You Do You and I’ll Do Me (Unless You’re Ghengis Khan)

I was a little worried when The NY Times Magazine did away with “Riff”, a […]

David Zahl / 4.1.15

I was a little worried when The NY Times Magazine did away with “Riff”, a column we’ve mined over the years almost more than any other. Lo and behold, my concern was misfounded. What they’ve done is clever, funneling those observations into a handful of thematically-defined columns, the language-oriented “First Words” being the prime example. For the second time in as many months, writer Colson Whitehead has utilized that new umbrella to deliver a tour de force of cultural commentary. Last time he explored the appeal of the ‘loser edit’, this time he goes after two of our favorite tautologies or ‘tautophrases’: “You do you” and its cousins in pop resignation, “It is what it is” and “Haters gonna hate.”

It’s essentially an updated version of the taxi cab monologue in Last Days of Disco, though a bit more devastating. Appropriate, in other words, as we head toward Good Friday:

bustedtees.144ff9bc-01d6-4301-8df6-ca61ceb8Wherever you hail from, you’ll recognize “You do you” and “Do you” as contemporary versions of that life-­affirming chestnut “Just be yourself.” It’s the gift of encouragement from one person to another, what we tell children on the first day of kindergarten, how we reassure buddies as they primp for a blind date or rehearse asking for a raise. You do you, as if we could be anyone else. Depending on your essential qualities, this song of oneself is cause for joy or tragedy.

You’ve also come across that expression’s siblings, like the defensive, arms-­crossed “Haters gonna hate” or the perpetually shrugging “It is what it is.” Like black holes, they are inviolable. All criticism is destroyed when it hits the horizon of their circular logic, and not even light can escape their immense gravity. In a world where the selfie has become our dominant art form, tautological phrases like “You do you” and its tribe provide a philosophical scaffolding for our ever-­evolving, ever more complicated narcissism…

“Boys will be boys” and “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” excuse mischief and usually worse, reinforcing the dominant masculine code. It’s doubtful that “I just discovered penicillin!” or “Publishing Willa Cather’s ‘My Antonia’ was the most satisfying moment of my career” elicited a gruff “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” but perhaps I am cynical…

Last year, Taylor Swift somewhat boringly testified that not only are “Haters gonna hate,” they’re gonna “hate hate hate” exponentially, presumably in direct proportion to her lack of culpability. Instead of serving the establishment, the modern tautophrase empowers the individual…

Can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m not sure I’d take it quite as far as Whitehead does, i.e., perhaps he is being overly cynical. These phrases may have become meaningless in their ubiquity, but at their best–and I’m thinking particularly of “It is what it is”–they convey something akin to acceptance, or at least a refusal to give an unpleasant circumstance a gloss of false positivity. Which is preferable to indulging in silver-lining-itis. Or perhaps they’re simply what people say when they don’t know what to say (when they should probably say nothing at all). That’s certainly when I find myself hearing/using them–not so much as secularized Romans 8:28 as a valueless acknowledgment intended to defend from discomfort or awkwardness (which is, in itself, a judgment I suppose).

Then again, it’s hard to deny the potency of “you do you” and “haters gonna hate” when it comes to self-justification. As he writes:

Classify your antagonists as haters, however, and your flaws are absolved by their greater sin of envy. Obviously, the haters have other qualities apart from their hatred, but such thinking goes against the very nature of the hermetic tautophrase, which refuses intrusion into the bubble of its logic. The hated-­upon must resist lines of inquiry, like “Haters are inclined to hate, but perhaps I have contributed to this situation somehow by frustrating that natural impulse in all human beings, that of empathy, however submerged that impulse is in this deadened, modern world.” To do otherwise would be to acknowledge your own monstrosity.

Which brings us to the problem of what happens when the person in question is not just an ordinary plodder, a high-­school-­age Todd or Alissa preening in the mall’s food court, but a true villain. What if your you is not so good? “There’s been so much blood lately — should I cut back maybe on the pillaging today?” The lieutenant gestures with his longbow: “You do you, Genghis.”

I’m as much a T-Swift fan as the next guy, but Whitehead’s insight couldn’t be any more well-timed. Not when this coming Friday is Good to the extent that we understand ourselves not to be.

I was struck afresh the other day by the passage from Mark where Christ issues his wonderful mission statement about the sick needing a doctor rather than the healthy, that he came not for the righteous but for sinners. It’s a beautiful proclamation, and one that understandably inspires “the friend of sinners” label that we throw around so often and so fondly. Certainly those who welcomed Christ most enthusiastically were they whose lives had, by and large, stripped them of any illusions about themselves or their deservedness. Just as it is with us.

But I can’t help but wonder if we sometimes romanticize the riff-raff. You know, the tax collectors and prostitutes–even the children. Because if Holy Week reminds us of anything, it’s that everyone bailed, those who were plotting on Palm Sunday (the haters) and those who were waving branches. The Pharisees may have helped instigate his arrest and execution, but it’s not as though the riff-raff rose up to defend their ‘friend’. Their relationship with Christ failed just as dramatically as anyone else’s. When push came to shove, no amount of contrition or repentance or even faith–as laudatory as those things undoubtedly are–proved enough to stem that tidal wave of fear and pride known as sin. We all did what we do. The hope, of course, is that so did he.

If that’s not an opening for The Mats, I don’t know what is: