Sociologist Anne Wortham on Authenticity, the Real Meaning of Individualism, and the Choice to Abstain from Activism
By Maria Popova
“The less we are free to decide who we are or to live as we like, the more we try to pump up a front, to hide the facts, to play roles,” Hannah Arendt wrote in the 1940s as she reflected on the pariah’s plight for identity. But what, exactly, does it mean to inhabit an authentic identity within an existing society?
That’s what sociologist and writer Anne Wortham (b. November 26, 1941) explores in her conversation with Bill Moyers, published in A World of Ideas (public library) — the magnificent 1989 collection of Moyers’s interviews, which also gave us philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility, Chinua Achebe on how storytelling helps us survive history’s rough patches, and Isaac Asimov on the role of science fiction in advancing society.
Wortham, who had grown up in the segregated South, became rather controversial as an African American academic who criticized certain aspects of the traditional Civil Rights movement’s contribution to reverse racism. In considering her opposition to these ideas, Wortham reflects on what she stands for as a way of contouring what she stands against. She tells Moyers:
I’m an individualist. I believe that life is a very important adventure that has to be carried out by individuals — in cooperation with other individuals, yes, but always lived by individuals.
Echoing Joan Didion’s timeless assertion that “character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” Wortham adds:
I take full responsibility for myself and for the kind of life I create and the relationships I have with other people. I believe very strongly in individual freedom, both internal freedom and external freedom… Freedom from the restraint of society and within that context, therefore, freedom to realize my highest potential but to take responsibility for any failures or lack of knowledge that I have.
Individualism, Wortham cautions, is often confused with narcissism or self-centeredness. But it is something else entirely — something closer to Emerson’s ideal of self-reliance. She tells Moyers:
The kind of individualism that I espouse is self-responsible. Self-responsibility can never be transformed into self-centeredness.
She points to the Southern practice of good manners — which some misperceive as vacant vanity and thus a form of narcissism — as an example of such self-responsible relationship with society:
It is a statement of self-respect and respect for other human beings. It is a device for maintaining civility in human relations. The reason one would have allegiance to good manners and etiquette is because one values being human. And because one values being human, one values oneself and others. You would not want to give to another person more or less respect than you would yourself as a human being.
A quarter century later, Edie Windsor would come to echo this central pillar of the moral life as she won marriage equality for millions.
Moyers points to another misconception about individualism — that it grants the individual the right to do whatever he or she wants, which parallels our misconceptions about what free will really means. In a sentiment that calls to mind Simone Weil’s incisive wisdom on the crucial difference between our rights and our responsibilities, Wortham considers individualism as woven of both:
A civilized society is one whose members expect that each will address at all times, as far as possible, the rational in man; that even when I may want to bash you over the head, I will be checked by my awareness of you as a rational entity, and I will not resort to force as an expression of my disagreement with you or even my feeling that you have been unjust to me; that in my disagreements with you I will rely on the power of persuasion.
When Moyers asks how one is to handle those who behave irrationally and unjustly, Wortham responds:
I remind myself that this is an irrational person who is betraying rationality and therefore himself… Rationality has the capacity for betraying itself. Rational men have the capacity to be irrational and to institutionalize irrationality. We’ve seen that in Nazi Germany.
We see it, too, today.
In a sentiment evocative of Toni Morrison’s beautiful commencement address about how to be your own story, Wortham considers the sanctity of identity and what it takes to maintain “the truth of one’s identity within a larger society”:
It’s the authenticity that is sacred. It is the one thing that is yours… Your story, your life. It is the thing that you die for, ultimately, if you have to. It is the only thing that you die for.
A fidelity to this authenticity is what made Wortham choose not to participate in the traditional Civil Rights movement, which incurred the criticism of many of her peers. She tells Moyers:
I wanted them to understand that I had for myself a different life vocation, that my story was to be written differently. That doesn’t deny the validity of some of the things that were being done in the Civil Rights movement. But one doesn’t always have to be an activist to contribute to society or to have a good life.
They were asking me to condemn all white Americans. That’s what I felt at the time. And I couldn’t do it.
She reflects on her personal grounds for reluctance:
Not only did I disagree with the Black Power ideology, but I just don’t have it in my personality. So, in the most subtle relations, where certain tacit understandings are at work, the typical Northern Yankee wanted to be seen as being more understanding toward me than I required of him. All I required of him was his respect. I didn’t require his compassion. The Republicans haven’t understood that, you see… Conservative Republicans have thought that they had to show that they were as compassionate as liberals, Democrats, and other people on the left when they should have challenged the nature of the compassion. I’ve often found, having worked among Northern liberals a great deal, that their compassion lacks respect. An analogy is the abolitionist who really, deep down in his heart, thought that blacks were inferior, though he wanted them freed.
When Moyers probes for her definition of respect, Wortham offers:
Respect means that you leave me alone, that you don’t build up in your own mind scenarios for my salvation.
If we have to ask of any other human being that for us to love him, he must be something that is closer to our view of him or of our grand scheme of how human beings ought to be, then our own obligation to him is simply not to love him. That is the way to respect him… Don’t harm him, don’t force him to do anything — just walk away.
But there are some people who can’t keep their hands off of other people. They just won’t. It takes a lot of courage to leave other people alone, you see.
Echoing James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s remarkable conversation about the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, Wortham reflects on what she experienced as white Americans’ expectation of her:
They were asking for my sanction. I was the altar before which they stood, and they were asking me to redeem them, which is what Martin Luther King promised them that I would give them… I can’t. Nobody can. We cannot give this to each other. I cannot give you a sense of the importance of your life. I can confirm it. I can nod my head and say yes, but I cannot make it so for you. That you must do for yourself. I can’t do it for you.
In a sentiment of extraordinary pertinence today, Wortham returns to the notion of self-reliance and reflects on the political structures that buoy our individual rights and codify our responsibilities:
One of the paradoxes of democracy and one of the gambles that we make is that citizens have the freedom to redefine their situation.
You would think, with a history such as ours, that we would have understood two things: first, that the government, while we need it, ultimately cannot be our friend, and also that we don’t need it to be our friend, really. It is just an instrument. If minorities broke their alliance with the government, the would depend more on themselves… You see, we would not be here were it not for our own efforts. Most of our history has been in relationship to a government that has not been very kind. Government is not a savior — the American federal government has not acted as a liberator.
Wortham returns to the question of self-responsible action as qualitatively different from activism and just as legitimate a choice:
If you tie your own personal destiny, the vocation of your life, to public events, then you ultimately end up burning yourself out in activism — or you get out of the picture altogether, you commit suicide, or you go and it in a corner somewhere and suck your thumb. So you have to reach a point at which you can say, “I am rational enough, I understand enough of life, and of myself as an individual human being, to know that I am limited in what I can do, and I am limited in what I know. My number one obligation is to fulfill my life’s purpose. I cannot save the world. Even if I wanted to, I can’t.” This is a very realistic statement, not a statement of defeat, or retreat. It is a reorientation.
There is difficult, necessary truth in Wortham’s words — especially as we confront the helpless-making disconnect between even our most spirited efforts toward justice and the utterly dispiriting political outcomes tarnishing the world today. But indeed, only when we acknowledge our limits can we begin to create within them and in that constructive act to gradually push them from the inside out so that our scope of possibility may continue to grow.
Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas is a trove of wisdom in its totality. Complement this particular portion with Eleanor Roosevelt on our individual responsibility in social change and James Baldwin on freedom and how we imprison ourselves, then revisit Moyers’s stirring conversation with Maya Angelou about courage and facing evil.
Published February 2, 2017