Writing, Accusations, Identity, and the Work of the Soul
Some people are afraid of being themselves. Many people allow their lives to be limited by that fear. They play a continual game, fashioning a careful persona that they think the world will accept or admire. Even when they are in their solitude, they remain afraid of meeting themselves. One of the most sacred duties of one’s destiny is the duty to be yourself. When you come to accept yourself and like yourself, you learn not to be afraid of your own nature. At that moment, you come into rhythm with your soul, and then you are on your own ground. You are sure and poised. You are balanced. It is so futile to weary your life with the politics of fashioning a persona in order to meet the expectations of other people. Life is very short, and we have a special destiny waiting to unfold for us. Sometimes through our fear of being ourselves, we sidestep that destiny and end up hungry and impoverished in a famine of our own making.
John O’Donahue, Anam Cara
A week or so ago, a reader sent me an email asking me what’s probably the most important and also most difficult question to answer that I’ve ever been asked.
After some rather kind compliments about my writing and then discussing his own situation—one in which he’d come to conclusions about the world that were radically different from those he had shared with others—the reader then asked:
How do you write so freely without being judged by your peers? It seems that you write what you perceive as the truth without having to wrap up your concepts in a framework that makes them more relatable.
I’ve been thinking about that question since I read it, composing relentless answers in my head. Each time I imagined myself writing a response, however, my proffered explanation always sounded false and hollow. The problem wasn’t so much that I hadn’t thought about the question before, but rather that there were entire stories that needed to be retold in my mind and multiple histories to relive before I could actually come to the answer.
I’m not sure how much of the original manuscript I wrote on Woke Ideology will continue on into the final book, but I suspect—as a good friend of mine who’d encouraged me many times to look at stuff I didn’t want to look at suggested—it will read as a bit of a coming out story as much as a discussion of Woke Ideology.
Coming out is a funny phrase, yeah? I’ve never liked it, even though the process it describes is a rather profound one. A gay guy “comes-out” when he admits to himself and those around him that he desires men and not women, with the sense that he was previously hiding all this until that moment. There’s a metaphorical closet, as it goes, that some of are stuck in until we decide to open the door and leave it.
The origin of the phrase is a bit different from what we might think, and it’s actually a mixed metaphor produced by the conflation of two other expressions. First of all, coming out was the term in the early part of last century for the parties in which a young woman was formally introduced to society. Those parties were her “début” into the social circles of her class standing, and the woman making her début was thus a “débutante.”
As with so much in American gay culture, this feminine social ritual was adopted for their own ends. A gay man’s coming out was his début into the underground networks of gay society where he would be introduced to others, some whom he may have already known in public life but not known until his début were gay. In other words, it was a kind of celebration and an initiation, and in some accounts from historians of gay culture it was once a really serious affair.
There’s a second part of the expression, the closet. That was a later addition by those who did not have the original context for coming out, and it referred not to something positive and celebratory but rather negative, the dark secret some people attempt to hide from others. That is, “skeleton in the closet” was the other expression conflated with the feminine social event of coming out, becoming “coming out of the closet.”
So already the expression is deeply clunky. I’ve never been much for the idea that a man desiring men must therefore emulate feminine rituals (or behavior, or speech patterns, etc), since it’s precisely my lack of desire for the feminine and my desire instead for the masculine which is at the root of what we call being gay. Why then try to copy ridiculously caricatured ideas of womanhood in order to desire men? 1
On the other hand, the “skeleton” part of the closet bit is a bit more useful. As an adolescent, my sense was that there was something dark, evil, and malignant lingering in the recesses of my private thoughts which I needed to hide from everyone around me. What if my male friends knew I found them attractive? What if my female friends found out I wasn’t a “real” man? What if the church I attended discovered this dark secret, or others at school? I was certain they’d all judge me exactly the way I judged myself: perverted, broken, and not worthy of ever being taken seriously.
My “coming out” was hard, but it was much less eventful than I’d worked it out to be in my paranoid fears. I started telling a few close friends in the Christian college I went to that I thought I “maybe might be gay,” and they all promised to pray for me so I wouldn’t be. I told my dad next, and he assured me I wasn’t really gay because he’d had lots of sexual experiences with other guys as a teenager and he regardless ended up straight. I’d not really wanted to know that about him, and anyway I’d had no experiences at all, but he wasn’t at all mean about it.
What I’d thought would be the hardest confession experience of all was almost a let down. I’d had a friend whom I respected intensely, someone I took to be my intellectual superior (and honestly, I’m still certain he’s much more intelligent than I am). He was also a bit of an asshole, by which I mean he didn’t really tolerate boring statements and anything that he saw as emotionally over-wrought. I was certain he’d berate me, or worse completely ignore my existence after I told him. Yet I did.
