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Monday, 12 January 2009

image for No Man Is an Island:  A Critique of Individualism

When I came into this world, I was a part of someone. My mother squeezed me out of a small, dark, aqueous environment inside her, and I burst forth into a strange, bright new world of air and unlimited space. My life as a true individual only began the moment the doctor cut the umbilical cord shared by my mother and me. I was helpless; instincts, instructions programmed into the genetic material of my fragile body, made me cry out for the attention I needed to survive. Those around me, in turn, gave me this attention because I am here to write this.

As I grew older, I began to rely less and less on others for survival. By a certain age, I had more or less mastered such rudimentary skills as urinating and defecating in a civilized manner, eating and drinking by myself, walking upright, and of course, talking. My genetic programming made it easy for me to learn to talk, and for good reason. As social beings, we need to interact with one another. Perhaps the most detrimental skill in our species, language gives us a means to acquire knowledge about our environment from others who have lived in it for some time. But why might I refer to this as "detrimental"?

Well, sometimes the people who tell us things are mistaken. Sometimes we end up believing things that aren't true. Sometimes we end up following paths that we should not merely because we find ourselves walking down them. Moreover, once people's belief systems have fully formed, they don't respond well to the idea of change. Gene programming is again responsible - we reach a certain point in life where nature assumes we should have learned all we need to know to survive and, so that we may pass on to our children the knowledge we have acquired through our own lives' experiences, it switches our cultural/biological roles more toward teaching than learning. That's why languages (especially proper accents) are more difficult to learn as adults. That's why it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks. And that's why it's often difficult to shake off beliefs and concepts that permeate culture, even if they no longer prove useful.

I don't remember when I first encountered the concept of individualism. I do know that I must have come across its doctrine in some form because I made a reference to "rugged individualism" in a paper I wrote as a high school junior. I also know that individualism interests me insofar as it has shaped the system of beliefs and values in America. Not too long ago, I learned in a college history course that individualism in America prior to the Civil War made an impression on French nobleman and political commentator Alexis de Toqueville:

"At first skeptical about democracy, Toqueville nevertheless liked much of what he saw. He was respectfully surprised that American society had managed to enjoy so much liberty amid an equality that he had thought to be an enemy to liberty. And yet he found American individualism flawed. The haste to succeed prevented the slow cultivation of excellence, and the individual American, lacking smaller communities and classes with which to identify, was pitifully submissive to public opinion." (Bernard, Burner, et al. FIRSTHAND AMERICA: A History of the United States, third edition. St. James: Brandywine press, 1994.)

Obviously de Toqueville's reactions were mixed, and for good reason.

Individualism in large part made America what it is today. It encompasses many of the beliefs that we still hold, many of which offer little utility to us in our present circumstances. Whether aware of it or not, we live with the tenets of individualism every day. We learned them consciously as children in school and unconsciously by observing the world around us, by seeing and acting upon behavior we observed in others and emulating this same behavior. We understand our world, process information and behave mostly according to rules learned in our formative years interacting with an environment that fosters individualism. This situation provides many clues as to just why our society seems to be falling apart at the seams.

I was recently challenged to disprove the assumption that "we are alone and we are isolated." I accept the challenge, asserting that much the opposite is true - we are not alone, we are neither floating nor free, but owe our entire existence to the cumbersome organism that is humanity, which is now some 6,700,000,000 cells strong. We sometimes feel alone because materialistic pursuits cut us off from humanity and nature. But a person may only be isolated insofar as society isolates him; left on his own, he will naturally fall into harmony with humanity, even if humanity finds itself in a state of decay.

The technological/corporate machine in America has proven that individualism has a way of making the economic pie much larger. But somehow kids seem to grow up relentlessly competing for a piece of the pie rather than helping each other bake one that's just the right size for everybody to have some. Parents can't monitor what's going into their kids' heads because they are too busy attempting to accumulate wealth and material prosperity, signaling their priorities in doing so; consequently, we fall into consumer roles and participate in the economy early on, never having a chance to step back and see the system for what it is. Instead, we rely on what we are told about the system when growing up. The educational system perpetuates our consumer roles, with the concept of individualism weighing heavily in the economic equation.

