, or smaller towns—with avenues towards a political life that is not identity-driven in the sense that we're describing it is to support the kind of infrastructure for civic life where people just have to know and live with their neighbors.

Mounk: Let me push on one other thing, perhaps, which is that, a few years ago when everybody was talking about Jordan Peterson (who, thankfully, has somewhat faded from prominence), I was thinking: this is our fault. And what I meant by that is that people in the mainstream, on the left or on the center left, are very bad at offering people any form of moral guidance. They're often quite good at doing better than their own families or communities; especially in the United States, the sort of affluent, coastal “elite” actually has deeply bourgeois practices of marriage and child-rearing and so on, and they communicate that to the next generation quite effectively. And for all of the complaints I sometimes have about my students, they're all unfailingly polite, competent human beings who are going to lead worthwhile lives and, by and large, treat the people in their lives reasonably well. But they’re really bad at offering that at a broader level. So if you're somebody who didn't have the luck to be raised with some of that advice, if you're floundering, if you're casting about for what should guide you, there just isn't much serious thought and reflection in the mainstream for how to do that. And so when I said that Jordan Peterson is our fault, it's that he was willing to step into that space which all of us had left vacant. We were to blame for the vacuum. 

If we are to fill that vacuum in a better way, if after recognizing that the models that people have for how to think of themselves in terms of identity, or for how to construct a meaningful life, are not helpful, how do we fill that? What moral traditions should we draw on, what social practices should we engage in, to do that? 

Burton: Perhaps I'm pessimistic, as you are, about the ability of the current market to support anything—I don't think we can get anything but Jordan Peterson, which is to say I think the attention economy is structured to incentivize someone who has a good idea, taking that and dialing that idea up to 15, monetizing it and becoming a sort of self-parody, rather than having a more measured but less tweetable vision of life. At the point at which we're saying there's an empty space for an intelligent guru to fill, we're gonna have 25 charlatans before we can even start thinking about someone who might be a useful model. Meanwhile, I think that the places that I see good community work being done or even models of living being expressed—I write for Plough magazine, which is run by the Bruderhof, which is a pacifist Anabaptist Christian group that doesn't own private property, who are some of the most wonderful people I've ever met. But they're not trying to make a million dollars with Patreon. So I don't know, short of a modern day saint or holy fool coming on the scene who is somehow able to channel social media for good, I don't know that the self-help tradition, or the self-help market, is the place to find any of this stuff. 

That said, I do think there is room for (and I hoped for this from post-COVID Biden and it didn't quite pan out) large-scale funding for certain kinds of projects, be it to create jobs with infrastructure, be it robust libraries, and community centers, and all of that stuff. But I do think that the material support for any kind of communal life and social safety nets that protect those that are vulnerable to the forces of alienation seems like as good a start as I could possibly imagine, even as I am wary that there is anything short of all of us throwing our cell phones into the ocean that will save us. I'm not yet ready to prescribe “throw our phones into the ocean” as a policy proposal, even if I am tempted to.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.