“So what?” he had replied, and not at all as a question.
Despite how generally easy it had been, meaning that it wasn’t anything as terrifying as I’d fantasized about it being, I’d still felt like I’d somehow betrayed everyone, that I was somehow lesser than everyone else, and especially that I’d disappointed people I liked and respected. This isn’t to say there were not consequences, of course: I lost my scholarship to the Christian college I attended because I was gay, took out exorbitant loans to try to keep going regardless, and still haven’t paid off that debt nor did I ever finish college. And I definitely lost some friends, including someone I considered my best friend, and the entire trajectory of my life changed.
It changed for the better, I should note, despite years of fucking up my life a bit, not knowing what the hell I was doing or what I was supposed to do and most of all what I was capable of doing. I’m not really certain that all wouldn’t have happened anyway, though, and I’ve long learned that laying the blame for poverty and mental distress on “oppression” for a “minority identity” is really just an abdication of personal agency.
What’s most relevant to the question that reader asked is this: we imagine things are going to be much, much worse when we act true to ourselves than they ever really are. This isn’t to say that they aren’t awful, however, because let’s be honest: it’s horrible to face all that, horrible to have people reject you, horrible to have people call you names or declare you morally corrupt, and even worse than all that is realizing some of the people you really liked and respected now think you’re evil.
When you “come out” as a gay man, what you’re really doing is leaving an entire order of respectability and meaning to which you were seen as belonging. Gay guys who do this later in life have it much, much harder than a teenager does, regardless of what the kids these days will tell you. I’ve known so many men who didn’t decide to act according to their desires until their 40’s or 50’s, and by that point they’ve got a lot more to account for than just wanting to feel the touch of another man. They’re usually married with kids, having done lots of work to maintain a role they thought was expected of them.
The really horrible part for them by that point is that now the expectations are justified. It’s one thing to expect a 16 year old to one day get married and to one day be a husband and father. It’s another thing to expect a guy who actually got married and actually had children to be a husband and a father, because he already is those things. Trying to re-negotiate all that is always messy for everyone, but even then, though things will probably be horrible, they’ll nevertheless be less horrible than the guy fears.
Writing what you think is true—even and especially if it’s not what others expect you to write—is the same thing, really. It’s coming out of one social order and one order of meaning into another one, and it’s also like coming out as a gay man in another way, too. See, there’s actually no cool début ritual for gay guys anymore, if there ever really was one. Instead, it’s a lot of fumbling about in dark rooms without anyone to guide you or explain everything to you.
Sometimes it’s utter hell. Not long after my coming out, I was drugged and raped by someone everyone else told me was amazing and a really good person. They said those things again and even louder after I told them what he’d done, and suddenly there were certain places I couldn’t go anymore because they’d harass me about falsely accusing him. People don’t want to hear things that challenge their views about the world, and they don’t want to think that the people they respect are actually quite awful, and they’ll call you whatever names fit best to erase your words out of the world.
Of course, that kind of thing is universal. You don’t have to be gay or a be writer to experience an entire crowd of people rallying around someone they prefer over you. Humans do that, and they always think they are being “good” and doing the “right thing” by trying to silence out the threat to their social order.
I’ve been called as many different names as a writer now that as I was called back then, and it’s really no different. But oddly, I was never called gay slurs back then as much as I’ve been called ‘fascist’ now, or ‘racist,’ or ‘transphobe.’ That’s where the analogy breaks down, because honestly it was a lot more pleasant to be a gay man around people who didn’t like gays in America than it is to be a leftist writer who challenges Woke Ideology.
That being said, it’s the same social mechanism at play. Pierre Bourdieu’s brilliant point about categorization is that it still preserves its original Greek meaning of “accuse” (kategorein) and in both senses it is an attempt to institute an order of meaning and division.
Calling a guy a “faggot” or a “girl” because he desires men is an attempt to assert he is somehow less man than other men, instituting a division within the category of men between “real” men and “fake” men. Categorizing/accusing a man as “effeminate” because he desires other men is the same attempt to institute division, asserting that there are men who act as men should and men who instead act as women should.
Unfortunately, accusations often stick and become internalized. Much of the reason why gay men adopted feminine cultural rituals like the “coming out” début, call each other “girl” and “queen,”2 and accuse gay men who don’t adopt these affects of having “internalized homophobia” is precisely because they were accused of (categorized as) really being women themselves.
