The transformation of Caitlyn Jenner has caused quite the kerfuffle around the water coolers and the newsrooms of America. That person dressed in a little cream-colored bodysuit looking out at us from this week’s cover of Vanity Fair--is it a man or a woman?
From a social psychological standpoint, what is interesting about this debate is not the details of Caitlyn’s anatomy, but rather what it says about society. It sheds light on what people consider a person’s true self: how they determine what is (and isn't) authentic.
A few years ago, a group of psychologists published an article in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that provides an interesting perspective on this question. The article suggested that people’s political beliefs influence what they think of as a person’s “true self.”
The psychologists asked a group of subjects to consider “Mark,” an evangelical Christian who coaches homosexuals about techniques they can use to resist their attraction to people of the same sex. The problem for Mark, though, is that he himself is attracted to other men. Is Mark’s true self—the deepest, most essential part of his being—the part that believes homosexuality is wrong? Or is his true self attracted to other men?
What the psychologists found is that liberals were more likely to say that Mark’s true self is attracted to other men. Conservatives were more likely to say that Mark’s true self is trying to resist these tendencies.
This suggests that people’s view of what makes up a person’s deepest essence is influenced by their political opinions.
The Caitlyn Jenner issue presents a similar pattern of effects. Conservatives tend to see the bodysuit, the surgery, and the makeup as thin veneers overlaid upon the essential Bruce, who, once born a man, will always be a man. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to see these features as the true expression of Caitlyn’s inner spirit.
From an even broader standpoint, the issues at play here redound to larger questions about the moral status of self-transformative technology. Today, human beings are afforded the opportunity to alter their bodies in more radical ways than ever before. Plastic surgery, skin whitening techniques, body-tattoos: all are means by which individuals may alter their bodies to have them adhere more tightly to their own self-image.
What self-transformative technology has the potential to do is bring two facets of an individual’s personality into closer alignment. Every human being in the social world possesses two selves. The first is the “seen self”—the way an individual appears to others. The second self is the “felt self”—the way an individual feel like on the inside. Self-transformative technology, therefore, is an opportunity for the “seen self” and the “felt self” to be brought into closer harmony.
On the other hand, we have to be cautious about what constitutes a legitimate versus an illegitimate use of this technology. This is because the "felt self" can get corrupted by external influences. The way a person wishes they could be--or feels like they ought to be--can hijack the person they really are. Surely the egregious instances of the over-use of plastic surgery in the celebrity world are demonstrations of the over-use of self-transformative technology.
So where do we draw the line? What constitutes a legitimate desire to be seen in the world as one really feels, and what constitutes an empty attempt to adhere to certain standards imposed by the social world? Who is the true self?
I'll venture a guess. The true self is that which emerges in a world stripped of value judgments. When people's self-expressions occur not because they believe one attribute is better than another (one race is better than another, one gender is better than another, one breast size is better than another, one eye-shape is better than another) but rather because it better matches their inner personality, that will be a manifestation of the true self.
What that requires is a social arrangement that echoes this sentiment. When each person's unique contributions can be appreciated as on a par with every other's, then no one will feel any pressure to adhere to any standards or expectations. Then people will have the freedom to simply be themselves.