The Sterilization of Inner Life

The Rise of the NPC

Yesterday, Razib Khan tweeted this out:

I wasn't too impressed, as I have written before that the process he is describing, the reduction of Persons to bundles of identities, is not constrained to any particular racial or sexual group. Rather, it is a universal experience throughout human history, intensified to incredible heights in today's world for a number of reasons. Put simply:

  1. Khan is describing the process of "Painful Subtraction" that Elaine Scarry talks about and which I have discussed

  2. This process occurs to people of all kinds, and the structure and ideologies of modern society all contribute to intensifying the process and making it more common

  3. How we view others is connected to how we think others view us which is connected to how we view ourselves. The reduction of Others from Persons to bundles of identities leads to one of two outcomes: a sterilization of our own inner lives, or narcissism.

Part 1: Painful Subtraction

From my piece, Recovering Empathy:

Elaine Scarry wrote an essay titled "The Difficulty of Imagining Other Persons," and while I disagree with parts of the essay and much of Scarry's Liberal principles, much of the essay remains fascinating. The central topic is the problem of the Other: How does one relate to this Other?

Scarry sees this problem as so important because it sits at the core of the injustices of our society:

The difficulty of imagining others is both the cause of, and the problem displayed by, the action of injuring."

She illustrates this through reference to the work of British novelist Thomas Hardy:

He places before our eyes the dense interior of a man or woman. He then juxtaposes this ontological robustness with the inevitable subtractions, the flattenings, the emptyings out that occur in other people's vision of the person.


Hardy maximizes the imaginary density of a person, then lets us watch the painful subtraction each undergoes as she or he comes to be perceived by others.

It is this painful subtraction that characterizes our engagement with the world around us. In other words, we cannot escape the fact that society only ever sees a miniscule set of facets of our being (if society is even perceiving those facets correctly in the first place). Those close to us engage in what one might call a restorative addition over time as they "come to know us" more fully.

Part 2: A Subtraction Society

Many feel, rightfully so, that this painful subtraction process appears to be intensifying and spreading. There are two reasons for this:

1. Material/Structural: Thrownness/Rootlessness

People "become" an individual in the eyes of another when they meaningfully interact with them and care about them. But what happens when people are not able to meaningfully interact with one another regularly? What happens when you switch apartment buildings or neighborhoods every couple years, never becoming embedded in a community? What happens when you move cities for jobs, and can only see your friends every 6 months (if that)? What happens when public spaces continue to be gradually closed off and when the Virtual Public Square is exclusionary? Alienation is a constant in today's world. Is it any surprise that 27% of millennials and ~20% of all Americans reported having zero close friends in a YouGov poll in 2019?

The networks we operate in have simultaneously become broader and shallower, and I believe this is deeply detrimental to our lives (and I think the data on friendships, suicides, and mental health all support that claim). Now, when I say shallow, I am referring to two somewhat separate phenomena in a single word. Most people understand that depth and superficiality are opposites, and that many "relationships" never go beyond small talk into the depth required to build intimacy, but fewer readily identify the rhythm that is also an integral part of relationships. These points on depth and rhythm have been discussed far more beautifully than I ever could in a piece called The Lost Rites of Friendship, discussing the story The Little Prince:

This, too, is the lesson of The Little Prince and the Fox: that friendship requires the same combination of rhythm and depth.

“To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world . . .”iii

The Fox indicates rightly that they have no need for each other; that true friendship transcends the initial utilitarianism of the modern world. After all, how many times have we known individuals who make friends merely based on what that friend can do for them? Would we not deny that as being true friendship? The Fox also notes how uniqueness is not something obvious in each individual, but it is discovered and cultivated through an encounter. In other words, uniqueness is only achieved through the depth of getting to know the other person—in “taming” them. The Little Prince asked, “what does that mean–‘tame’?” to which the Fox replies: “‘it is an act too often neglected,’ said the fox. ‘It means to establish ties.’”iv

This depth becomes superabundant if properly attended to. It reaches out to colour the entire world in which the lover and loved one lives.

