Understanding and surviving a culture dominated by expressive individualism

“The sexual revolution,” says Carl R. Trueman, author of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, “is not about expanding the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable sexual behavior. It is about abolishing sexual taboos in their entirety.”

November 15, 2020 Carl E. Olson BooksFeaturesInterview 4Print

Carl R. Trueman (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. A church historian and prolific Evangelical author (he is a member of The Orthodox Presbyterian Church), Trueman previously served as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University.

He has authored or edited more than a dozen books; his most recent is the just published volume titled The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, from Crossway. Deeply researched and impressively argued, it has been described by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput as “essential reading for anyone concerned for sustaining the Christian faith in a rapidly changing culture” and by Dr. Francis J. Beckwith as “undoubtedly the most accessible and informed account of the modern self…”

Dr. Trueman recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about the book.

CWR: Your book, as the title aptly indicates, takes on a rather daunting array of related issues. How and why did you come to write the book?

Carl R. Trueman: In 2015, Rod Dreher at The American Conservative and Justin Taylor at Crossway both suggested to me that I should write a short introduction to the thought of Philip Rieff. As a result, I started reading Rieff in depth and connecting his analysis of modern culture with that of other writers, particularly Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre. As I did so, it became clear to me that an introduction to Rieff would not be as useful a project as a more thoroughgoing analysis of our current cultural climate using the analytical concepts which these three had developed.

At the time the big issues in the public square were gay marriage and, post-Obergefell, transgenderism, on which issues I was regularly writing at First Things. And so I decided to write a book applying Rieff, Taylor, and MacIntyre to the current pathologies of sexual identity politics. A year on the James Madison Program at Princeton University then gave me the opportunity to do the necessary research.

CWR: You state that the “basic conviction” of the book is that the sexual revolution “cannot properly understood until it is set within the context of a much broader transformation in how society understands the nature of human selfhood.” What is a basic definition of selfhood? And what are some key aspects of the transformation that has led to the normalization of transgenderism?

Trueman: In common parlance, we typically use the term ‘self’ to refer to ourselves as self-conscious individuals. So I am aware that my ‘self’ is not your ‘self’. We may both be called ‘Carl’ but we are different ‘selves.’ In the book, however, I use the term in a more technical sense to refer to how people today broadly imagine themselves to be: what they think the purpose of their lives is, what constitutes flourishing or the good life, what they intuitively think is truly foundational to their identity.

In twenty-first century America all of these things are very different to, say, thirteenth-century England. In earlier times, my identity was something I understood to be shaped by external factors – my family line, my geographical location, my status within the fixed social hierarchy. And the purpose of life was outwardly directed: I was most ‘me’ when I was fulfilling the role demanded of me by the wider social framework into which I was born.

Today, we think of our identity as something we ourselves decide and as something that rests not so much upon external factors as upon internal psychology. The most extreme example is the transgender person who is convinced that the external authority of the sexed body must bow to the internal psychological conviction of the mind. But the transgender person is only the most radical example of what Rieff dubs ‘psychological man’ or Taylor ‘the expressive individual’: one who sees inner feeling as the central factor of selfhood.

CWR: As you note, people have always struggled with sexual sins and related ills. What is new or unique about the sexual revolution in modern times?

Trueman: The sexual revolution is not about expanding the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable sexual behavior. It is about abolishing sexual taboos in their entirety.

Developing upon a philosophical fusion of Marx and Freud in the 1930s, theorists such as Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse saw restrictive sexual codes as a means of bourgeois control of the culture, specifically through the presentation and protection of the patriarchal nuclear family (the means, they argued, for producing suppliant and obedient members of bourgeois society). So the road to revolution required the shattering of such taboos. Of course, few people have read Reich or Marcuse, but the idea that sexual codes are hindering human happiness is both appealing (most humans have sexual desires, the fulfillment of which they consider highly pleasurable) and has been popularized through magazines, movies, and the mainstreaming of pornography.

So the situation we now have is one where the idea of any but the most minimal restraint on sexual activity (of which the need for consent is the most obvious) is intuitively regarded as oppressive and hindering our authenticity. The fate of modesty is a great example of this: in the past, debates about modesty were debates about limits – e.g., What length should a skirt be? Are bikinis acceptable? Today the mainstream culture does not debate modesty because it has come to see the very concept as oppressive – I can wear what I like. It is not for anyone else to tell me what is ‘appropriate’

CWR: Expressive individualism, you write, affects all of us and “is the very essence of the culture of which we are all a part.” What are some examples of this and why is this so important for orthodox Christians to understand?

