Interest and Ego: Why they are impersonal

 Johan Galtung was perhaps the first in modern social theory to suggest that our interests have little to do with who we are or what we think, feel or need. Thus conflicts based on interests are structural, and not personal: interests tend to be the same depending on one’s social position, duties and context, irrespectively of the identity of the holder of that position or duties. Interests are largely defined by social expectations and broader socialisation of individuals. For example, people are considered to have an ‘interest’ in being promoted to senior positions in their employing organisations: thus they jockey for such positions, especially in industries where advancement brings them considerably greater pay or considerable privileges. ‘Becoming a manager’ thus resonates with most as an interest which is built in being a salesperson, a procurement person, a service person. However, as Galtung points it out, the system becomes confused when people resist what most consider to be their interest. Perhaps I have an interest to become a public official, but this may militate against my personal values, and my autonomy is reflected not in following my interest (exactly because interest is structural, and not personal), but rather in acting regardless of, or contrary to, my interest. Thus I may decide not to run for public office, even if I am invited to, because my personal values are different: I like independence, liberty, having more free time, and I don’t like responsibility. Once enough people decide that they will act based on their personal values, and not on their interest, it will become more difficult for the state, for ‘the system’, to predict our behavior, to condition, blackmail and use us in all kinds of ways.

The situation is very similar with Ego. Eckhart Tolle was the first to point this out: ego, our attachment to things, approval by others, social positions, etc. is also structural: these are things that the society expects of us if we ‘value ourselves’. In fact, none of the above have anything to do with who we are: accepting withdrawal, loss, or marginalisation are, contrary to public belief, strategies which bring us closer to our personal existential experience. Just like interest, ego is a burden, a problem, a repressive tool meant to enslave our personality. Wise people do not take their ego seriously: they smile at the way their ego moves them to confront others, to seek acknowledgement, to perpetuate animosities arising from different opinion.

One of the signs of a healthy personality is the person’s ability to distance themselves from their own ego. They do have different opinions to others, and they express those opinions, but they do not turn them into lasting animosities. Such people draw a line between their opinions and themselves. Our opinions are not who we are. They are just accidental views. We may confront someone else over different views that we hold, but it is a contradiction of views, not of persons. True, many will say, but persons tend to identify with their views. This, however, is the sign of an overgrown ego: a large, vulnerable ego shivers at any challenge of the views the person holds dear. When people react violently to challenges to their views, they show the degree of insecurity they harbour deep inside.

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