Death of Individuality and Birth of the Individual

By Jack Tomlin

The West doesn’t value individuality. Not really. It likes it to the extent that a small group of idols/characters/politicians can exist and provide the majority with something unique to observe, but not participate in. You are permitted a few weird years of anxiety and hormone-induced individuality from 13-18, and that’s your lot.

What the West does value, is the individual. It wants people who can work by themselves, do what they are told, travel freely for work and adapt to organizational structures. Children are encouraged to leave home after school to pursue their own ends. Families are kept at a small and manageable size of 3-5 persons.

But why is this so?

Books dedicated to this question warrant libraries of their own, and a small blog post can add little… But, let me highlight three crucial factors from which I think a favouring of the individual can be traced.

Enlightenment/humanist thinkers advocate the unlimited potential of the human mind. From Newton conceiving of a world dictated by physical laws beyond any divine doing, to Leonardo da Vinci’s extensive anatomical studies and the philosophers of the French Revolution, the idea of change at the human hand has remained with us. As put by Jean-Paul Sartre, “Life has no meaning a priori… It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.” Pressure is therefore place upon the individual to design his life and achieve his own.

The secularisation of many Western states, in large part due to enlightenment thinking, shook the moral foundation upon which communities were structured. It was no longer the role of the state to communicate what, when and how one should act, if wishing to be an ethical human being. The nation state shifted from an Aristotelian one, wherein the notion of the ‘good life’ was provided and individuals’ rights were grounded around this, to a Kantian one, where the right to decide one’s own ‘good life’ comes before any prior conception of the ‘good’. Choosing what you consider to be the right thing, however, is rarely an easy task, and leaves many people constantly questioning themselves.

Finally, we have the Industrial Revolution. One of the most theatrically illustrative examples of the will of the human being. If man wants to conquer nature, he can cultivate it, destroy it, manipulate it, harness it, reconstruct it, transform it. But to do so requires labour. An awful lot of standardized labour. Ever since Adam Smith proposed that a division of labour when manufacturing pins would increase production from the dozens to the tens of thousands, much work, in factories, Universities, government institutions, has been compartmentalized. People become good at one thing, and one thing alone.

How do these three factors, leading to a love of the individual, affect us today?

The ‘American Dream’ typifies the notion that anyone can do anything. In a fully meritocratic society, where everyone has a fair shot, this sounds great. However, in reality, not everyone is given equality of means or opportunity. Some are born poor, with disabilities or are isolated. These inequalities understandably create frustration and anger. Robert Merton called this, ‘strain’. Strain refers to an individual’s inability to achieve societal goals of success, wealth and power, and how he negatively reacts to this. Strain theory, though old, is one of the prevailing sociological theories used to explain criminal behaviour…

Secularisation lead to scientific advances unimaginable to a pre-enlightened world. But it now leaves little room for religious discourse. This is not an issue in a state with a single and small religious population, but when varied religious groups interact, as in most developed countries, it can lead to rejection and a clash of ideologies. Everyday it seems, disenfranchised youth set out to join extremist groups, out of reactionary frustration and revenge. Look at Mohammed Emwazi, a British computer studies graduate, now the acclaimed executioner on numerous IS snuff videos.

Finally, a labour force that is divided by skill sets needs training. You can divide the manufacturing process of pin-making, but the workers need to know their individual tasks well. Education therefore plays a large role in shaping an effective division of labour. This means institutions of higher education aim to produce ‘professionals’, and shy away from liberal arts or holistic teaching approaches. Students enter the labour market with narrow expertise and the few relevant options accompanying that. Individuals are deprived the support they need to grow and learn as humans should.

Well, that all sounds pretty negative. And it is. I do not deny the benefits that have come with enlightenment, secularization and specialized work forces, but I think it is important to consider some of the root causes of the issues we face today and to constantly question the value to social development.

We are now, more than ever, a society of individuals.

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