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The chief problem of our time is not climate change. It is not police brutality. It is not Donald Trump’s tweeting. It is not even COVID-19. The chief problem of our time, rather, is the problem of identity. Modernity itself cannot answer what may be the most important question any individual could ask himself: Who am I?
The angsty teenager, then, is the modern person par excellence. She knows not who she is — or why she exists, or what she should be doing with her time. Nonetheless, she looks for answers to these questions, and she inevitably finds them in the plethora of subcultures and political movements served up by contemporary society on a silver platter. The social marketplace is as innovative as the economic one, and it provides no shortage of goods for the ravenous consumer. Predictably, the angsty teenager tries (and fails) to resolve her crisis by adopting one of these subcultural identities and conforming to its dictates. Perhaps she dons a spiked collar; perhaps she surrounds herself with healing crystals; perhaps she stretches her earlobes to the size of dinner plates or dyes her hair turquoise; perhaps she lops off her breasts, takes hormones, and rebrands herself as Steve. In all cases, she’s liable to say that she’s “expressing herself.” But what she’s really expressing is membership — membership in a little (or maybe a massive) ad hoc tribe with its own rituals and prescriptions. That is, after all, what it means to “express yourself.”