“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat . . .”v

How much more could I add to such a beautiful image? Is it not obvious to the reader that true depth in friendship will also make fears (the footsteps) joys? Is it not obvious that it will make the useless (wheat) pregnant with happiness? Perhaps subtler is the idea that monotony will turn into euphoria for what could be more monotonous than the sun rising on another work day and yet, for the Fox, that golden colour is now clothed in radiance. Is this not the paradox of love? Did this not find its most paradoxical expression on the beautiful ugliness of the cross? Of the lifegiving death of the condemnation of an innocent man? Of the victory in defeat?

So then how can one approach this depth? It begins with silence.

“You must be very patient,” replied the fox. “First you will sit down at a little distance from me–like that–in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day . . .”vi

2. Ideological: Autonomy and Wokeness

First, our Society celebrates autonomy above all else. The key here, of course, is that Autonomy directly opposes embeddedness. It demands shallow relationships:

We are all embedded within networks we had no choice in. We didn't choose where we were born or who our biological parents are, etc. We never consented to these characteristics that were thrust upon us. We didn't even consent to being thrown into the world in the first place!

And so, it is reasonable that when our society's core value runs up so strongly against the nature of our existence, our society rebels against "nature" itself.

And Second, the focus on identities in today's society is associated with "Wokeness." My perhaps controversial claim that Wokeness emerged from Liberalism and the values of Autonomy/Freedom/Liberty notwithstanding, it should be obvious that "Wokeness" is the most direct cause of the reduction of Persons to bundles of identities. It demands this.

Part 3: Inner Mirroring

As I mentioned before, how we view others is connected to how we think others view us which is connected to how we view ourselves. As we engage in a society that opposes embeddedness, it should come as no surprise that empathy falls as well. As people have fewer and fewer deep relationships, it becomes harder and harder to conceive of others as full Persons. Which leads, of course, to one of two outcomes:

Outcome 1: Sterilize the Self

If you only engage with people on a shallow level, what is the point of cultivating those inner depths that make life so rich and meaningful? There is nothing left but the surface: signaling and pleasure become the highest goods. As are networks become shallower, our ability to understand others as full Persons weakens. And as that ability weakens, the value of each of our inner depths weakens as well. So it should come as no surprise that people are "uninteresting." What is the point of being interesting if there is no one around to appreciate it? And the vicious cycle continues.

Outcome 2: The Shadows Surround Me

From my piece on the sociopaths at McKinsey:

I doubt many of you care much about comics, and even fewer about comic adaptations, but there is a tv show called Legion that is one of my favorite tv shows of all time. Highly recommend. Anyways…

In Season 2 of Legion, Jon Hamm was hired to do voiceovers for these mini videos that played either at the beginning, or in the middle, of each episode. One of them, titled Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, is far less about Platonic metaphysics, and far more about narcissism. Here it is:

While the definition of narcissism narrated by Hamm here likely wouldn’t be cited in the DSM-V, I think it gets to the core of what narcissism is and I think it applies strongly to the kinds of people who work at places like McKinsey. The Spreadsheet Sociopaths.

The most alarming delusion of all: that other people don’t matter

Hamm uses the idea of the shadows from Plato’ Cave and rather than tying it to a metaphysical system, he ties it to the psychology of narcissism in modern society and especially of confusing a world seen through a prism with the real world.

Unlike the allegory of the cave, where the people are real and the shadows are false, here, other people are the shadows. Their faces, their lives. This is the delusion of the narcissist. Who believes that they alone are real. Their feelings are the only feelings that matter, because other people are just shadows. And shadows don’t feel, because they’re not real.

But what if everyone lived in caves? Then no one would be real. Not even you.

Ultimately, when we reduce our fellow man to numbers in a spreadsheet, when we become alienated from them, we have turned them into shadows. And we too, have become shadows. A kind of perverse collectivism emerging out of individualism. Every person, reduced to a shadow.

The endpoint of Autonomy is, ironically, the abolition of our inner depths. In some ways, perhaps, an abolition of the Self. In its place, we witness the emergence of a terrible new order: collectivism without community, alienation without actualization.

Our society becomes little more than a shallow sea of nodes: each one thinking the same thoughts, desiring the same things, and consuming the same products. The freest man in the world is the NPC.


Leave a comment

(Cover Image from Casual Histrionics)