“Nothing would count as a fulfillment in a world in which literally nothing is important
but self-fulfillment.” —Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self
One of the less positive exports of American popular culture is the penchant, especially on the part of the very young (say between the ages of 18 and 30), for a sort of epicurean, hedonistic self-indulgence and expediency which usually goes hand in hand with a desire to exhibit oneself and to transgress societal rules of decency and common sense. Some call it a natural narcissism of the young (going back to Aristotle who quipped that “youth is wasted on the young.”) Nevertheless, it is an arrogant sort of self-assertion that comes to the fore as a reaction against a conformist society where Big Brother ultimately dictates the rules that count, even if the society appears to be free.
Be that as it may, what intrigues me most about the aforementioned US ethos is its aping within the EU, despite a heavy dose of anti-Americanism found there. In some respects the hedonism found in the EU surpasses that in the US where it is mitigated by the Puritan tradition. It perhaps proves an old and even more intriguing social maxim: that when a colonized people adopts the ways of its colonizers, it ends up exhibiting the very cultural traits of the despised colonizer (especially the bad ones); in fact it may even become better at it. They say that there is nobody more English than a Jamaican.
Let’s see how this applies to the culture of the young in present day Italy. What seems to be at work there among the young, and I have experienced during a five week stay at the University of Urbino in Summer 2009, is a sort of cult of personality, good or bad, does not matter. What is important is to get noticed and get one’s fifteen minutes of fame. One must be on a constant reality show. It is rationalized as “the freedom to be oneself” but what is often lost sight of is that such a freedom is a mass phenomenon and not the unique freedom that accrues to the destiny of each existential individual of which a Kierkegaard speaks.
What is important in this misguided “being oneself” is the license to express one’s personality, be it positive or negative, educational or not. It is quite similar to a TV reality show where what counts is the vote of the viewing public; in those shows, those who are mostly themselves, win. It is a sort of deregulation of behavior similar in economic terms to the deregulation of financial institutions. The end result is a solipsistic society or institutions where everybody does pretty much what he or she likes. We have seen the results of that “deregulatory” philosophy in economic matters. But the phenomenon I refer to is even more disturbing since it is found in the realm of ethics. Its most disturbing aspect is the disappearance of a feeling of shame and guilt for moral transgressions, even for those of a Prime Minister; which is to say, those transgressions no longer scandalize anyone.
Berlusconi is now the prime example of a new Italian super-ego. It is now okay for a prime minister to bring a prostitute to his bed in the house of the people. Berlusconi, in an act of self-evaluation has been quoted as saying: “this is the way the Italians like me.” Vico says that at that point of decadence a society goes crazy and destroys itself. Indeed, the Rome of Nero and Caligula is exemplary here.
In Italy nowadays, as pretty much all over the Western world, the weekend or the summer vacation permits all kinds of illicit behavior punctuated by drugs and alcohol. Even in a school, one is apt to hear loud marauding crowds of students at three o’clock in the morning, completely unconcerned that there may be people sleeping at that time. This was one of my most disagreeable experiences at the University of Urbino this past summer. I know the students were Italians because, even in their drunken stupor, they spoke perfect Italian. And this is not to discount the more numerous positive experiences.
The behavior alluded to is almost aggressive, since it does not tolerate that any restriction or regulation be imposed on one’s sacrosanct “freedom.” This attitude is grounded in the political experience of the young of the 60s when a conviction was established—that of an imaginary absolute freedom—that culminated in the behavior of a Charles Manson who still fails to comprehend why he is in jail. Invariably, it ultimately ends in intolerance for the common good and the good of the other.
When one dares to reprimand that behavior, one is dubbed a medieval man who should learn to be more tolerant of the modern relativistic cultural ethos or get oneself to a monastery. And here is the crux of the paradox: absolute freedom ends up as slavery. The game seems to be this: anybody who represents a limit to the free expression of my will is an antagonist to me and he needs to be confronted. Ultimately the enemy becomes the weaker or the less powerful who has to submit to one’s will. If it sounds redolent of barbarism, it is. This is exalted by the young as a sign of a free country where everybody can be themselves; a country where all taboos and restrictions have been eliminated. The few that remain are a mere vestige of medieval obscurantism.
The expression “politically correct,” is itself suspect because it represents an obstacle to individual freedom. One can see how even xenophobia becomes acceptable within this philosophy of licentiousness passing for freedom. Savage individualism becomes a sort of negative value to be defended at all costs. Enter Umberto Bossi and his Lega Party and the infamous “ronde” defending the sacrosanct values of an individual regional culture.
Confirmation of the above statements is to be discovered in a very recent poll (Summer 2009) which found that 67.5% of Italians consider it just and fair that any illegal alien from Libya be immediately deported, while 53.7% are convinced that the “ronde” (or vigilantism a la “brown” or “black shirt”) guarantees more security. And here is another revealing poll: 450 university students were asked: “What do you think of university professors who enhance their career with stolen examinations or bogus competencies?” Only 41.6% considered such behavior intolerable. When it comes to private life, however, the attitude changes. When asked if a student who uses cocaine should be socially stigmatized, only 24.8% said yes. So, there seems to be a double standard morality: a social one and a private one, and one has nothing to do with the other. The primacy goes to the right to be oneself, never mind the rights of others.
Many so called Italian “Catholics” no longer confess themselves because they no longer consider their transgressions sins, they are mere assertions of the right to be oneself. The maxim seems to be “blessed is he who can transgress with impunity.” Fear of the punishment of the law seems to be the only mitigating obstacle to the absolute freedom to be oneself. Vico’s speculation may be helpful in analyzing this sad societal phenomenon of our days: transgressing the rules with impunity belongs not to mortals but to the gods. When men begin to think of themselves as demi-gods, free to transgress even the laws of human nature, the society is already down a very slippery slope. It is now no longer a question of “Cogito ergo sum” but of “sum, ergo facio.” (I am and therefore I do”). That way, I am afraid, leads to ultimate nihilism and final destruction.