Trueman: Expressive individualism is the idea that we are most authentically ourselves when we perform outwardly that which we feel inwardly.

It tends to exalt the individual at the expense of the corporate – think of modern nightclub dancing compared to that of Jane Austen’s era. Dancing then was about learning the steps and finding your place in the established dance. Today it is all about strutting your own stuff on the dance floor – literally giving outward expression to your inner feelings. As another example, think, of the changing attitudes to foul language in public life. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon’s reputation was as damaged by the ‘expletive deleted’ revelations of the Watergate Tapes as by the corruption allegations. The thought that the President would be potty-mouthed was shocking to the American people. Now many politicians do not hesitate even to drop the f-bomb in public speeches and they do so with impunity.

How so? Well, it makes them look authentic: what we hear in the speech is what we know they do in private. Reserve and politeness now looks manipulative or hypocritical. Why? Because the basic pathologies of expressive individualism have come to dominate the way we think about each other. The popularity of the language of authenticity, transparency, and vulnerability all testify to this. And Christians need to understand that we too have bought into this. For example, when worship becomes about me expressing myself to God, rather than learning to think God’s thoughts after him and striving to be shaped by him, then expressive individualism is vitiating my concept of discipleship. The purpose of discipleship is not to enable me to express outwardly what I feel inwardly but rather have what I feel inwardly brought into conformity with God’s larger plan for his church.

CWR: It used to be that people saw cultural political and other institutions as larger than themselves, existing to help form character and shape communities. You say this has been completely reversed or turned inside out. How so? And to what end?

Trueman: This comes down to the move to the psychological self. A world where I think of my identity as something primarily established by external relationships is one where I need to learn from the external world and its institutions to find my place therein and then learn how to play my role therein. A world where I think of my identity as determined by my inner psychology is one where I need the world and its institutions to enable me to give outward expression to those inward feelings.

To take an extreme example, if I think I am woman trapped in a man’s body in a world where external factors are decisive, then medical institutions will serve me by treating me such that my mind conforms to my body. In the world of psychological man, those same medical institutions will serve me by altering my body and hormones to conform to my inner conviction. In the former, the institution helps form me; in the latter, it enables me to perform me. The basic idea lies behind child-centered learning philosophies, consumerism etc.

Of course, the reality is more complicated: my identity is itself the result of a dialogue between my self and the wider. But the key point is that I imagine my identity to be an internal monologue and the role of the institutions in my life to serve the purpose of allowing me to express that.

CWR: How has a psychologized notion of “dignity” led to radical change in how people understand themselves and their place in society?

Trueman: In earlier epochs in the West (and to an extent in contemporary cultures in places like South Korea), society was understood as a structure focused on honor. Not everyone was equal, e.g., the lord was superior to the peasant, the elderly to the young. The structure of society was understood as a hierarchy where the different levels were bound together by notions of deference and obligation. From the seventeenth century onwards, the dominant notion in the West has been that all men and women are equal, regardless of outward circumstances, and that society is a contractual arrangement between individuals.

We see this in a shift in the notion of natural law from, say, Aquinas to Locke. For the former, natural law pointed towards an end for human beings that therefore placed obligations upon each of us in order to achieve that end. With Locke, natural law moves towards a focus on individual rights – life, freedom, property. Each individual possesses a right to equal dignity, regardless of their place in the social hierarchy. Once we psychologize the notion of the self, this then transforms the notion of what  natural rights are: everyone is entitled to feel happy and that in their own way. Which was the basic premise of, for example, the argument for gay marriage.

CWR: What is “emotivism”? And how has it worked its way into a place of central importance in Western “thought”?

Trueman: Emotivism is the term Alasdair MacIntyre used in After Virtue to refer to the notion that moral discourse today has lost any agreed basis for adjudicating claims of right and wrong and that such claims are therefore nothing more than expressions of emotional preference.

‘Abortion is wrong’ should therefore be understood as ‘I have a strong emotional repugnance for abortion.’ As MacIntyre persuasively argues, this is the result of the West no longer having a metanarrative by which such notions as human nature and purpose can be given any agreed stable content. We also see it used as rhetorical weapon: when the Supreme Court declared that objections to gay marriage were rooted in constitutional animus, it effectively said that the religious objections to the idea were simply surreptitious cover for irrational bigotry.

CWR: You argue that Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, and Charles Darwin each “provided conceptual justification for rejecting the notion of human nature and thus paved the way for the plausibility of the idea that human beings are plastic creatures with no fixed identity founded on an intrinsic and ineradicable essence.” Can you provide a short overview of each man’s role in this shift?

