Tag Archives: denial of death

Explaining Gatekeeping

Ernest Becker’s Denial Of Death provides the best explanation for the phenomenon of “gatekeeping” that I know of. Gatekeeping, as defined by Reddit, “is when someone takes it upon themselves to decide who does or does not have access or rights to a community or identity.”

A good example of gatekeeping can be found on Reddit in the many iterations of defining a “real man”:




To start, it’s crucial to first accept that we humans are animals who, over the course of millennia and as a means for self-preservation, have evolved the ability to know that we exist. This ability has treated our species well, evidenced by our ability to subjugate all other species. But it is also the universal human problem. It’s a problem because knowing that we exist also means knowing we will someday cease to exist. The realizations that death can occur at any time for reasons that we could never anticipate or control along with the point of view that we’re insignificant and no more enduring than an insect or a tree would understandably render our ancestors totally demoralized and paralyzed with overwhelming dread. But we managed to mitigate that overwhelming dread by constructing culture. Culture is the humanly constructed beliefs about reality that we share with people in groups to minimize anxiety by giving us a sense that we are persons of value living in a world of meaning.

Culture gives meaning by providing us with an account of the origin of the universe, prescriptions of appropriate conduct and some hope of immortality either literally in the form of heavens, after-lives and reincarnations or symbolically through having children, amassing great wealth or producing art or scientific discoveries. While we may not be here forever we are comforted by the possibility that a tangible manifestation of our existence will persist over time nonetheless. As Becker explains,

“This is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of status and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism.”

If a fully accepted culture provides something as important as the ability to ignore our insignificance and avoid being paralyzed with overwhelming dread, then it stands to reason that we would avoid situations or information that could cast doubt on it at all costs. But in the 21st century we are unavoidably bombarded by alternate world-views on a daily basis. As a result, we are inclined to constantly define and defend our cultural worldview that provides us meaning, A.K.A. gatekeeping.

Being exposed to information that does not fit with our beliefs about the nature of reality or meeting other people that do not subscribe to the same symbolic vehicle we use to maintain our self-esteem are fundamentally threatening because when we admit to the legitimacy of another’s alternative conception of reality we necessarily undermine the confidence with which we subscribe to our own views. When we do that we expose ourselves to the very anxiety that those beliefs were erected to mitigate in the first place.

Someone who has embraced a “manly” cultural worldview gleans their self-esteem from meeting or exceeding the standards associated with “manliness”–owning a tightly scripted wardrobe, using a charcoal grill, driving a stick-shift, owning a gun–which helps them keep mortal terror at bay. The first line of psychological defense employed when these “manly” worldview holders run into others who are different is to denigrate or disparage them by continually pointing out the cultural rules that they play by so as to firmly plant themselves as winners of their invented game.

While it is exhausting to be a gatekeeper, the alternative of becoming aware of the lie gatekeepers are living is worse. As Becker says,

“Everything painful and sobering in what psychoanalytic genius and religious genius have discovered about man revolves around the terror of admitting what one is doing to earn his self-esteem.”

Painful, but also necessary. If one isn’t aware of the cultural rules that they are in servitude of as an attempt to earn the ability to ignore their insignificance then it results in making them ripe for manipulation. Take the below advertisement:

This company knows that if their ad works they stand to make a lot of money, not by successfully providing a solution to a real need, which is much harder in the 21st century, but by placing themselves within the cultural conception of what is considered “manly”. If they can convince those who derive their self-esteem through the management of what is and isn’t “manly,” then their product will succeed by being a solution to a cultural perception without having to actually solve anything at all.

This realization shouldn’t be taken as something to shove in the face of all gatekeepers, but should cause us to shudder at the thought of what inventions we believe in that make us susceptible to manipulation. What gatekeeping do we participate in to keep the terror of reality at bay? Gatekeeping is like propaganda: the only propaganda you can identify is the propaganda that isn’t working, when it’s working you don’t call it propaganda; you call it the truth. Ask yourself what Becker calls the most liberating question of all:

“How empirically true is the cultural hero system that sustains and drives men?”