How to be Your Own Oppressor

A number of conservatives are looking upon the American landscape in the age of Caitlyn Jenner and legalized same-sex marriage and saying, “there are no rules anymore.”

They especially see this in the logic of Anthony Kennedy’s majority decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which the justice wrote in 1992:

Our law affords constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education. Our cases recognize “the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.” Our precedents “have respected the private realm of family life which the state cannot enter.” These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion by the State.

“The right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” These words are religious — they are teleological, they pertain to the ends and purposes of human existence — and they are, under this rubric, entirely up to the individual and the individual alone.

And that means chaos, conservatives say. Because there aren’t any “right” answers anymore. Aren’t any “shared” answers anymore, “objective” answers against which any individual conclusion can be measured. It’s anything goes.

Except, they’re wrong. Note this little exchange from the 1999 film Office Space between Joanna (played by Jennifer Anniston) and her boss Stan (played by Mike Judge) at restaurant Chotchkie’s about the amount of “flair” Joanna is — or in this case, isn’t — wearing:

STAN (MIKE JUDGE) : Joanna! . . . We need to talk about your flair.

JOANNA : Really? I have fifteen pieces on (demonstrating).

STAN : Fifteen is the minimum, mmkay. It’s up to you whether you want to just do the bare minimum. Brian for example has thirty-seven pieces of flair—and a terrific smile.

JOANNA : Okay, so you want me to wear more?

STAN : (Sighing.) Look, Joanna, people can get a cheeseburger anywhere, they come to Chotchkie’s for the atmosphere and the attitude. That’s what the flair’s about. It’s about fun.

JOANNA : So . . . more, then.

STAN : Look, we want you to express yourself. Mmkay? Now, if you feel the bare minimum is enough, well, okay, but some people choose to wear more, and we encourage that. You do want to express yourself, don’t you?

This may seem like a tawdry example, but this exchange is, I think, deeply indicative of how the therapeutic world works. While Stan clearly wants Joanna to wear more “flair,” he simply cannot simply tell her to do that. He cannot and will not be an external voice of authority. Instead, he wants her to want to wear more flair.

“We want you to express yourself.” You would think this would be fairly open ended statement with no right answer, but it’s not. It clearly has a correct answer. But it’s one that must be discerned internally. Brian is held up as a standard not because he wears 37 pieces of “flair,” but because he clearly wants to wear those 37 pieces. That’s self-expression in this world, and while Stan won’t tell Joanna “be like Brian,” (that would go against the whole notion of individual expression) he’s telling her to “be like Brian.” Because Brian expresses himself correctly.

Joanna doesn’t really care about all this, and thought wearing the minimum — and doing her job — would suffice. But it doesn’t. Stan needs her not just to do the right things, but to feel them, to want them. Of her own accord. To put those things inside her and make them part of her. She cannot simply do the right thing; she has to be the right thing.

In the therapeutic world, there are no clearly stated right answers because it will be assumed the right answer already exists inside everyone, and it’s just waiting to be found or cultivated. This has always been part of the paradox of American freedom — Americans were “free,” but it was always a tightly constrained freedom limited to certain kinds of choices. It was freedom from external authority (the main goal of the Enlightenment) — which is clearly tyranny — but it replaced that external authority with a semi-coherent internal authority. In order to function, this internal freedom demands a great deal of conformity — moreso even than any externally imposed order. In fact, in order for freedom to work, everyone has to make roughly the same choices. Wrong choices cannot be tolerated. They don’t just threaten the social order; they also signal that there’s a problem with the chooser, who is clearly disordered.

The right choices available would never really be explicitly outlined, and you wouldn’t know what they were until you actually failed to choose one of them. You might not be compelled to make those right choices, but right choices would still be expected, and failure to make right choices would still be sanctioned or punished. This was just as true of the socially, religiously, and politically conservative Southern California suburb I grew up in as it is of liberal and progressive America.

This kind of individual-defining, autonomous freedom is deeply conservative simply because it is American. Kennedy’s definition of freedom stands in the long tradition of allegedly expansive but simultaneously deeply constraining and conformist notions of American freedom. Very little has really changed, including the reality that there are wrong choices and wrong answers and that those who make them will be punished. Conservatives are suddenly griping about this now only because it’s finally working against them.

One thought on “How to be Your Own Oppressor

  1. Re Kennedy: “Our law affords constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education.”

    The ‘right choices’ now seem to allow latitude in the first points above: marriage, procreation and contraception. But less and less with regard to family relationships, child rearing and education. This is especially true in Europe, but may turn out differently here.

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