Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Individualism & Community: A difficult balance

I don’t know if the value Americans place on individualism is greater than in other countries, but suspect it is.  I read a piece a few days ago that I can’t find again.  The author made a point out of praising his own self reliance, ridiculed those who, in his words, want to make life easy for everyone, lauded personal charity giving a hand to those who deserve a hand, and praised unfettered private enterprise.  I’d be more upset about not citing him correctly, but it’s the same generic theme preached by many others in almost identical words.  Another version of it came from a highly paid executive who complained that no one ever helped him, he did it all himself, so don’t lay any of that (white) privilege crap on him.  Maybe like you, I read articles, make a mental note of something said, realize only later how much I’d like to cite it, but can’t find it again.  I need a better system of taking notes for future reference.  In fact, I need any system.  It’s something to work on, but I digress.  

The virtue of self reliant individualism is deeply rooted in the American myth, and it’s not without value.  Self reliance is a real virtue, and so is the American ideal that every person should be able to explore the fullness of their authentic self to the best of their ability.  But self reliance can’t exist outside the context of community, whether local or national.  It’s only in a healthy, supportive community that self reliance and living into one’s full potential can be experienced to its fullest.  

Unhealthy, oppressive communities place barriers to both, sometimes to the point of destroying them.  Exceptional persons can overcome the barriers.  Their occasional triumph is often met with claims that anyone can do it if they try.  It’s not true.  Exceptional people are exceptional.  Creating unbreachable barriers was the intent of slavery, and the Jim Crow era assured that for blacks self reliance and personal authenticity was made as difficult as possible (Lest we forget, the same was true for other ethnicities as well).  

In a strange way, a society can produce a healthy, supportive community for some, that is also an unhealthy, oppressive community for others.  The point is, individualism, self reliance and self actualization, can’t exist outside the environment created for it by community.  Community is more than important, it’s essential.  Weakening the bonds of community is the most powerful tool of despots for gaining and maintaining control.  In states of greatly weakened community, persons become things to be manipulated, each one against his neighbor and each one finding security only through loyalty to a leader. 

In American history, the blame for breaking down communities at levels larger than neighborhoods gets laid at the foot of right wing movements and acquiescent conservatives.  It leaves progressives as the good guys who have claimed the title of community builders.  But it doesn’t always work that way because the myth of individualism is as strong on the left as it is on the right.  It’s expressed in the form of each person’s right to be treated as a unique individual in which the community must adjust to accommodate their uniqueness.  It begins with good intent such as requiring the community to accommodate various disabilities or ways of learning.  But if each person claims the right to define a universe of one, it can end with each requiring others to accommodate their unique requirements, thus creating a gathering of unique persons competing to force other unique persons to act as if they were a community that will bend to the particular demands of each individual.  While needs may be real, it can take on a kind of egocentricity that expects the world to cater to one’s personal desires.

I’m struggling right now with a question about claims of individualism originating on the left in which each person feels entitled to demand of the community that it acknowledge and respect their particular, unique, individual reality as the price of their willingness to engage in community life.  It can look like a fight against oppression, a demand for equity, but it’s missing a key ingredient.  Genuine struggles for rights are often led by courageous persons on behalf of entire populations within communities.  They are not demands by individuals that entire communities bend to their unique, individual desires.  When such demands become a force consuming community decision making, they suggest the kind of social atomization that makes Trumpian style politics possible.  Or, as Hannah Arendt would put it, when every individual becomes his or her own self contained community, then every other person is a potential enemy, no other person can be a trusted friend, and society becomes a dangerous place to live in. 

From where would such a convoluted question arise?  Is it real, or imagined?  It’s real, but the source is not world shattering, nor does it create an imminent danger to democracy, but it is infused with highly emotional content.    

A recent movement in institutional communities such as classrooms and corporate offices has to do with how the institution, as community, is supposed to respond to claims that each person is entitled to a personal pronoun by which they want to be known when a personal pronoun is used in a sentence referring to them.  Not everyone self identifies as he or she, so it’s only right to ask what pronoun would be acceptable to them, and then use it, and only it.  Failing to use the correct word has been said to be an offense justifying high dudgeon, and worthy of judicial review.

It’s a clumsy way to deal with a problem in the English language, indeed in most languages.  We have no gender neutral singular pronoun.  ‘It’ doesn’t work because an ‘it’ is an object; ‘it’ renders a life to be unimportant.  ‘They’ is sometimes chosen, but it’s a word meaning not only plural persons, it’s also widely misused in ways making it hard to know what ‘they’ refers to.  One solution is for each person to adopt a made up pronoun, leaving others to wonder how much new vocabulary needs to be memorized and affixed to each person about whom they may sometimes need to use a pronoun.  To be fair, English does need a generally accepted non gender specific pronoun that implies human intimacy, and maybe one will be forthcoming.

In the meantime, pronouns appear to have become gateways for expectations that each person also has a right to one’s own reality, which is not the same as one’s own opinion.  These unique realities seem to be related to unpleasant life experiences causing some form of emotional trauma – where trauma is broadly defined.  The institution, as community, is expected to accommodate them for fear of creating unpleasant emotional reactions resulting in litigation or bad press.  It requires limitations on subjects or conversation that might cause heightened anxieties or trigger post traumatic stress.  While traumatic emotional stress is a real thing, not to be trivialized, pandering to it leaves victims ill equipped with coping skills adequate to maintain emotional health when unpleasant events confront them outside the confines of the institutional community.

These expressions of individualism’s demands on the community come from the left, not the right, but it has an eerie similarity to right wingers who demand that the community accommodate their right to live and act according to their unique realities without regulation or interference. That they may be overtly oppressive of others, well armed, racist, and violent is clothed in words of Constitutional patriotism, and they take offense at any challenge to the realities they have set for themselves.

If individualism’s claims to supremacy over the community win out, the only way to enforce them is with the iron hand of autocracy.  It seems all wrong, counter intuitive, but there it is, and once applied it eliminates all individual rights, centering them in the exclusive rights of the autocrat.  

In institutional communities such as schools, it restricts the academic freedom of teachers by placing it under firmer control of administrations.  What may look like a win for individualism quickly turns to shackles for both teachers and students.  In the broader community of local and national politics, the demands of extreme individualism corrode movement toward a more just society, and shove the state in an autocratic direction where individual rights are surrendered to the leader.


It’s a question of balance – never an easy question.  

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