When America was a fledgling nation, our founding fathers developed the pivotal concepts that would make America what it is today. They stood on the shoulders of great economic and political theorists of the time, formulating a new way of seeing the world that would center on the individual. They had noble intentions - among the "inalienable rights" of individuals that they wished to protect were the rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. However, in their emphasis on the protection of individual freedoms, they neglected to protect the community, which remained the responsibility of the people. Sadly, the "moderately selfish" impulses of individualists once cited by Alexis de Toqueville have, during the last two-hundred years or so, eroded vast chasms in the bedrock of our communities and our families. Gone are the days of civic responsibility. Limousines whiz past homeless people sleeping on Market Street. Others turn up their nose at someone asking for spare change because they are too busy rushing to get in line and sleep on the streets themselves for five days to buy the latest techno-gadget. Welcome to Capitalist Nation 2009. When you've "made it" here, you can commute home from a handsomely paying computer related desk job through an hour of rush hour traffic all alone in a sports utility vehicle while talking on your cellphone, arriving at your 5,000 square foot McMansion to eat pre-prepared food and watch 4 hours of satellite TV spanning 200 channels, and maybe you can "escape it all" every once in a while, spending a week or two in an exotic Caribbean port city watching a 10-story boat loom up out of the bay like some tremendous man-made monstrosity. These are the net results of an economy regulated by the self-interests of individuals.

When America was "conceived," around the time when Thomas Jefferson so eloquently set down the Declaration of Independence, only about 3 million people comprised our nation. Pioneers had relatively easy access to great tracts of untamed land which they might claim as their own. Americans could truly exist as individuals - there were no apartment complexes, no crowded freeways, no shopping centers where thousands could congregate to purchase goods. Rather, people often existed in isolation from one another, living relatively solitary lives on their vast, vast lands of purple mountains' majesty and amber waves of grain. A farmer earned a living by the sweat of his brow, tilling the land to produce plenty, a classic example of the individual against nature. Towns, too, were built on the individual. Here, people like the blacksmith took the raw materials of nature and transformed them, using the physical laws of nature, into products suitable for human consumption. They produced wealth as individuals, much like the farmers, wealth that benefited other individuals.

Our society would not exist without the hard work and determination of such individual societal units during the formative years of our country - land, labor and capital have little economic value without the hands of individuals acting upon them to create wealth. Therefore, our founding fathers established an economic framework within which the individual might exercise his freedom, especially in the marketplace. The bill of rights was born as a way to protect the rights of Americans seeking independence from forces outside the individual/familial realm, regulatory forces that might hinder the "moderately selfish" individual. This concept happened to work in its time because the definition of "individual" still fit the apparent reality of the individual, back when virgin land and resources still abounded and the individual could still "go West, young man", to pursue a more or less independent existence, way back when there were more important things then money, like land and freedom.

Today, we live within a much different system. More than 300 million people call America home now, but almost none of them have any inkling of what it's like to be involved in a struggle with nature, the essence of what once defined the individual. Perhaps a bastardized version of this struggle persists in street culture adopted by the homeless people I see sleeping in the street, grappling with the city of San Francisco just to scrape by every day, not having the means to e-mail a professionally polished resume to someone who might pay them sufficiently to move up the American ladder a rung or two. Notwithstanding, most of us truly know nothing of nature and, if our government collapsed, our economy fell to ruin, and our world-wide web of electricity and the information it carries with it was suddenly gone, most of us would never be able to survive. Hurricane Katrina provided us with a tiny prelude to what might happen. We are helpless without the society we have created, we are all consumers making the gears of the Corporate States of America turn, and we have unwittingly created a gargantuan cybernetic/ economic organism of which we are all a part, not apart from. In fact, we are the gears themselves - our interactions with one another make the machine go. Nowhere is there any indication that we are solitary, individual creatures except for the alienation we force upon ourselves by continuing to cling to ideas born from a way of life that we no longer know.

Moreover, our culture offers many examples of our tendency toward decidedly non-individualistic ideals. At any period in history, people tend to dress the same, wear the same hairstyles, even live in homes designed and furnished according to tastes currently fashionable with the masses. In fact, there's tremendous pressure to meet these standards or risk being ostracized for not "fitting in". Old movies and television programs may often be easily "dated" by recognizing these contemporary styles and fashionable tastes of the time, trends created by so-called individuals making decisions in line with those around them. When individuals come into contact with one another, they see what other members of the culture are like and, whether consciously or unconsciously, emulate them. They socialize. They assimilate. Behavioral patterns in culture arise from this assimilative process: One uncaring, inattentive motorist rudely cuts in front of another at 5:45 a.m., so he presses on his horn firmly for a few seconds, waking up perhaps fifty people. Many of these will be in a bad mood the rest of the day and collectively be rude to another 100-150 more people, etc. Patterns of adoption even occur in language, causing it to change over time. As assimilation and exposure to one's cultural environment, especially at a young age, causes us to absorb lingual traits from one another as swelling populations cause demographic overlapping, we try to sound more like each other, not less. Consequently, additions are constantly being made to the dictionary, and regional dialects develop and mutate. Non-individualistic tendencies even allow a means for young individuals in trouble to join surprisingly protective, though often violent, street gang communities comprised of other lonely souls who have joined forces.

