We live in rude times. But for those of use in the United States, an oppressive wave of individualism (culminating in the persona of Donald Trump) has been riding out our cultural commentary and news media for the past several years. Oppressive Individualism is nothing new to the West, however. It’s cropped up before in “bootstraps” responses to poverty, in “personal responsibility” narratives in everything from mental health to reproductive rights to gun violence, and in the perennial “I got mine” response to social program and safety net proposals. Oppressive Individualism is, in many ways, the ultimate manifestation of Weber’s “Protestant Work Ethic,” where labor is virtue, wealth is merit and divine favor, and every man’s home is his castle. But I would also add to this the narrative of the “Chosen One.” It’s become a problem that we are all the heroes of our own stories.
You’ve seen the Chosen One everywhere. It’s a staple of YA fiction which means, given the popularity of adapting young adult novels for the big screen, that it is also everywhere in movies and television. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, a long list of superheroes, Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Highlander, The Bible, you get the idea. In fact, even the most cursory Google search by that name will net an unending list of characters, mythic figures, and even a few actual people who fit into this particular trope. But my point here is not in offering yet another film or literary critique of the Chosen One narrative but rather to point out some of the more insidious effects it has on modern popular culture today. And in light of Oppressive Individualism, the Chosen One fits right in.
When you are the hero of your own story, the rest of the world is relegated to a supporting cast (i.e., magnifying the individual’s narrative at the expense of all others), and what is more, one whose implicit job it is to refashion the world so as to result in your personal triumph. Many feminist critics point out, quite fairly, that this has often resulted in expressions of male privilege that assume that every man is meant to “get the girl” and that women are ultimately awarded to hero-men as prizes. In Critical Race Theory, the Chosen One narrative is, by and large, enjoyed by whites who fashion themselves Men versus Nature, Civilized versus Savage, or the Lone Hero on the Mountain (despite all the help he or she needs to get there). It is also the narrative that results in “tokenism,” where the single hero of color or queer hero is set aside from their marginalized community and held up as a kind of special example not indicative of the rest of their group (and therefore discouraging solidarity). But there is another facet to all this, and that is the pervasive and unacknowledged, but very deep-seated, desire for unearned adoration and significance that one doesn’t have to create for oneself. It’s like Western Positivist Science writ Culture – your “specialness” and the meaning of your life isn’t something you make, it’s something you discover somewhere out there. Or hopefully, that someone else discovers and tells you about before it comes crashing down into your lap.
But what is behind this desperation to have meaning and importance handed to us? Doesn’t it seem counter-intuitive that a society so focused on the virtue of work wouldn’t relish the idea of creating one’s own meaning and place in the world? Wouldn’t a built and earned status be so much better than an unearned one handed out by the Universe? Apparently not. Rather, it would seem that the Chosen One trope within Oppressive Individualism is Chimimanda Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story.” It’s the belief that our own voice is authoritative and true, while all other voices are inauthentic, fractured, biased, and superfluous. The Chosen One is our own commitment to the idea that we (the Western, the White, the Anglophone, the Able, the Male) see the world objectively, just as it is, while those around us are constrained by their genders, their races, their abilities, their geographical origins, and their histories (and that we are not). The Chosen One says that we are custodians of reality.
A look into modern science communication also bears this out. The voices currently shaping our understanding of culture don’t come from the social sciences. Indeed, they come from STEM (i.e., Western Positivist Science). Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Sam Harris, and all those who seek to reduce human lifeways into questions of biological evolution or reductive chemistry and physics or who interpret cultural data through a decidedly empirical lens (as if to imply that resulting conclusions are somewhere more objective, more real, that anything interpretive). Even an online search for “Best Anthropology Books” or the like leads to lists that place Jared Diamond and Richard Dawkins at the top rather than highlighting say, Engelke’s new book “How to Think Like an Anthropologist” or Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5000 Years” or “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” by Lila Abu-Lughod. Somewhere along the line, our “Chosen Ones” were selected for us and quite a few were all too happy to join in the cults of personality.
This is why intersectionality and diversity are so vital to our future. We must become comfortable with the “partial truths” (Clifford) that surround us. Or, at least, the idea that there is truth in every perspective. Not the whole truth and nothing but; but an emergence of truth that comes from multitudinous sources because no single person can be the reference of all things. In the end, that none of us are the Chosen One. There’s always been more than one seat at the table.
And so, to all this I say…. By the power of Greyskull!…………………Huh. You know, this usually works.