The word “individualism,” I fear, is going the way of such related words as “freedom,” “independence” and “self.” All these words have evolved so many meanings by now that they’re almost meaningless. “Freedom,” for instance, can be co-opted by those who want to exalt the individual at the expense of the common good. But I come to praise individualism, not to bury it. My understanding of the pluralistic, a world where differences among humans are willed by God, depends on individualism precisely understood.
It is the loss of that understanding that I call “the collapse of individualism.” I am not referring to the vanquishing of individualism in general. The image in my mind is a scene from an otherwise-forgotten childhood cartoon (It might be Road Runner; I think I see Wiley E. Coyote in the picture): A large box, floating in midair, begins to fold in on itself, one side at a time, smaller and smaller, until finally it vanishes entirely with only the fading ink strokes to show where it was. That, I fear, is what is happening to individualism, and in many quarters I think we are approaching the final fold. It’s time to rewind.
Respect for the individual is the oxygen of any free system. The very word suggests that this unit cannot be divided and survive. The world, the nation even the family can be divided, and the person can go on, but a splitting of this unit is a final kind of death. To me, the value of each person, the equality of human beings, is the starting point for any fruitful social organization. My faith insists on this: every person is equal to every other person as a creature of God; the one who kills a single innocent is guilty of killing all of humanity; and the one who saves one person has in effect saved all of humanity.
Like any truth, the value of the individual can become a heresy when wrenched from its context and exalted to the exclusion of other truth. This seems to be what has happened in the West, especially among some groups in the United States (where this is an equal-opportunity problem for both Right and Left). I think much of this collapse has happened in my lifetime, and it seems traceable in certain vocabulary shifts.
Consider one: “dignity” to “self-esteem.” At some point, I think, speakers imagined that the words were interchangeable. In themselves, they seem to name the same internal qualities. The shade of meaning difference comes in their relations — human dignity is affirmed by others (who have no right to deny it; it does not come from them) while self-esteem is evaluated only by the self. So begins the collapse, the folding in on “self,” putting the whole person at risk of disappearing.
The right to be different
For me the most worrisome consequence of this in-turning is the loss of ability to understand the other. A healthy individualism would see that other individuals have the same freedoms as oneself. A sickened self imagines instead that others must have the same desires. In this context, the right to be different — what should be fundamental to the individual — is the first casualty.
Across the spectrum, it seems to me, this loss explains the accelerating “anti-other” approach we see today. In America, where specific constitutional guarantees of equality are routinely taken to mean sameness, some would still deny rights such as marriage equality to others. In France, women are arrested for wearing their traditional clothing. More broadly, the label of “oppression” is applied to a vast range of practices that have been fundamental to societies in history, including some that were commonplace in my lifetime.
Women consider other women oppressed because they dress differently, understand their place to be in the home and accept their husband’s leadership. Men consider other men oppressed because they respect their fathers’ wishes, obey their religion’s commands and prohibitions, and accept the national service to which their leaders might conscript them. Youths consider other youths oppressed because they are required to be present at family meals, perform household chores and accept limits on their social calendar.
Why? Because, it seems to me, they are evaluating the other in terms of their own desires. The secularist does not see another woman in hijab: she comes to conclusions about the dress based on how she would feel if she were told to wear it. The individualist does not see another man marrying the woman his family has found for him: he comes to conclusions about the practice based on how he would feel if he were the groom. The unrestrained youth does not see another youth cutting the family lawn: he arrives at a conclusion about the demand based on how he would feel if he were the son.
The other’s freedom to choose what they are doing — nay, even the possibility that they could have freely chosen it — is not a factor in the self-absorbed consideration. The problem is not with the conclusions about oneself — people should be free to decide for themselves how to behave, given the legitimate expectations of the societies in which they live. The problem is more fundamental. In each case, the frame of reference is the self, not the other, and the other’s right to choose — to live as an individual — is thwarted. Individualism has collapsed on itself.
Gene Stowe is a freelance writer based in South Bend and the author of the novel Inherit the Land: Jim Crow Meets Miss Maggie’s Will. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.