Monday, July 04, 2005

Look at Me Now: The Cult of Self-Expression

What do Danish marriage patterns, Japanese T-shirts and that faded John Kerry yard sign which your neighbor refuses to take down have in common? According to the English-language Copenhagen Post, Dutch men are increasingly fond of marrying women for their names. Not, as people used to do, because the name is prominent – with the name really signifying the importance of the family. To marry someone of a particular name was to marry well. Rather, what is so desirable about the names of these women to these men is that they are unusual:

She [the somewhat pedestrianly named Susanne Christiansen, head of the marriage registrar’s office in Aalborg] along with her colleagues in Århus and Copenhagen, says men are especially willing to rid themselves of traditional Danish surnames like Hansen, Jensen, and Nielsen. The offices have no statistics to back up their claim, but all agree that the trend is on the rise.

‘But it depends entirely on the wife’s name,’ said Christian Nielsen, leader of the marriage registrar’s office in Copenhagen. ‘In contrast to women, men do not take the name Olsen out of love.’

Michael Lerche Nielsen, name researcher at the University of Copenhagen, has his own theory about their reasons.

‘Split family patterns mean that Danish men are not as fixed on their family name as they used to be,’ he said. ‘Instead they now pick the name that fits their own self-image.

Olsen, Hansen and Jensen are apparently to Denmark what Smith, Johnson and Williams are to the U.S. Surely it must be new in the long span of the human marital bond to seek out a spouse as a means of having a cool-sounding driver's license.

The public proclamation of how different one is is one of the signature features of our age. The American T-shirt culture is an excellent example of this peculiar phenomenon. While it has always been true that fashion has been designed to draw attention, the expressive T-shirt (or bumper sticker) is a way to proclaim to anyone who will look what one’s peculiar tastes and likes are. What exactly is the value of proclaiming to the anonymous strangers one runs into on the streets that one roots for a particular sports team, or has certain political views, or believes a certain string of words is funny? There is some sort of profound need in modern life to be recognized as distinct, even by people one will never see again. (I say this as someone with an array of shirts bought over my lifetime that is second to no one’s.)

And the T-shirt culture, and the cult of self-expression of which is emblematic, is hardly distinctly American anymore. It has spread throughout Europe and Australia. Japan, with its notoriously (to a native speaker) goofy English-language T-shirts, is an example of self-expression where the expression is not even understood by the self.

And T-shirts are hardly the only example. The trend toward odd names among American children is well-known. Roland G. Fryer, Jr. and Steven D. Levitt report, extraordinarily, in the Aug., 2004 Quarterly Journal of Economics that in the 1990s thirty percent of black girls born in California had unique names – names that none of the other millions of girls of all races in California born during that period shared. And it is hardly unique to black Americans; for white girls about one out of twenty was given a unique name. There is a powerful imperative that many modern parents have to make sure that their kid is the only Cabriolet on the school roll. Even some of the local opposition to chain stores and restaurants entering areas that currently have none is probably driven by a need to not just preserve but publicly assert one’s uniqueness. (As are many blogs, including this one.)

What does this say about us? Once upon a time, when religious faith was more widespread, life was often devoted mostly to doing what was necessary to spend the afterlife pleasantly. Now, seemingly, the most important thing a person can to is not to live well, to do good or to achieve but to be famous, which is completely different. And if you can’t be famous, you can at least be different.

Perhaps the most vivid, and important, example of this phenomenon is political correctness. The economist Stephen Morris has written that PC is a way to signal publicly that one is not like those other folks – racist, sexist and whatnot. By using preposterous formulations such as “undocumented immigrant” (which calls to mind someone whose papers blew off the side of the boat on the way over), the speaker is trying to establish his bona fides as someone who says and thinks the right things, and certainly isn't like those people. Such usage is all about the speaker and not the listener. Like the other manifestations of the look-at-me culture, it is an artifact of a time when how one is seen is considerably more important than what one does.


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