The Assertive Self

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Solidarity is not merely based on mutual dependency and the capacity

to trust other people but on a more fundamental capacity as well: the

capacity of putting oneself in the imaginary position of the other. Long

before George Herbert Mead (1961 [1934]) formulated his theory of the

development of the inherently social nature of the self – the self as the

mirror of other people’s beliefs and attitudes – Adam Smith, in his book

The Theory of Moral Sentiments (2002 [1759]), offered a similar account

of the way in which we learn to judge our own conduct and sentiments:

by comparing our behavior with that of other people.

The principle by which we naturally either approve or disapprove of our own

conduct, seems to be altogether the same with that by which we exercise the

like judgments concerning the conduct of other people. We either approve

or disapprove of the conduct of another man according as we feel that, when

we bring his case home to ourselves,we either can or cannot sympathizewith

the sentiments and motives, which directed it. And, in the same manner, we

either approve or disapprove of our own conduct, according as we feel that,

when we place ourselves in the situation of another man, and view it, as it

were,with his eyes and fromhis station,we either can or cannot entirely enter

into and sympathize with the sentiments and motives which influenced it.

We can never survey our own sentiments and motives, we can never form

any judgment concerning them; unless we remove ourselves, as it were, from

our own natural station, and endeavour to view them as at a certain distance

from us. (128)

Imagining ourselves in the situation of a fair and impartial spectator

enables us to form a balanced judgment. But that requires our having

spectators. If a human creature grew up into some solitary place without

any communication with fellow human beings, it would be impossible to

think about his own character, sentiments, or conduct. “Bring him into

society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted

before” (129).

Being able to sympathize and identify with the predicament of another

person is a key precondition to solidarity. Only a self that mirrors

the imagined viewpoints of others is capable of solidarity. Solidarity presupposes

the double capacity to assess and appraise the self as well as

to recognize the other, and it is conceivable that the individualization

process has contributed to a change in exactly this respect. On the one

hand, the self has become more uncertain and disoriented, rendering

the appraisal and recognition of self as well as other more difficult. On

the other hand, a characteristic of individualized citizens is their increased

assertiveness. Since the 1960s, when the traditional structures of

authority in family, education, work, and politics came under attack, the

growing emphasis on personal autonomy, self-realization, and freedom

of choice is assumed to have resulted in a much more assertive life-style

(van den Brink 2001). The permissiveness of the 1960s, reflected in the

socialization of children, would have created larger egos and a diminished

capacity to imagine oneself in the position of another person and

to feel responsible for the consequences of one’s actions. According to

Christopher Lasch (1979) this resulted in a growing narcissism and an

increased vulnerability to infractions on immediate impulse satisfaction.

This might explain why some people’s tolerance for insignificant inconveniences

in public life seems to have shrunk to zero: having to wait

at ac ounter or ar ed light or having to show your ticket on the train

may already be felt as a narcissistic offense and therefore an occasion for