Colson Whitehead’s recent article in The New York Times Magazine, “How ‘You Do You’ Perfectly Captures Our Narcissistic Culture,” attacks the phrase “You do you” as self-serving and even dangerous. He opens with the popular adage of the Scorpion and the Frog, in which the Scorpion, riding across a river on the Frog’s back, stings the Frog and dooms the pair of them. Whitehead’s Frog excuses the Scorpion, acknowledging his right to “do him.” “You do you” and tautological chestnuts of its ilk, Whitehead argues, serve merely to justify the whims of the individual (which he claims is representative of “our Narcissistic culture”—especially that of the dreaded postmodern hobgoblin, the millennial). Only ill can come of this phrase, Whitehead argues, because it is a closed rhetorical circle that refuses to understand the perspective of others—imma do me, and everyone who disagrees is a psychopathic hater.
My reaction to the article was, at first, one of discomfort. Colson Whitehead is my creative writing professor, and this article felt like a big red dash through my every individualistic sentiment (and through my general good will towards the phrase “you do you”). He’s right about a lot of things in class, I thought, so why should he be wrong about pop culture?
The more I considered his argument the less convincing I found it. The idea of “being oneself” is neither a new nor specifically American phenomenon. While Whitehead opens his article with the story of the Scorpion and the Frog, an American parable from 1954, the first literary reference that occurred to me when considering the phrase “you do you” was a moment from the Odyssey. Odysseus, beset by Poseidon’s wrathful storm, is struggling to reach shore in his boat, when Ino appears to him and offers him a magical scarf that she claims, if he ties it around himself, will allow him to swim safely to shore.
“I’ll do what seems best to me,” Odysseus says to himself in the Fagles translation. Mistrusting the gods and their aid after experiencing Poseidon’s rage, he attempts to stay with the ship, figuring he can always jump as a last resort. His ship is finally destroyed, and he’s forced to use the scarf to swim safely to shore, but that’s not the point. The point is that Odysseus essentially says, “imma do me,” and we have loved him for it for nearly three thousand years. Odysseus is not only a hero to us because his self is good, but because he follows this self where others would bend in the face of overwhelming odds. He’s offered so many easy ways out—including an eternal life of dalliance and ease with Calypso, surely something the millennial hedonist can get behind—but he takes none of them. Odysseus never stops “doing him,” because he knows the only thing that will make his life meaningful is to get back to his family and his kingdom on his terms. To conform to the status quo means death for Odysseus, often literally; even to accept Calypso’s generous offer would mean a death of the soul.
The virtue of doing oneself is one that has carried through the humanist traditions of Ancient Greece and the Renaissance, and it reaches us through American individualism. Emerson was one of the most well-known American individualists; as individuals, he argued, we must follow the little voice in our heads regardless of the consensus as society at large, lest we become slaves to the majority. “[Though I doubt it], if I am the devil’s child then I will live from the devil,” he says in his essay “Self-Reliance.” Even if the conformist consensus is that you are wrong, or evil, “doing you” is inherently valuable. Conformity requires no deliberation. Doing what you think is best does.
As Emerson points out, the only alternative to individualism is slavery. This is the largest problem I have with Whitehead’s article—while he leads a daring attack on individualism, he offers nothing in its place, aside from gesturing towards more “empathy” and an “impersonation of your best self.”
What he fails to realize is that “you do you” is in fact an exercise in empathy, and a reaction against antipathy. Maybe even against apathy. When we say “you do you,” we are not being redundant—we are acknowledging the right of every man to march to the hot beat of his own devil. When I say “imma do me,” I’m reacting against a society that seeks to homogenize. This particular memified expression is used mostly on the small scale, to justify an individualized fashion sense, unusual sleeping habits, a particular way of speaking—mostly microcosmic modes of expression. Despite this typical use, the phrase is just as applicable on a large scale. Your path in life is your own, and while the people you meet along the way will inevitably influence you, they ultimately inform decisions you make for yourself.
Whitehead’s main concern, that “you do you” feeds the devil within (though it can as easily be an angel) is correct. Of course individuals can do bad things. Some of us are the Scorpion. Some of us, I hope, are Odysseus. Regardless, it is the choice to “do you” that makes us human. However it’s posited, whether through epic, essay, or Zen koan, that positing is important. “You do you” is a reaction against a culture that, increasingly, through social media, TV, fashion trends, corporatism, whatever, asks us to do them. Traditional standards of art, morality, and society can only be changed when I do me and you do you. The status quo is towards immobility. Odysseus knew this—for him, and for us, to conform is to die.