Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Sunday, April 21
The Indiana Daily Student

opinion

?COLUMN: They were narcissistic, too

An essay by Colson Whitehead appeared Tuesday in First Words, a section of the New York Times which publishes “(e)ssays on what language reveals about our moment.” The essay described how the phrase ”‘You do you’ perfectly captures our ?narcissistic culture.”

As tends to be the case when anyone above the age of 30 laments about our culture’s supposed excess narcissism, Whitehead elevates and romanticizes a past which was apparently not as self-serving, self-interested and self-focused as our own.

Whitehead terms the circular logic of the phrase “You do you” or “Haters gonna hate” as a “tautophrase,” which can be loosely defined as a phrase which must be true in every possible situation. Haters, by their very nature, will hate because the condition of hating is built within the identifier as a “hater.” As Whitehead wryly notes, “the modern tautophrase empowers the individual. Regardless of how shallow that individual is.”

Though the narcissistic nature of our culture is undeniable, the claim our culture is somehow more narcissistic than past cultures is simplistic and only supported by the most superficial scan of the modern zeitgeist.

Whitehead particularly derides the millennial generation, describing the narcissistic tautology as a “hallmark of the millennial tribe.”

Interest in self-presentation, especially presentation as someone else or someone more than who you are, has been around for centuries, if not millennia. Trappings of wealth among upper-class aristocracy was flaunted no matter how inconvenient and ungainly those clothes, jewelry or property were. Intellectuals — philosophers of political thought, ethics, metaphysics, etc. — have been no less viciously defensive of their intellectualism than anyone today claiming to know what they are talking about.

Whitehead continues to claim that the phrase ‘Haters gonna hate’ “classifies your antagonists as haters ... and your flaws are absolved by their greater sin of envy.” How is this any different from “other-ing” segments of a population? Or from the normal process of justification?

This is particularly problematic because Whitehead moralizes the narcissism — or, more precisely, the most recent iteration of narcissism — by presenting it as a vehicle for actual evil. He presents whimsical imaginings, particularly this one of Genghis Khan, in which the “You do you” has terrible ?implications:

“‘There’s been so much blood lately — should I cut back maybe on the pillaging today?’ (Genghis said.) The lieutenant gestures with his longbow: ‘You do you, ?Genghis.’”

The irony is Whitehead presents in this example further evidence of the vapidity of tautophrases and the evil of which they are capable when, obviously, Khan’s actual pillaging occurred without the encouragement of “You do you.”

The phrase is no more a vehicle for evil than any other random phrase that might have influenced Khan’s ?decision.

The phrase which represents, in the millennial generation, vanity, narcissism and possible evil is no different from any other narcissistic colloquialism throughout history. The only difference is our narcissism sounds uglier and less refined than earlier generations.

Get stories like this in your inbox
Subscribe