Are you self-absorbed or self-effacing?

Recently, Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC’s White Coat, Black Artinterviewed Elizabeth Rathbun, a 66 year-old Vancouver resident with severe MS. Her story is compelling but it’s not the focus of this blog post. The focus here is narrative clues to the tension between us as individuals and society. I use Goldman’s interview with Rathbun as a vehicle only. I could pick millions of similar interviews or conversations that have the same dynamic and I have many in computer files. The fact is, I’ve just listened to the most recent episode of White Coat, Black Art and this interview struck me as prototypical example of the type of narrative I want to analyze here. 

For a long time I’ve been interested in individualism versus society. There’s a lot of great literature around this topic but Norbert Elias tops the list of sociologists I think of when I try to parse out the relationships we have with ‘society’. In psychological terms the relationship between the individual and society is bound up with all manner of confounding moralisms and ideological constructs. Like a number of other sociologists I find that conversation and narrative are a treasure trove of hints and hypotheses about our social relations. 

So, aside from the story itself, what is it about what Elizabeth Rathbun says to Brian Goldman that catches my attention? Read the following three paragraphs from the interview. Rathbun is talking about her experience with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Her MS is a particularly debilitating strain, leaving her in a mechanized wheelchair to get around, and in constant need of care. 

“What you discover about yourself is an enormous capacity for denial. Denial that it’s happening. Denial of what the future might hold … and a tremendous reluctance to give up the ways in which you look after your family, and the ways in which you contribute in the community.”

“Each time you think you’re there, there’s more progression. There’s a new development, a new thing to be incorporated in your lives and you start all over again.”  

“If you value independence so supremely that you do not want to help with the most basic things like dressing or brushing your teeth or showering … then that may be your line in the sand, but it’s not mine. I couldn’t care less,” she said, adding she’s “thrilled” the government now allows people to make the choice to have an assisted death.

Before going on I will now edit Rathbun’s comments a little and reproduce my edits below. See if you can tell the difference between the originals and my edits. Here are my edited versions of her comments:

“What I discovered about myself is an enormous capacity for denial. Denial that it’s happening. Denial of what the future might hold … and a tremendous reluctance to give up the ways in which I look after your family, and the ways in which I contribute in the community.”

“Each time I think I’m there, there’s more progression. There’s a new development, a new thing to be incorporated in my life and I start all over again.”  

So, why did Rathbun not use I in her comments on her MS? Let’s be clear, I’m not picking on Rathbun nor finding fault with the way she answered Goldman’s questions. Back in 2006 a number of my students in a research methods course undertook some research on what we called pronoun bending. Pronoun bending describes the use of the personal pronoun you rather than I in daily conversation, interviews, etc., when I often seems the most appropriate pronoun to use. One of the research papers we used as a source for trying to figure out the meaning of this phenomenon was called The Indefinite Youby Hyman (2006).[1]He concluded that the use of the indefinite you was in his words youbiquitous. Rathbun is not alone in her use of the indefinite you. We all do it! I’m adding the paper my students put together in 2006 to a page here. It would be helpful if you read it now, especially the findings at the end of the paper. 

At times people being interviewed or in daily conversation will start off by using I then switch to you at certain times. My students were most interested in why that happened. Hyman (2006) and Senger[2](1963) in a much earlier paper suggested a few possible reasons. It could be a defense mechanism or a means of distancing oneself from a painful reality. It could be a way of showing that we’re not so self-absorbed that we can’t relate to other people and their problems.

One clear moral/behavioural principle in our world is that we shouldn’t brag always using I, I, I in our conversations. It’s okay to be an individual, but we must also recognize our social connections and our reliance on others. Self-effacement is problematic, but it’s non-threatening too. When Rathbun says with reference to dealing with a debilitating disease like MS that “What you discover about yourself is an enormous capacity for denial,” she is unconsciously appealing to our sense of belonging and understanding. She could just as easily have said “What I discovered about myself is an enormous capacity for denial.” In using the indefinite you, she is implicitly imploring us to agree with her. She is subconsciously saying “You know what I’m going through, don’t you. I’m not alone in feeling this way.” 

Now consider Rathbun’s third paragraph above. I repeat it here:

“If you value independence so supremely that you do not want to help with the most basic things like dressing or brushing your teeth or showering … then that may be your line in the sand, but it’s not mine. I couldn’t care less,” she said, adding she’s “thrilled” the government now allows people to make the choice to have an assisted death.

In this paragraph she is using an indexical use of you. In other words, she is pointing to you specifically and saying that may be where you would draw the line in the sand, but not me! “I couldn’t care less.” Wow. She’s owning that one. There is a switch in this quote from using you to using I, but it’s a ‘natural’ one, not one from I to an indefinite you. 

This post is plenty long enough already, so instead of going on and on, I’d like to challenge you to pay close attention to the conversation you have or hear and try to pick out speakers’ uses of the indefinite you. I think it’s a fun exercise. And please read Pronoun Bending on this blog. 


[1]Hyman, Eric, “The Indefinite ‘You,” English Studies, 2004, P.161-167

[2]Senger, Harry, L.,  “The Indefinite ‘You’- A Common Defense Mechanism,” Comprehensive Psychiatry, Vol. 4 No. 5 (October), 1963, P.358-363.

Escape 26: It’s all about you and me. Yes, it’s personal, but the personal is the social.

