On the Perils of Self-Awareness

Much of my thinking in the last few years has revolved around a single question. What if a healthy politics requires a lack of self-awareness among political actors? 

Past thinkers have entertained similar issues. I first approached the question in “The Ideology of Political Pragmatism.” The Vim can be interpreted as the attempt to achieve some form of political self-awareness. But what if that is not a worthy, productive, or attainable goal? 

The question connects to numerous areas of life. Perhaps the most obvious is the influence of social media on news consumption. It is a desire for self-awareness that leads me from observing the GOP divorce from reality to the worry that I might be similarly out of touch. After all, many would judge from my politics that I am a benighted stooge. Maybe they are right. I like to think I’m adept at evaluating the reliability of posts and can float above the emotional manipulation that makes Facebook and Twitter billion dollar businesses. But might that be (an ironic) lack of self-awareness? What really separates me from my neighbor who is spiraling deeper into QAnon? Am I just lucky that the algorithm is nudging me in the direction of truth? How would I begin evaluating the question? I cannot Google it.

Even when I am not online, I notice that, to function in my communities and gain respect, I am required to endorse substantive political views. If I did not join my union, support Black Lives Matter, and show fluency in up-to-the-minute social justice jargon, my life would be more difficult. Aside from the actual philosophical arguments in favor of those causes, I have purely social reasons to conform. It becomes an exercise of self-awareness to decipher whether I have adopted my politics for good reasons. With social reasons looming in the background, and knowing the potential personal costs, can I trust that I am evaluating the philosophical arguments in a reliable way? How convenient that the people around me happen to have the right politics! 

The point is that I am caught in a complex social network—online, offline, and in between. I have only a sliver of understanding of the ocean of forces bearing on me. In the case of online social networks, the platforms are incentivized to hide the true forces. I think I’m simply being informed and what I see is the result of choices I make, but I am wrong. I see what posts are successful, the praise they garner, and I mirror their features, unaware of how the system as a whole works. 

When people are around each other, they pick up on vocabulary, tones, priorities, values, and substantive political views. It is a complex integrated process. Noticing how the process happens and the effects it has on me and others is self-awareness. 

But aren’t I describing a straightforward, albeit abstract, sociological phenomenon? There is no innovation in pointing out that the phenomenon is a double-edged sword: the process explains both the cohesion of communities and how technologies can drive polarization and the erosion of democracy. 

The problem, however, is twofold. First, and most obviously, the two effects are fundamentally incompatible. The strength of polarization, even to the point where reality itself and the basic principles of democracy become partisan, means the dissolution of community. Small communities might become more homogenous and closely knit, but the cause of the homogeneity is primarily reactive: we are united in having a shared enemy. The community is limited in how much it can expand. If everyone were to become a part of the community, how would it use rage to bait clicks? Either the values that make the community cohere would need to change or another enemy would need to be produced from within its own ranks. If our health is contingent on the cohesion of a community, forces that drive polarization within the community will, if left unchecked, make us unhealthy. 

Evaluating our health requires self-awareness. This leads to the second part of the problem. It would appear that self-awareness, by making us less likely to be unknowingly tossed back and forth by social waves, is a way out of the incompatibility between community and polarization. 

But it isn’t. 

It is challenging to maintain the conviction of your politics while honestly grappling with the possibility that you have been prodded into them by a complex network of unseen and unreliable forces, not by your dispassionate contemplation of “the facts.” All of a sudden, conversations about politics seem scripted. People are playing a part, saying what they’ve been trained to say, and not convincing anyone. The moves are predetermined. Every news cycle is the same. When someone appears to be convinced, the most plausible interpretation is that the person is striving to maintain standing in their community. 

For example, consider the people who, over the course of a couple weeks or days, came to adopt ‘Defund the Police’ as an unshakeable tenet of their politics. What explains the shift? How aware are they of the process? I admit that as I marched in the streets of Los Angeles, even though I could speak in some detail about the legacy of racism in America, I did not really know what I was doing and why I was doing it. How do I recognize that and keep chanting at the same volume?

Here is the conflict: can I truly lay claim to sincere political action if I do not adopt my politics in a self-aware way? Without awareness, what stops me from drifting into dark places? The threat is well documented in history. When are we Eichmanns in principle? At the same time, to achieve self-awareness, I need a level of knowledge of my social networks that I do not, and maybe cannot, possess. Could I acquire the knowledge from within my community? I need to find a way to step beyond my community and view it from without. But how do I get my bearings in a hurricane? The problem is not (only) whether there is such a place outside the storm, but whether I could begin to chart a course.

Here we arrive at a version of the problem I have been seeking to avoid. In my search for a healthy politics, I have removed myself from community, the object of politics. I am attempting to achieve cohesion through separation. As I sit at home, analyzing my motivations, their sources, and my capacity for analysis, my neighbors march on our street and my union negotiates with our employer. If everyone were like me, there would be no marches or unions. 

