Sunday, 15 December 2013

We're the Millers

So, I imagine most of you have seen posters for We're the Millers--that comedy which doesn't look remotely amusing, unless the joke is in labeling it as a it happens, however, I'm not here today to talk about what is wrong with comedy, though that sounds a fascinating topic, and I may well return to it at some later date. No, rather I am writing this to address a far more disturbing and, I feel, dangerous aspect of modern society; identity. Okay, maybe it's not MORE important... Comedy is after all the life-blood of a good society, but it's at least equal.

The problem of identity is not an old one by any means: it features quite prominently in the branch of philosophy known as epistemology, for example. The question is always along the lines of 'What makes me me?' This question is not as easy to answer as some people may at first assume--am I my mind? My body?  Am I both? Assuming this issue solved, however, one passes on to another topic, one perhaps more relevant to most people's day-to-day life. The question now is what to do with anger, lust, sorrow, jubilation, and the like--are these too considered to be part of who one is, or are they separate, external to oneself, yet exerting a binding influence on oneself? Every time someone with an abusive anger problem says "It wasn't my fault I did that (whatever that may be), I was just so angry--you know I would never do that!', that person is standing within the paradigm of the latter position. This positiion is wrong, however, one is who one acts. This, too, I will leave for a later date, however.

The particular issue I am discussing today is the more general topic of self-identity, the consideration of what to use when describing oneself, the debate over hat it is that defines one. In the standard poster advertising We're the Millers, there is a series of arrows pointing to the four main characters with some statement about them which aims at an introduction: one is 'drug-dealer', another 'stripper', the third 'runaway', and the fourth, 'virgin'. It is this last which bothers me particularly; why on earth is his lack of sexual history a defining characteristic? Is he somehow not yet a person because he has slept with noone? Is he more? Neither, because it is irrelevant. Every other label on that poster tells you something about the character, about what they have done or what they do--it is genuinely informative to learn that someone is a drug-dealer, or a runaway, because it directly defines or influences their actions. The others all say what the character does or has done, but the label of virgin tells you something he hasn't done--it's like labeling someone 'not a bankrobber'; it doesn't tell us anything about the person in question.

So the first issue I have with this label is that it is irrelevant an uninformative, and therefore fails to be a defining aspect of one's characer. Secondly, I object to it because it ascribes to the view I mentioned briefly in my last post, the view that we are animals--or, to put it differently, the view that our bodies and our physical urges are what define us. I object to this strongly. I am right-handed, but this does not define me; I'm right-handed, but I still play guitar left-handed, yet this also does not define me; I am constantly drawn to chocolate, yet this does not define me; what is more defining is that I choose not to indulge in this desire in the majority of cases. This is defining because it tells something about who I am, how I act, how I think, et cetera. 

Now, one may object here that to define one as a virgin is defining according to my second point, because it refers to actions, or to the abstaining from action. The reason I do not consider it relevant is because it says nothing; one could be a virgin because one has chosen to abstain; because one has grown up alone on a desert island; because one has constantly tried to sleep with people, but through pure chance has never succeeded. This list is not exhaustive, and that is why the label 'virgin' means nothing; it in no way defines the character of the person in question; I may concede that the reason for his being a virgin may be defining (or it may not), but that is a different matter entirely. Again, to return to the 'not a bankrobber' analogy, it tells us nothing because it doesn't tell us why he isn't a bankrobber.

Why does this bother me so much? Because I believe it ties directly in with narcissism, with egotism. To focus only on one's feelings, one's hard luck, to focus on how things affect oneself, this is to exclude the bigger picture, to lose oneself, ironically, in the focus on oneself. Yeah, life is often crap, bad things happen to good people, but that's life. Rosemary Sutcliff was inflicted with Still's Disease when she was very young, and went on to become a world-renowned author--that is what defines her.

We are, then, not defined by our physical characteristics, nor by what we have experienced, nor by what we have not yet done. We can not be defined by these because they say nothing about us, about our choices, about our lives--even were I to lose my legs in an accident, what defines me is my reaction to that loss, not that loss itself. We are who we act, this and this alone is what defines us. If you want to know someone, know their actions.

1 comment:

  1. And maybe who we are and how we act changes over time?