Escape 26: It’s all about you and me.  Yes, it’s personal, but the personal is the social.

So, I’ve managed to stay on schedule and write a blog post every day for the last 25 days.  It’s been an exercise in discipline as much as anything.  Why have I done this?  Why have I done anything in my life?  Why have you?  I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and reading all the relevant material I could get my hands on.  A lot of my attention has been and still is on the concept of morality and what it means to me as an individual and to the various groups I ‘belong’ to.  In thinking about this, I like to use the metaphor of the dance.

Life for each of us is a dance, a dance between self-aggrandizement and self-effacement, between ego and group, between me and you and all of us.  As an individual animal I need to eat, drink water, sleep, breathe air, shit and piss.  I could say that I also need to have sex, but that’s really quite optional.  Obviously for societies to survive some people need to have sex for the purpose of making babies, but not every member of a group needs to participate, as long as a ‘sufficient’ number do.  So, I have my needs and you have your needs.  Like sex, we have needs that involve other people.  Sex is a basic social act.  We need to cooperate to do it.  Most of us have a sex drive (Freud called it the libido), but it varies in intensity from person to person.  One thing is certain and that’s that we need the company of others.  We are a social species.  Of course, in a sense, all species are social, but we don’t all equally enjoy the company of others of our species.  In some species life is pretty much a solitary experience, individuals coming together for sex and for not much of anything else.  We humans are quite gregarious, by and large.  We like and need contact with others.  We know how devastating it can be when we don’t have meaningful human contact with others; we languish and die.  We also know that the most devilish of all punishments is solitary confinement.  We literally feed off of each other, as Kirby Farrell wrote so eloquently about in his blog post I reposted here today.  Yet, there’s a problem we have to deal with as individuals in our social relations.  In fact, as Norbert Elias argues, there is no such thing as a human individual, we are really interweavings and interdependencies.  We know nothing, are nothing outside of our groups.  Maybe after long years of effort we can learn to live by ‘our own devices’ but only because we take a whole lot of cultural baggage with us including material artifacts, things to do things with, tools for instance.

A hundred years ago, Thorstein Veblen teased classical economists for their view of us as “homogenous globules of desire” bouncing off of each other in the market as if we and society were two separate things.  We are not.  We are society.  That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t exist without us.  No.  The existence of societies is not dependent on any number of discreet individuals, but only on the existence of a ‘sufficient’ number of individuals.  ‘My’ society doesn’t stop functioning because I die.  It’s not dependent on me.  I, however, am dependent on it.  To use an analogy, on the one hand, if I were a drop of water in a river, I could easily be ‘extracted’ from it and the river would still flow.  If the river dries up, on the other hand, there can be no individual drops.  Becker struggled with precisely these issues.

As individuals we need to feel that we have value.  We need to feel that the space we take up on this planet is justified.  We need to feel important, to know that our lives have meaning.  We do not get this meaning from our bodies, by eating, shitting and pissing.  So we do things as individuals to convince ourselves of our importance.

Enter the dark side of social life:  Becker says that we now have a general theory of human evil.  It’s the result of “man’s hunger for righteous self-expansion and perpetuation.” (p. 135) Often we exercise our hunger for self-expansion at the expense of others.  We do this as siblings vying for our parent’s attention, by cutting another driver off in traffic, by shouting at a clerk, but we also do it in large groups through warfare, ‘ethnic cleansing, scapegoating and discrimination.  The more power we have the more we can incorporate others in our self-expansive strategies.  If I say to you ‘thanks for your time’ I’m tacitly acknowledging that I’m using you for my own purposes.  If I ask you for a coffee I’m asking you to take time out of your life to do something for me.  That may be a small thing, but small things add up so that sometimes we all but become slaves to others.  Human relations are not always ‘win, win.’  Corporations appropriate the labour of thousands of people.  As Becker writes:

We might say that there is a natural and built-in evil in social life because all interaction is mutual appropriation…social life seems at times life a science-fiction horror story, with everyone mutually gobbling each other like human spiders….My point in lingering on this is to show that we can have no psychology of evil unless we stress the driving personal motives behind man’s urge to heroic victory.

Of course, heroism is only possible within a society’s boundaries.  No one can be a hero in a vacuum.  Heroes can only be heroes if we collectively consider their actions heroic.  And, as we know, heroes can lead us all into an orgy of personal self-expansion.  That’s why we follow them with such devotion, but more so, we follow the group that creates the heroic possibility in the first place:

The individual gives himself to the group because of his desire to share in its immortality; we must say, even, that he is willing to die in order not to die. 

Of course: if our group is the source of life and if that group dies, then we die permanently, body and spirit.  So we have to defend our group with our lives.  Don’t forget the aphorism from the first chapter in EFE.  Evil is disease and death.  To defeat evil means to defeat anyone or anything that would contest the values, morality and power relations in the group.  “Men kill lavishly out of the sublime joy of heroic triumph over evil.  Voilà tout.” (p. 141)

I think it is time for social scientists to catch up with Hitler as a psychologist, and to realize that men will do anything for heroic belonging to a victorious cause if they are persuaded about the legitimacy of that cause.

­The ‘cause’ in the last sentence of the quote above could be a marriage, a friendship, a small business, art, a hockey tournament, saving whales, fighting Stephen Harper, building pipelines or opposing them.

Enough for now.