The Idea that You Can Only Change Yourself is Garbage.
“You can only ever change yourself” isn’t even true when you are trying to change yourself. You can and do change other people. Here is how this works:
Let’s take a few properties of me: I was born in Los Angeles; I have curly hair; I have three children; I live in Athens, Ga. with my happy family; I play soccer; I like biking around town; I have a weekly youtube show called “The Black Athenians.”
These are all determinations of me. (A determination is simply a property.) Some of these determinations I have through nature, e.g., my curly hair. Others of these determinations I have through convention, e.g., I didn’t really decide to play soccer. My dad is Ghanaian so that was just going to happen regardless of my will. And still other determinations are primarily self-determinations, e.g., the weekly youtube show.
Now if you start erasing these determinations, or swapping out these determinations for other determinations — let’s say I sail instead of play soccer or have seven kids instead of three — I become unrecognizable to even myself rather quickly. So if you are going to talk about me, you have to talk about not just some abstract notion of me without my determinations, but insofar as you are talking about me, you have to talk about me, thick with determinations.
I said before that some of the determinations I have are natural, others are conventional, and still others are primarily a matter of self-determination, that is, determinations I have given myself through my working on myself. With the latter, determinations, it’s still not as if I worked on myself in a vacuum. If I train to be an Olympic champion, but then all of the sudden, they change the rules of my sport in a way that happens to favor my opponent, then my self-determination as an Olympic athlete ALWAYS depended upon stable background conditions, of which I am apart, but my political work in lobbying to secure the rules stay the same is different from my particular work of training to excel within them.
When folks talk about freedom, we have a psychological tick, an artifact of modernity, to talk about freedom of choice and ourselves as abstract choosers. This kind of freedom concerns the ability to choose between options. However, we are really bad about talking about how freedom is also an expression of the content from which the chooser chooses. For example, if I’m a vegetarian, and I go to a restaurant with the options of chicken, steak, or fish, I’m not free just because I have choices. None of those choices reflect who I aim to determine myself to be. Those choices are just a distraction AWAY from my freedom.
It is not sufficient to have choice; I must also be represented in the options among which I choose, lest I choose myself INTO my own alienation. For example, the potential vegetarian chooses into becoming an actual meat eater.
The problem is that the options among which I choose are the result of social interaction, which means that my freedom depends upon a social achievement. What do I mean by that? Let’s say that my wife tells me, “Irami, I hate living in Athens. I dread it everyday. It’s making me miserable.” (She didn’t say this. This is a merely a hypothetical.)
The statement, “I live in Athens, Ga. with my happy family” goes from being true to being false. Not because of anything I did, and no amount of my choices can make it true because I don’t have unilateral control over the happiness of my family. Who I am, insofar as I am who I am in virtue of these thick determinations, has been changed by my wife. I have been changed. I no longer am the person who lives in Athens, Ga. with my happy family. At best, I have been changed into a person who lives in Athens, Ga with his unhappy family.
The larger point is that we shape other people by shaping the content of their choices, and thereby, the content of their determinations. A commitment to freedom entails a responsibility to yourself as a chooser, but also an appreciation of your role as an actor figuring into the content of other people’s choices. And when you figure into the content of someone else’s determination, you aren’t just changing their determination: you are changing their identity. You are affecting who they are. Remember, I am no longer the person who “lives in Athens, Ga. with my happy family.” I have been changed. The initial option is off the table.
I mention my marriage because I’m working out a presentation on why egalitarianism is a one-sided approach to fighting the culture of oppression in marriage. The real answer is co-determination. If one spouse contrives a plan of what they want, and the other spouse contrives a plan of what the other wants, flipping a coin as a means to deciding between the two plans is egalitarian, but that’s not co-determinative. What’s attractive about flipping a coin is that it gets at the appearance of justice, as opposed to one spouse always being “a decider”, but it gets at the appearance of justice without getting to its substance. We’ve avoided the substance of justice so that neither of the spouses actually have to take the other person’s aims and aspirations into account in forming the options.
The real answer to the marriage problem is not only that both partners share-decision making power in making the choice (the form), but also take seriously the business of forming options with the other person’s aims and aspirations in mind (the content). But this takes a quality of maturity into freedom that we aren’t serious about cultivating. We’d rather pretend that freedom is simply about how people choose, not a matter of how they figure into the constrained options other people choose. Since this richer freedom requires intentionality from both the chooser and the person participating in the world that creates the options that are chosen, real freedom is a social achievement, and it can only happen if people understand that their responsibility to freedom as not merely a matter of the choices they make, but the world they create for other people to choose from. We are all complicit in shaping other people’s determinations, even other people’s self-determinations.
Being good to each other entails intentionally unlocking the other’s freedom, and that doesn’t always mean giving them more choices. It means figuring out your role within the content of their choices in a way that reflects their aims and aspirations. And a culture of freedom teaches this thoughtfulness.
By the way, I feel like people in the service industry get this a bit quicker because they are habituated into thinking of themselves as how they figure into other people’s options.