I have tried to reinvent myself a few times as I was growing up. Twice when I changed schools obviously. I remember thinking “this is going to be a totally new start. I can become someone completely new.” But the most ambitious attempt was when I went to university I had spent nine months growing my hair and beard in North America. When someone in the law faculty as I was enrolling mistook me for a postgraduate revolutionary, I thought I would try to inhabit the role. I wasn’t sure how long I would get away with it.
The answer was only a few weeks. Then reality caught up with me, and it became clear to everyone that I was just a 19 year old fresher first year undergrad; posing.
I was reminded of this reinventing of the self when I heard two psychologists thinking out loud about what we have learnt to describe as our culture wars. Jordan Peterson and Brett Weinstein were talking about our quest for identity and the cancel culture in a recent podcast.
Why was it that so many people wanted to re-invent themselves as a different sex or gender? Why has it suddenly become ‘a thing’? Why were some people convinced this fluidity of personality and sex was a natural human right, while others called it out as unreal?
It seems to come down to two contrasting attitudes towards the internet.
One group see what happens on the internet as just as real, maybe even more real than what happens off the internet. They give a preference to their electronic identity. And the other group put biology and facts before presentation and preference lived out on-line.
The two psychologists were agreed about the importance of trying out different personalities and identities as we grow up. But when we do it as children, we need our parents’ help. We need them both to encourage the exploring and also to set safe boundaries to the quest.
So when my child runs around telling me with huge enthusiasm and energy he is ‘na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na BATMAN’ – the job of a parent is to smile and laugh and congratulate him. But when he opens a window on the first floor and stands on the windowsill ready to launch himself into batspace, the job of parent is to offer a swift and effective. reality check.
Everything was more or less normal until 1995. Something very different happened around about then. Jonathan Haidt in his book ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ documents how the parents of children born after about 1995 became frantically overprotective in the raising of their children. This produced the snowflake generation who can’t handle criticism or danger. This is the generation who have outlawed free speech at universities; who are terrified of what they call ‘hate-speech’, and instead of dealing ideas that question their assumptions, prefer to ban their expression. Older, but not exactly grown-up, they crave the safe spaces of their infancy in both school, College, workplaces and the public space.
But more than that, they were also the first generation to grow up surrounded by social media. Their online relationships were, for the first time ever, quite as vivid and effective in their development as the ‘real’, biologically present, people and relationships around them. Online for them was at least as real, and maybe more real, than offline.
Looking at both sides of the coin, Peterson reflected on how real one’s on-line life can be. It can take on a life of its own. He realised that having been hors de combat for the last year overcome by physical and psychological stress in his real life, his on-line life had a life of its own, and was garnering millions of hits.
People all over the world in the on-line dimension of things were discovering him, were offended by him, argued with him, and shared him. Yet all the time, he was in fact off line, ill and at times, close to death.
But it’s one thing to notice that one’s on line presence has a life of its own when you wind it up and set it off; it’s another thing altogether to believe that what happens on line is more powerful and authentic than what happens off-line.
Peterson and Weinstein believed that one way of looking at our present culture wars
Is to see them as a kind of civil war across society. On one the side you have those who find reality in biology, facts, real-life interactions. And on the other side you have those who see on-line behaviour and dynamics as dictating what can or can’t be real. The avatar is all.
Tragically, for the old fashioned off-liners, Covid has forced so much more of life on-line, from shopping, to dating, church, and even music making.
On-line rules for living are different from off-line. But if Covid has taught us anything, it is how important people are in the flesh rather than on the screen; how much we need interaction with live people, rather than imaginative avatars; how much more feeling the pages of a book, and breathing in the scent of the paper adds to the words we drink in through the eyes; how much we need to be part of a crowd at a football or rugby match; how important it is to be part of an audience in a cinema, theatre of concert hall.
We need people in the flesh. Our major experience of reality has to be physical not electronic. As the internet grows ever-more powerful, it is up to us to keep life real; off-line, and not to lose the cultural civil war with a generation who have taken refuge in an built a whole life electronically, on-line.