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The Expressive Self: Identity Above Truth

Influential voices tell us that to be yourself, you need to reject external sources of meaning—and follow “your truth.” But detaching authenticity from truth leads to emptiness, not fulfillment.
Part one of a four-part series exploring competing views of the “true self” and considering specific implications for sexuality, gender, and faith. For parts two, three and four check out: The Value-Responsive Self: Authenticity as Alignment With Truth, Sexuality in the Age of “If It Feels Good, Do It, Sexuality and Truth In Harmony

Photo by George Pagan III on Unsplash

In a recent article published in Public Square Magazine, Princeton’s Robert P. George identifies a psychological tension that many Latter-day Saints face today. They wish to be faithful to the teachings of the Church, but they have a hard time squaring the Church’s teachings about marriage and sexuality with the Church’s insistence that we should love everyone. If the Church was serious about loving everyone, wouldn’t it affirm the full range of sexual and gender identities that people identify with? 

Of course, we should love everyone. There can be no debate among Christians on that point. But the idea that love demands a certain response to sexual and gender identity puts love in the service of a particular viewpoint of both what it means to be human and the place of sex in human life. This taken-for-granted frame of reference makes several implicit assumptions about human identity, assumptions which “resolve” a host of important and complex philosophical questions before they can be asked. The push to understand identity this way has been so successful that many people do not even see it as a theory. It has receded into the cultural background as an unremarkable and unassailable “fact.”

In this series, I will contrast two broad understandings of human identity and show some implications they have for sex, gender, and sexual morality. In this first essay, I draw on various thinkers to give a brief introduction to an understanding of the self which has great influence today. I will call this self here the “expressive self,” a label that is a shorthand for the expressive-autonomous-unencumbered-individualist self, one which centers around subjective meaning, freedom, and authenticity. In the second part, I will articulate an alternative which I call the “value-responsive self,” a view that emphasizes our capacity to recognize and respond to higher values, especially moral truth. In Parts III and IV, I show how these two accounts of human selfhood are relevant to sex, gender, and sexual morality. 

Some readers may be skeptical of this whole project. Denial of the consequences of these ideas, however, simply places them beneath our awareness. And uncritical acceptance of the expressive self means we inevitably see everything through its lens – with a host of real-life, practical consequences. 

Defining the expressive self. So, what is the “expressive self?” The term “expressive individualism” was coined by Robert Bellah and co-authors in 1985 to describe a way of thinking which holds that “each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed.” This unique view of the self (as a broad social phenomenon) is relatively recent, and it is anything but “neutral”—it is a historically specific way of understanding human beings with its own conceptual baggage and shortcomings. It sets us up to experience sex and gender in a certain way; it structures the horizons of our understanding. Even if it is true, this should be seen as one theory among many—one possible way of understanding the self, structured by its own presuppositions, commitments, and theory of human well-being.

In contrast with previous historical periods in which one’s “identity” was defined by one’s place in the social or cosmic order, the expressive self, then, is defined by something deep within—a deeply personal and unique way of being not shared by anyone else.  From this vantage point, truth comes from within, not from society or nature or God. The philosopher Charles Taylor captures a version of this idea in The Ethics of Authenticity: “There is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s. But this gives new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life, I miss what being human is for me” (italics original).

The autonomous self is and should be the author of the norms and values that guide his or her life. If our horizons are structured merely by authenticity and autonomy, the self has no obligations or purposes other than expressing itself and perhaps respecting the expressions of other selves.

Selves understood in this way are strongly drawn to authenticity—with the individuality of the inner self yearning to be expressed (and recognized) in the world. Perhaps the central moral imperative for this modern self is to express thyself. The emotional sphere takes on increased importance for the expressive self, and in many ways, desire becomes its own justification. Authenticity is how we live up to our unique inner core of intuition and feeling. Taylor goes so far as to call our age “The Age of Authenticity” for the central role authenticity increasingly plays in our self-understandings.

As the importance of this inner sense of identity grows, the relevance (and perceived legitimacy) of external sources of meaning and value diminishes. The fact that this deep self is unique and particular suggests that it should be free—free from ascribed categories, external constraints, or unchosen roles or standards. (Michael Sandel coined the term “the unencumbered self” to get at this idea.) Of course, particular selves may not be actually free in all of these ways, but this understanding of selfhood suggests (and demands) that they should be. Perhaps a more accurate term for this kind of freedom is “autonomy,” which comes from Greek roots that mean “self-rule” or “self-law.” The autonomous self is and should be the author of the norms and values that guide his or her life. 

This sounds like liberation, and often it feels like liberation as well. But it does raise an unsettling question: does anything I do matter in a broader, more universal sense? Notice that if our horizons are structured merely by authenticity and autonomy, the self has no obligations or purposes other than expressing itself and perhaps respecting the expressions of other selves. From this perspective, the self is “buffered” (another insight from Taylor) from external meaning or influences, including anything that might be objectively good or “higher” for human persons. As the unrestricted autonomy of the individual grows, the intrinsic meaning of the world shrinks. In Carl Trueman’s words, the self is plastic, and the world is liquid. Different ways of life come to be understood as “lifestyles”—personal choices which have meaning (or not) depending on private decisions and inclinations of the individual. Fulfillment and happiness are reduced to subjective satisfaction. 