The pursuit of individuality as an ideal has led to many of the problems facing America today, uncooperative drivers and street gangs being just the tip of an iceberg threatening to sink our nation. When people see themselves as individuals struggling against, competing with the masses, they are mistaken, because they are the masses. We hollowly proclaim our individuality while striving for acceptance, molding ourselves in the image of those we see around us so that we may fit in. We attempt to conform to the expectations of our peers.

The truest "individuals" turn out to be those who cause the most damage in society: When kids go to school and shoot all their classmates, it's usually because they were picked on, ostracized for being different or looking different, cut off, isolated, loners, "individuals" if you will. When somebody walks into a church or to the top of a university clock tower and starts shooting people, those who knew him usually say things like, "He never really fit in," or "He was always something of a loner." Ted Kaczynsky, the so-called Unabomber, was as much an individual as you could possibly mean by that word. A businessman in Atlanta, GA didn't get the promotion he felt he needed to help him achieve the American Dream of the "individual" who had really made it, failed to "fit in" with his "peers" in the next tax bracket, so he opened fire on his colleagues and then went home and shot his wife, his kids, and himself. More recently, a lonely individual who "kept to himself" by many accounts dressed up in a Santa suit and killed several people at a Christmas party for a group he was no longer invited to be a part of.

In reality, the whole idea of an individual makes no sense at all without the context of a human race within which to place that individual. Even in America, we are all parts of a whole, one nation, under God, indivisible. We are all social creatures, and the standard unit of social creatures is much greater than the individual. Most birds do not migrate alone, do not face a solitary journey when heading for warmer climates. A single bee will perish cut off from its host organism, the hive. Likewise ants and termites. A fish cut off from the school soon becomes a meal for hungry predators. A stray wildebeest won't last long, either. So it has always been with humans - we are not at all like the solitary cheetah, or polar bears, but instead are perhaps the most social creatures of all.

We are consumers, too, making our purchases as individuals, but seldom out of line with societal norms and never far removed from society. We attempt to categorize and include ourselves with others, defining ourselves and our group of peers by what we do, how much it pays, what we drive, what we wear and where we live, even going so far as to define ourselves by who we know!

Clearly, the need to belong, to be something besides an isolated, individual unit persists even in the most decadent of material cultures. Everything we do seems to indicate on a fundamental level that we need interaction and a sense of community and belonging. We are genetically programmed to need these things, and no amount of money yielded from individualistic, competitive, material pursuits can ever erase our need for a sense of belonging. And we are never alone - no matter what tribulations we face, someone, somewhere in this nation of millions upon millions, empathizes. We are all facing battles of our own. John Donne said that no man is an island, and he could not be more correct.

The challenge we face today is merely one of redirection. We must focus our sights on the whole of humanity, not just our own personal gratification. We must become involved in our communities and work for the betterment of not just our children (if even that) and immediate circle of family and friends, but all our brethren until all members of our race (not races) have a chance at not just the pursuit of happiness but maybe some actual happiness. After all, money can't buy happiness, but lack of money can certainly buy you a lot of misery.

We must look to the very source of our own actions, morals and values we've learned to see if perhaps they could be playing some part in the decay of society. We, as Americans, started out following what appeared to be a good path, but the scenery has changed considerably over the last couple of centuries, and maybe we got lost somehow. Maybe it's time to stop and get our bearings. As individuals, we have the choice to live for ourselves or for the whole of humanity. Self preservation or species preservation. The path you choose will make a difference. Others will follow your lead - this is a given according to the rules of socialization and assimilation. Alexis de Toqueville has spoken, four score and many, many years ago. Choose the slow cultivation of excellence, not the fast track to hell in a hand basket.


"A human being is a part of the whole, called by us the "Universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest - a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security." (Albert Einstein: Letter dated 1950, quoted in H. Eves' Mathematical Circles Adieu, 1977)

The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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