Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor refers in his book The Sources of the Self to the ‘affirmation of ordinary life.’ He sees it as a central facet of our modernity. The phenomenon, he argues, is in part a consequence of modernity’s break with hierarchy, tradition, and elites.
Psychologists argue that the need for affirmation is elemental. This need is captured by the term ‘confirmation bias’ as Daniel Kahneman uses it in his recent bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow. We have an elemental need, or automatic inclination, the argument goes, to gather evidence that we are ‘right’ in our preconceived notions of what is actual or true – no matter how far-fetched our predispositions happen to be. But, with no objective standard by which to measure the accuracy of our views, we are playing a solipsistic game. The gains in psychological confidence to which we aspire will be forever frustratingly fleeting. We create our own continuous need.
Adding to our frustration is that fact that our secular society makes affirmation particularly difficult. There are no stationary standards. Someone always moves the goal posts. This year’s good enough is next year’s also ran. We can present ourselves in the latest fashion in order to make us feel trendy. We can root for the home team in the hopes that they will win the big prize. We can vote for a party that may just form the next government. But with no objective standard by which to measure such supposed achievements, our gains in psychological status don’t materialize. Well, there’s always next year…
These days we greet this need for affirmation nowhere more directly than in the relations that the new American President cultivates with his loyal followers. As has been much remarked, the need on the part of the President and his followers to be ‘right’ is wholly irrational. His tweets and sound bites prompt immediate reactions of anger, grievance, resentment and blame. The President’s every nod to the predicament of his supportive audience is a recognition that he feels their pain. (I feel their pain too, but I don’t get any credit for it, because I’m not the President.)
In truth, the sympathy conjured up by such affirming gestures (either real or feigned) can be a powerful elixir for what ails you. The American election result, frequently supposedly to have been achieved against all odds, attests to this. Thank goodness for the needs of his loyal followers that the President also happens to be a relentless tweeter. The appearance of continuous attention serves to help massage the sense of continuing grievance. It scratches the constant itch.
The problem with ‘confirmation bias,’ however, and the constant need for affirmation – apart from the constant feeling of failure in successfully addressing it – is that it is short on self-awareness. Here the voice of the classical Greek philosopher Socrates and his bias towards the ‘examined life’ would recommend that we pause in our footsteps. His Greek self-awareness is built on both an intimate and thorough reckoning of our own circumstances and a recognition of our own character.
What would make us so empty that we feel the need for constant affirmation? What personal void are we wanting to fill? Things should have turned out better for us? What boat did we fail to board? What flight did we miss? Charles Taylor’s response to this gnawing and persistent sense of grievance in a recent interview on the CBC’s ‘The Sunday Edition’ with Michael Enright is ‘citizen efficacy.’ Its loss, the feeling that there is nothing we can do to improve our circumstances, is the source of a widespread modern feeling of helplessness and despair.
Its partial cure, he claims, at least as he admits in his own case, is political activism. One voice of grievance meets another in empathy until a critical mass is born, and a change in social circumstance and effect is achieved. Meanwhile, the demands of such involving and committed work leave the need for ‘confirmation bias’ way behind. The affirmation is in the activity itself. The frustrating and overly passive habit of a thousand daily tweets is a world away.
So here’s to the socially committed. Consider this your affirmation, a need which you will shortly have no need to placate as you work with spirit and verve toward the world you want and away from the world of endless tweets and a stasis that looked for a moment as if it had no chance.