Trueman: Nietzsche effectively calls the bluff of the Enlightenment, and specifically Kant, by arguing that if God is relegated to mere hypothesis for granting stability to truth claims and to moral imperative, then truth and morality are fictions, designed to make life bearable or to manipulate others. Man has to be his own god and create his own set of values.

Marx follows Hegel in seeing conceptions of human nature as reflective of the historical epoch in which they occur but rejects idealism in favor of materialism. Man for him is the product of economic relations and his nature changes as those relations change. Thus, as with Nietzsche, any argument built upon an abstract, universal concept of human nature is therefore invalid and (again as with Nietzsche) manipulative.

Darwin’s theory of evolution closes the gap between human beings and other animals which, among other things, means that the notion we are made in God’s image (and all that flows therefrom). This has deep ethical implications as we see, for example, in Peter Singer’s use of human-animal analogies in his arguments both for animal rights and postpartum infanticide.

CWR: How is it that free speech and robust argument have increasingly become anathema to progressives and elites? What can be done to push back?

Trueman: In a world where the self, the ‘real me’, is intuitively understood in psychological terms, then feelings become the primary arena of oppression. Jefferson’s comment that divergent religious claims neither picked his pocket nor broke his leg and should thereby be tolerated reflects a world where the primary arenas of oppression (and of social importance) were physical: bodies and property.

In our psychological world, however, feelings move to the center of our identity; then violence is reconceptualized in psychological terms. Words then become weapons. Hence the rage that we see expressed not only over the typical pejorative racial and sexual terms but even over pronouns. And now that reasonable argument and logic are even identified in some quarters with racism and white supremacy, we are faced with a cultural irrationalism allied to powerful lobby groups that is very disturbing.

There is, of course, a deep irony here: radical individualism has created a situation where the state and even private corporations now aspire to police the very language of private and public lives.

Pushing back in such a world is going to be hard precisely because the culture is tilting away from traditional attitudes on freedom of speech and religion. We need to make sure that there are organs which continue to press for sanity in this regard – Catholic World Report, First Things, Touchstone, The American ConservativeQuillette and the like – and do so in a way that models civil discourse and careful argument and eschews the violent rhetoric that often marks contemporary public discussion.

Sadly, I suspect there will also need to be lawsuits to establish benchmark precedents, and that will damage lives. We need to pray for those who find themselves thrust into such things and support them in more tangible ways if possible.

CWR: Can you touch on how and why transgenderism became so quickly accepted and enshrined as a real and necessary “truth”?

Trueman: Because it is consistent with a culture which prioritizes inner feelings, expressive individualism, and individual rights detached from any notion of objective human nature or transcendent purpose.

It looks like a radical break with the past and in one sense it is – the normalization of the radical separation and opposition of biological sex to gender is a recent innovation (although as far back as the 1840s Marx predicted that technology would erode sex difference). But at a deeper level it is consistent with the basic ways our culture has conceptualized selfhood for a very long time. Add to the mix the political culture that accords with expressive individualism – one which grants the marginal and the oppressed immediate moral virtue and where opposition to heteronormativity is highly organized and has access to the major instruments of popular culture – and it becomes rather clear why this has become the new orthodoxy.

CWR: You end the book by contemplating where things may go in the coming years, especially for orthodox Christians. Is there a particular point that you want to reflect on here in conclusion?

Trueman: Christians need to understand that two related things in our culture which will have a dramatic impact upon us. First, the moral imagination of society now sees as virtues those things we regard as vices. Given my comments above, this will mean that Christians will come to be seen as subversive of the common good. To speak out against transgenderism or homosexuality is to speak out against the legitimacy of particular identities and will thus fall into the same moral category as racism.

In such a climate we can expect the second thing to occur: religious freedom will come to be seen as subversive of the common good and thus be increasingly restricted. We see this already in the gay wedding lawsuits about cake baking and florists and also in the more subtle way in which free exercise is being understood increasingly in terms of worship or the private sphere.

This is depressing, of course but no ground for despair. In fact, it bears analogy with the second century, where Christianity was regarded as a weird, immoral, marginal, and seditious. Yet that was the very context which fueled the growth of the church. She was a tight-knit, loving, caring, outward-looking community focused on love of God and love of neighbor. This is not a moment for despair but rather for a realistic reassessment of who the church is and what the goal of the Christian life is. And of course a time to recall God’s great promises and remind ourselves that He is greater than any hostile force that history can muster.

Published by


I am an Informed and fully practicing Roman Catholic

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s