The inescapability of moral truth. This leaves the expressive self in a fundamentally ambivalent relationship toward moral truth. Expressive selves might sometimes act morally—and in fact, many do—but it seems that there is something accidental about their moral efforts. That is, expressive selves act morally when they feel like it and when it supports their identity, but that is all—expression is prior to morality. In fact, expressive selves are more likely to perceive the notion of moral truth as a threat—something that would impose norms and values on the self without its consent. Consequently, any moral claim that aspires to “truth,” to be something more than “my truth” or “your truth,” is perceived as an unjust and oppressive burden on the expressive self’s right to self-creation and self-definition. Speaking in a similar vein, David Bentley Hart writes that “We trust . . . that there is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore all judgment, divine no less than human, is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom.” 

But, strangely enough, the expressive self can’t quite exorcize moral truth. No matter how loudly the idea of moral truth is denounced or deconstructed, it always finds a way to come in the back door. This is because at the heart of the expressive self is the evaluative claim that freedom, expression, and authenticity are good and ought to be respected. On this, the expressive self is not neutral, nor could it be. This strikingly absolute moral truth claim grounds the importance of the expressive self, but the commitments of the expressive self are corrosive to the concept of morality in general. This is why I say the expressive self is fundamentally ambivalent about moral truth—it is incomprehensible without that specific moral claim, but morality becomes optional, the sort of thing you do if it happens to fit your feelings and your identity. Taylor calls this “the self-defeating move frequently being carried out in our subjectivist civilization.” 

What an absolute commitment to authenticity misses. Even authenticity becomes elusive for the expressive self. This is because authenticity requires us to discern which parts of ourselves are truly fundamental to who we are and which are not. Some parts of us (for example, gender identity, according to many people today, or moral integrity, as I later argue) are central to our identity, while other parts (the length of our toes, what we did on the 10,000th day of life, or combined significance of every 13th word we say) are not. Authenticity requires us to live up to the most important and central parts of who we are, not the peripheral or less significant parts. 

Now, a crucial question: do we get to choose which things are central to our identity? No matter how we answer, the expressive self is in a bind. If we say yes, the concept of identity (and authenticity with it) self-destructs because all choices become equally meaningless. If anything can be made significant simply by saying so or because one feels that it is significant, nothing is significant. As Taylor explains, “I couldn’t just decide that the most significant action is wiggling my toes in warm mud. Without a special explanation, this is not an intelligible claim.”

On the other hand, if we say that we do not get to choose what is central to our identity, then it appears that the expressive self is “encumbered” by standards and values that it did not choose. The expressive self will be cast within a framework of meaning and value which it did not create and over which it has no control. This, of course, is antithetical to the strong version of autonomy that is a central component of the expressive self. 

All this is to say that authenticity cannot be understood as something less than a moral value— something to aspire to, something which it is good to be—and therefore, if one accepts the importance of authenticity, one has also accepted an unchosen standard. Taylor: “Even the sense that the significance of my life comes from its being chosen . . . depends on the understanding that independent of my will, there is something noble, courageous, and hence significant in giving shape to my own life. There is a picture here of what human beings are like, placed between this option for self-creation, and easier modes of copping out, going with the flow, conforming with the masses, and so on, which picture is seen as true, discovered, not decided.” 

The takeaway point here is that it can’t be autonomy and authenticity all the way down. As Joseph Raz writes, “Autonomy is possible only within a framework of constraints. The completely autonomous person is an impossibility.” Taken to its logical conclusion, the expressive self implodes. 

What does any of this have to do with sex or gender? In the third and fourth parts of this series, I’ll have much more to say about sex and gender, but for now, I’d like to point out that the expressive conception of the self transforms the meaning of sex and gender in human life in two directions. First, any existing norms around sex (understood biologically as being male or female) and gender come to be seen as threats, as external forces which impose meaning on the self without its permission. In this way, the true self becomes prior to and different from the sexed body and any cultural meanings that may be connected to gender. Society and nature conspire to constrain, limit, and cabin the expression of the true self, and both on this view are ultimately arbitrary and oppressive. Consequently, when there is a disconnect between the experienced self and gender norms or “sex assigned at birth,” the experienced self should prevail. A vast array of social, psychological, pharmacological, and surgical resources are now deployed to counteract the threat of misaligned gender and sex meanings. 

Second, even as norms around gender and sex are seen as potential threats, one’s experience of gender and sex becomes enormously important to selfhood. According to a prevalent view today, each of us has a true gender and sexual identity deep down waiting to be found. This inner identity is near the core of the self, radically original, untainted by culture or other factors —the real you. One’s true, most authentic gender and sexual identity is unchosen, but at the same time unoppressive and liberating—it is “desire experienced as destiny,” in one author’s words. 

When people are constantly urged to look inward for meaning and when many traditional sources of identity have lost their relevance, perhaps it should not be surprising that sexual desire and gender identity come to have great importance. Indeed, this helps explain how sexual and gender identity have become so central to the self for so many. As Carl Trueman writes, “sexual desires are among the most powerful inner feelings that most humans experience . . . and when external anchors of identity are weakened or even collapse,” as they have in our time, a variety of influences can combine to make sexual and gender identity central to selfhood. C.S. Lewis was onto a similar point when he wrote, “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”

This is, admittedly, a dramatically condensed account. For those interested in a fuller treatment, I recommend Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self and Strange New World (similar to Rise and Triumph but in a shorter and more accessible form), where he traces many of the intellectual origins of the ideas I have been discussing and shows their relevance to contemporary debates about sex and gender identity. Jeffrey Thayne also has some excellent observations here in Public Square about expressive individualism. In Part II, I explore an alternative to this expressive self, namely, the value-responsive self.

About the author

Daniel Frost

Daniel Frost is the Director of Public Scholarship in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University and Editor-in-Chief of Public Square Magazine. He has a Ph.D. in Politics from Princeton University.
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