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The Big Answer

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The Future of the Self: Inventing the Postmodern Person

a book by Walter Truett Anderson

(our site's book review)

This book traces the evolution of the postmodern person, whose self is changing in form so that it is multiple, changing, complex and even unpredictable. In the past, the human self has been more grounded, simplistic and secure. He calls this new development from a unitary, stable self to a multiple, changing one a global identity crisis. Finally, he introduces four possible future scenarios, in which high or low psychological growth and high or low technological/economic progress are the factors combined in all possible ways. He likes the two scenarios that include high psychological growth (as do we), but dislikes the ones with the low psychological growth. He’s not attached to the high economic growth scenario factor, but expects high technological progress will make this happen.

His most important observation is that we need psychological growth to parallel and harmonize with the technological/economic growth. Actually, this needs to be amended to include social growth as well, and most people refer to this process as mitigation of the cultural lag, but he’s welcome to stress the psychological if he wishes. However, it is reductionistic to think that psychological growth can proceed in our society without social evolution. Individuals’ psychological health is a product of the social system in which it evolves, and it is this Third Wave systems context in which it is best understood.

Anderson, sadly, joins the parade of Riesman misinterpreters that you’ll find online and in books. He claims Riesman was a conformity basher and that he was guilty of the nostalgic elevation of the inner-directed individual to the status of a model of mental health. He says Riesman sees the other-directed as hollow conformists, while the inner-directed are not. He says Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd was “an affirmation of the inner-directed man.” This interpretation of Riesman is entirely wrong, and this plus one other piece of evidence exposes the fact that Anderson himself has never even so much as seen the book The Lonely Crowd, much less read it. (The second piece of evidence is that in the dozen or so times that the word Riesman appears in Anderson’s book, it is misspelled every single time!) Oh yes, he could comment freely on what others who’ve read it have said about the book. But Anderson is too smart to have actually read the book and then so grotesquely distorted Riesman’s message and name spelling. Here are the facts:

  1. Riesman saw both inner-directed and other-directed people as conformists.

  2. Riesman didn’t champion inner-directed.

  3. Riesman championed and affirmed the autonomous man, but not the inner-directed or the other-directed or the tradition-directed or the anomic (refers to the root word anomie) man—all of which Riesman’s book covers.

  4. Riesman’s book does not imply that the inner-directed are a model of mental health. He doesn’t consider his inner- and other-directed character types as mentally ill simply because they’re conformists. He feels that autonomous would be likely to be healthier than most (confirmed later by Abraham Maslow in Toward a Psychology of Being), but that doesn’t imply that the other types are sick. Why read such things into this classic? They’re not there.

  5. Finally, Riesman didn’t bash conformity for conformity’s sake. Most autonomous people conform most of the time, as do most other types except the alienated and often lawless anomic person. What he, Fromm, Maslow, and hundreds of great thinkers since then have been concerned about is where the locus of control is located in the human being—i.e., what runs people.

Riesman perhaps valued inner-directed over other-directed character structures somewhat, simply because the superego seems like a better thing to have running a person than does peer pressure. The reason is as obvious as it is transparent: conforming to superego pressures gets more morality into decisions, therefore USUALLY leading to a more law-abiding, respectful, community-honoring society than other-directeds who just do what peers do without nearly as much concern for moral issues.

Hitler—ugly proof that inner-directed character can be either corrupt and rotten or good and decent, or even some of both
Hitler—ugly proof that inner-directed character can be either corrupt and rotten or good and decent, or even some of both

(Note: In Nazi Germany, there were highly-developed superegos supporting people doing bad, immoral things because Hitler said they were right actions and he was the big daddy of the fatherland [the nation of one's "fathers", "forefathers" or "patriarchs". It can be viewed as a nationalistic and paternalistic concept]. And the country was very authoritarian and it was almost unthinkable to disobey one's father—the source of most citizens' superegos, or at least the main disciplinarian in families, whether the mother or father happened to be the chief instiller of guilt-and-fear-based superegos.

Superegos support morals that are rules and restrictions parents, churches, and the nation put into place using fear and guilt as the essential manipulation tool. So the morals of the superego are not necessarily good, humanitarian, or healthy. They represent conformity to what authorities value most, which is normally seen as good and right and godly and proper. But they are not necessarily any of these things in actuality. And that is the central danger of being guided by conformity pressures rather than real-self-directed autonomous morals.

It can lead to Nazis or even ethnic cleansing in wartime—people doing what they're told, people that go along to get along, people who just follow orders, people—in short—who let others guide them and do their thinking for them rather than assuming this basic adult human responsibility for themselves. It matters not if your guiders are parents, nations, peers, or churches, or even the ass clown who lives next door. It matters not if you simply follow behaviorist-flavored rewards-and-punishments-guided forces of parental pressure where the values are not "your own" or if you've internalized superego forces so they "feel like you are guiding yourself" even though it is really your authority figures that are puliing your strings from the inside rather than the outside. What matters is whether or not your "guider" is YOU! If it is truly you—your real self—then you are autonomous.

All types (inner-directed, other-directed, tradition-directed) except autonomous functioned like programmed robots
All types (inner-directed, other-directed, tradition-directed) except autonomous functioned like programmed robots

It is autonomy—self-control—that Riesman values most, for the same reason Fromm does (and the same reason that we do), as the above discussion clearly highlights. (Erich Fromm [1900-1980], who wrote Man for Himself: An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Ethics, was the world-renowned expert on the difference between following the authoritarian conscience or the humanistic conscience. The latter is followed by autonomous people.) Many have wished that Riesman had not used the term inner-directed to mean “people controlled by their superego,” because it has led to misunderstanding in so many. Many have confused self-directed (which only autonomous people are) with superego-directed, simply because both psychic entities are “inner.”


These confused people need to read Riesman’s book more thoroughly and some Freud as well. It would soon become obvious that the superego is internalized parental and societal demands, and to the degree it directs one, as in inner-directed, there is no "self"-control. In the development of autonomy, however, when a person attains self-actualization, the self takes control from either (or both) the superego or the internalized peer pressures and the person runs himself, rather than being run by anything.

Facebook and Google encourage the worst type of conformity: other-directedness
Facebook and Google encourage the worst type of conformity: other-directedness

Note that kids have to be controlled by others when very young, and it is the function of good parenting to empower them to learn self-control and autonomy. The fact that the vast majority of people end up as either inner-directed or other-directed and not merely anomic, mentally ill, or criminals manifests the fact that most parents don’t do a "bad" job of parenting. But this is relative, because the fact that so few humans end up evolving autonomy—full maturity and self-control—shows that most parents do a parenting job that is far from optimal. MCs produce optimal parenting. Facebook and Google, on the other hand, encourage the worst type of conformity: other-directedness.

Of course, we must remember that it is the strengths and choices of the individual himself that are most crucial to the development of the full maturity of autonomy—no one can do it for another or make it happen in another. One can only give individuals an environment—like an MC—compatible with the development of autonomy and self-actualization. One cannot give them autonomy itself.