This is the core problem of all modern identity politics, of course. To Kategorein is to create and shape an identity. You are told you are a different kind of human from others because you are black or homosexual or disabled; you believe them and then shape your identity according to their accusation. Of course, shaping yourself according to others perceptions only reinforces the instituted division, manifesting their accusation as eventually true.
Earlier I mentioned the friend who said “so what?” when I came out to him. This was at least 25 years ago now, and it took almost as long to understand that in his apparently callous indifference to my internal struggles he’d given me a profound gift. Others who knew me at that time can attest to the really clumsy and ridiculous affectations I attempted after my coming out. I tried to “act” gay, bought “gay” clothes, raised my voice into a higher register than my natural one, and started listening to Madonna on repeat.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he’d said to me, again not as a question.
Full of self-righteousness, I answered angrily, “I’m gay—you have a problem with that?”
“You think you have to act like that to be gay?”
I didn’t answer, but I immediately stopped. It had all felt so deeply fake anyway. I hated the clothes, I hated trying to change my voice, and honestly I really hated Madonna. Of course, no one had actually told me I needed to change the way I acted or what I consumed to be gay: instead, I’d constructed all this from all the accusations and caricatures I’d heard about gay guys and tried to emulate them.
In other words, I’d believed the accusation, accepted the category, and tried to fit into what I thought was expected of me.
It’s easier to do that, at least initially. Borrowing meaning from others means you don’t have to do the work of finding your own meaning, but it also means you’ll postpone an inevitable and difficult process to a later time when it’ll be much more difficult. As with the married father in his 40’s trying to renegotiate all his commitments and obligations so he can finally be true to himself, it gets much messier later on.
John O’Donohue, the Irish Hegelian mystic and poet, wrote that the work of the soul gets harder the longer we put it off; the longer we avoid it, the more we “end up hungry and impoverished in a famine of our own making.” The earlier you learn to like yourself, to enjoy your own company, and to discover who it is you really are outside of (and despite of) what others think of you, the richer, the more meaningful, and the more happy your life will be.
That’s my answer to the reader’s question. That’s how I write so freely regardless of judgment from others. Sure, there are people who hate my writing, who find me dangerous, and who will write overwrought accusations and smears about me for their own primitive social capital accumulation. But being categorized as a “fascist” by an American anarchist for likes and retweets is about as meaningful as being called a “faggot” by an American dude trying to look cool in front of his friends—which is to say, not meaningful at all.
Categories and accusations are never meaningful unless you let them be. To let others define who you are is a deep betrayal of your own soul and your own agency in the world. To try to prove them otherwise is just as much a betrayal, and is the most inauthentic thing a person could ever do.
So I write. I write as a I see things because I write from who I am, not who I think I should be, nor from who others want me to be. It’s the work of the soul, which is its own reward. Thanks to all of you, it’s also meant for the first time in my life I earn enough money from writing to live well. That being more myself meant attracting so much material support from others is probably not mere co-incidence.
Even without that, I’d do this all anyway. The work of the soul is what Nietzsche meant when he said “become who you are,” and that’s what I’d tell any writer holding back his or her words out of fear.
Become who you are. And if others accuse you for it, don’t let that matter. Say as a friend once said to me, “so what?”
And never mean it as a question.
In fact, this is also the primary argument of critics of gender (in its earlier and especially very new “declarative” form). The gross caricatures of what a woman or man “really should be” is what led Iran to make homosexuality legal only if the person becomes transsexual (a surgery the government pays for), because a man desiring another man must “really” be a woman inside. We’re seeing that same logic at play in American Woke Ideological formations of gender now. In the relentless accounts of the growing number of young de-transitioned women, they report a belief and a social pressure that they had to become men in order to justify their expressions or desires that were not considered “feminine.”
In case any critics reading this believe such a position means I am “anti-trans,” my position is the same as prominent transsexual activist and child psychologist Dr. Erica Anderson, as well as so-called “Truscum” transsexual activists such as Buck Angel. There are absolutely people who benefit from transition, but the current upswing in these identifications is likely due to increased pressure to conform to gender expectations, not less. In other words, if you don’t “act like” or conform to perceptions of what a man or a woman is supposed to be, you must therefore be “really” something else instead.
Again we need to note that these affects are all based on caricatures of feminine behavior. Very few women that I’ve ever met call each other “girl” or “queen” all the time, and though it’s suggested that this was an appropriation of black culture in America, it’s also been argued that black women have adopted these affects from gay men who thought they were emulating black women. Baudrillard’s hyperreal and discussion of the Simulacra here is deeply relevant.