A Crisis of Existentialism

Confederate Rainbow

We are in the midst of an existential crisis. Not a crisis that threatens our existence, but rather a crisis of existentialism.

Let me be up front: The phrases – clichés, rather – “existential crisis,” or “existential threat” are pet peeves of mine because I see these perfectly good expressions being bandied about in a torpidly pretentious fashion. One almost uses the term “existential” as an intensifier (much like the misuse of “literally”) rather than to describe something as pertaining to its existence (instead of essence, or even potential).

Existentialism is perhaps one of the more difficult philosophies to pin down, but I am convinced its influence is pervasive in modern American society. The premise that “existence precedes essence” – a focal point of existentialism – is loaded with philosophical baggage, and requires an understanding first of what “essence” is – and then rejecting its philosophical denotation as the ultimate being: the “*-ness” of a thing.

One might say that Existential Philosophy is diametrically opposed to Ontological Philosophy. The former gives sovereignty to perception, the latter to what is; the former gives precedence to subjective identity, the latter to inherent identity; the former emphasizes what is apparent – feelings, qualities, or the accidents — the latter emphasizes substance.

(To say, in my opinion, that “existence precedes essence” thrusts the existentialist in a quagmire of circularity. For to insist that the existence of a thing is more important, more absolute than its essence, is really to say that the essence – the beingness – of a thing is its subjective existence. But I digress.)

Perhaps, in no case is the existential philosophy more evident in today’s culture than in the phrase “Perception is Reality,” less frequently predicated as “Perception is Truth!” We see this philosophy in our language – in which the meanings of words are determined by how they are inferred rather than by how they are meant. We see it in our art – in which the meaning of the painting is determined by the audience, not the painter or the art itself. We see it in our song – in which the lyric can mean whatever you want it to mean. We see it in our religion – in which “faith” is a subjective bromide for the individual soul.

(But again, we are stuck in circularity by accepting this, for the existentialist doesn’t posit that “perception is perceived as truth,” but rather submits a truth claim that is not governed by perception — that perception is — its very essence is— truth. But I digress again.)

We have seen an abhorrent example of existentialism in our legal system, in which our very own Chief Justice admits that in order to arrive at his desired ruling he was “compelled” to interpret the law in question opposite to “what would otherwise be the most natural reading of the pertinent statutory phrase.” And then we saw that very same Chief Justice chastise the majority the following day for abandoning the natural interpretation of the law concerning marriage (the whole idea of same-sex marriage is itself an existential innovation that allows individuals to call themselves married because they feel they should be.)

We have also seen existentialism rear its chaotic head in the media in two very recent examples. The first in the transformation of Bruce Jenner; the second in the transformation of Rachel Dolezal. In both cases, the individuals identify their existential condition by an inherent perception of themselves – to the point of altering their appearance (in order to conform to the social norms of that condition, I might add).

But this post is not intended to weigh in on the merits of Justice Roberts’s ruling and dissent, or either Jenner or Dolezal’s existential crises; nor is it intended to be a comprehensive critique of existentialism per se. But it does strike me as odd, that in this existential world in which perception reigns supreme, that the same culture would be so dogmatic – so ontological, or essential – about the products or symbols of our existence.

There is, in tandem to these recent events, another controversy surrounding identity – namely those identities expressed by the Confederate flag.

(But again, this post is not intended to weigh in on the merits or demerits of the confederate flag as a symbol.)

On one hand, however, there are the opponents of the Confederate flag (more accurately, the Confederate battle flag) saying it is among highest expressions of white American racism. On the other hand, proponents of the Confederate flag insist it has nothing to do with racism, but rather with a cultural, or even geographical heritage.

History bears out that use of the symbol as an expression of white supremacy has increased in the past 60 years or so. But it was not always so; rather, it was at one time the symbol of ancestral sacrifice and conviction. (Again, not arguing here which position has more merit.)

But the existential question remaining for this culture, that seems more and more eager to accept the identity of a person based on how that person perceives their identity, is why we should not accept the products of their identities in the form of symbols.

This is to say: If we can accept the expression of Bruce Jenner as being a biologically female Caitlyn Jenner; and if we can accept the expression of a Caucasian Rachel Dolezal as being a biologically ethnic black woman; then why can we refuse to accept the subjective validity of expressive symbols that existential humans necessarily produce?

Adopted symbols are an extension of an identity – that symbol expressing in portrait an individual’s convictions or self-worth.

The rainbow flag, for example, has been flown with pride to express a certain identity. Would the same culture demanding the silence of one flag dare to insist, by popular voice, upon the public removal of another because a large segment of the population consider that expression of identity sinful?

If a white southerner considers his identity in some way expressed by the Confederate flag, and insists that identity is not harmful nor prejudicial to others, then why should a society insist he remove that portion of his identity to conform to pluralistic standard of democratic morality? The existentialist in this case has made the existence of a symbol precede the existence of the individual; whereas in other cases, they rightly recognize that the existence of a symbol is simply an expression of individual existence.

CAN the Confederate flag be an expression of racism? Yes. But to insist that its very essence is racism-in-portrait is absolutely inconsistent with other existential arguments concerning the modern identity of individual humans.

We live in an existential world now, where perception reigns supreme. It is no wonder that advertising and marketing has played such an important role in the daily life of Americans. It is no wonder that personal offense has become a currency unto its own.

For when existence itself is placed in priority over essence – an impossibility itself in ontological philosophy – we will plunge mentally into the absurd and accept it as profound.

We have in a single cultural instance, the rainbow flag celebrated by a culture who sees no sin in the represented identity alone; and yet when those who see, with an equal absence of sin, their identity inextricably linked to a Confederate flag, they are condemned by the same culture.

We see in a single instance the uproar of discrimination toward bakeries refusing one side of an economic transaction based on moral conviction; while never considering that a compulsion of service, even with compensation, is still a form of discriminating slavery.

We hear a culture praise the recent Supreme Court decision that states in true existential fashion, “The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.” But yet this same culture will decry as abhorrent the identity defined and expressed by economic partnerships lawfully to profit.

That culture will cite with reverence the judicial opinion “From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage,” forgetting that an individual permitted to define his own existence apart from essence has, in fact, no transcendence to which he or she may cling. There is no transcendence to even the word marriage if a later generation may one day, in time, define the concept as two individuals who have never met. One can either accept the immutability of essence, or be forced mentally to accept the perpetual chaos of a popularly mutable concept.

As an inherently inward-looking philosophy, existentialism naturally tends toward a semi-hedonistic fulfillment of personal desires. The adherents of this ambiguous philosophy include influential thinkers such as Nietzche, Sartre, Heidegger, Camus, and yes, Ayn Rand. But it is also — from an ontological perspective — a philosophy of despair. For admitting an absence of essence forces the existentialist to abandon a need for understanding the formal past, and to reject the eternal importance of the future. There is nothing left for the existentialist but the here and now. Our beginning is meaningless, as is our end. As Jean Paul Sartre stated, “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.”

This attitude so prevalent in America’s popular culture is absolutely antithetical to classical philosophy, upon which the concepts of American liberty, sovereignty, and life itself were founded. American history has traditionally been a history of essence — What is the “American-ness” that defines us as a people? But that question has no value to an existential history.

I am convinced more than ever that the polarization in America is not between those who adopt one party moniker vs. another; but rather there are two segments of this culture at polar opposites based on the priority of essence vs. existence: the ontologists vs. the existentialists.

But the irony is, it seems, those who insist on an existential tolerance will stop at nothing to stamp out those who believe that we are more than how we are perceived.