At this point I notice that, if I am arguing that a healthy politics requires a lack of self-awareness, I undermine myself by bringing attention to this possibility. I shouldn’t be distracting my comrades from their protests with abstract reflections. God forbid I convince them of something and they stop organizing. (Unless, of course, one of my political opponents is reading this, in which case I need you to overlook the double standard and engage in the kind of reflection I hope my comrades disregard.)  

Someone might suggest that there is a balance to strike. Maybe my standard of self-awareness is too high. David Hume captures the sentiment when he says, “Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man.” Do not lose yourself in debilitating doubts, especially in pivotal political moments. Self-awareness is a good, but it shouldn’t be an obsession. 

The response implies both that my core political commitments are beyond evaluation and that my opponents cannot be reached in a noncoercive way. As someone who has evaluated my core commitments and become what I previously took to be an opponent, I’m left without an awareness of what happened to me. Seemingly I should trust that unknown forces tugged me in the direction of justice. My new opponents are merely unfortunate. Awareness of this causes me to empathize and mute my denunciations of them (which might make me a bad protestor). This is a paradoxical feature of self-awareness: in and through separating myself from others, I find that I am the same as my opponents. How, then, can they be opponents? 

My concern is that the response is premised on a type of relativism. Self-awareness seeks the truth of the matter. By the logic of the response, there either isn’t one or we shouldn’t be concerned with what it is. If so, politics shrivels and ideals like justice and fairness become hollow. I’m left to wonder why I should care about politics. We are deluding ourselves in thinking that we are seeking anything more than our contingent preferences. We are opposing people who have an equally strong basis for their preferences. Self-awareness may be the mechanism through which a politics can be true in any durable sense.       

The response also fails to appreciate the power and scope of the technologies of social media. Once we overcome the fantasy that we are immune to their coercive effects and then see how deeply we can be manipulated, it becomes difficult to draw a line between what should be open for reevaluation and what shouldn’t. Even if your politics is not the direct result of predictable social media trends, it has been influenced by people or institutions whose politics are. Further, once we see that the technologies amplify and intensify broader sociological phenomena, we are left with little to hold on to. It is an uncomfortable place to be. How can you get out of it without relying on the forces whose reliability are in doubt?   

There is also a self-reflexive tension in the response. The choice to limit one’s pursuit of self-awareness requires a certain amount of self-awareness. We put the limitation in place out of concern for pressing issues. We want to minimize obstacles to action. This takes a position on my question: it concedes that a healthy politics—or maybe the only possible politics—requires a lack of self-awareness. We need to fall in with our communities, mirror their language and values, fight for the select causes, and think only within accepted parameters. Where the community drifts, we drift. We conform. 

One might argue that, in the end, this is the truer picture of politics. The model of self-awareness I have described is overly individualistic. It requires you to rise above the fray and not let anyone help you. But politics is fundamentally about community, writ small and large. It acquires its importance through the fact that no individual can be without others. Self-awareness would be self-denial. Understanding the self involves recognizing that it is fundamentally political. A philosophy that places the highest premium on self-awareness inevitably encourages a retreat from politics, and is all the worse for it. 

At the same time, calling the model of self-awareness individualistic does not mean it is not political. The motivation to pursue self-awareness is oriented around values like truth and justice. The goal is to achieve a righteous, reliable, and durable politics. How can I move forward without an accurate understanding of my place in the community? Injunctions to ‘check privilege’ rely on this thought. In addition, achieving self-awareness at the highest levels involves appreciating the lack of difference between yourself and others. Politics, at least as we typically understand it, could not function without some fundamental sameness. Self-awareness becomes deeply non-individualistic and may be the only, or among the few, routes to a politics not built on some form of chauvinism.   

In summary, and more concretely, the community we have is constructed in a way that easily leads individuals into broken and distorted politics. As much as the reconceptualization of self-awareness is an appealing project, the clear and present danger is the possibility that I am one of those hapless individuals. I once was and I may still be. So how could I begin the process of reconceptualization? Here again is the tension. For a politics to function with any conviction, it requires claims about truth, made in the form of universal judgments about what is right. If it stems from a relativism, it undermines itself. However, the search for truth and universality, when it is about and takes place within community as it is currently constructed, results in a loss of conviction. I need a community to help me construct my politics, but my community is one that easily leads me astray. At the same time, constructing my politics by myself, on the basis of some hermetic ideal self-awareness, might require a lack of self-awareness. 

Healthy politics or self-awareness. We can only have one. But to have one, we need the other. 

To each his suff’rings: all are men,
Condemn’d alike to groan,
The tender for another’s pain;
Th’ unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
‘Tis folly to be wise.

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