The Big Ideas of 2013

The Cult of Individualism

We are all in it.

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God died. The seas of metaphysics were limitless again. A new horizon of possibility opened for all beliefs and ideals. Values were re-evaluated, re-molded, re-constructed – and each new value was made in the image of its creator: the individual self.

We were “freed” to think whatever we want, say whatever we want and believe whatever we want – more or less, that is. What we got: apparent freedom, inalienable “individual” rights and in America, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Later came the prevalent I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude – with all its cool and edgy indifference. But I-don’t-give-a-fuck really means I-don’t-give-a-fuck-because-it-doesn’t-affect-me – this is the prevalent attitude of non-judgmentalism meets moral relativism. Sociologist Charles Smith found, after interviewing 230 young Americans, that the common response to standard moral questions (about rape, murder, theft) was one of bafflement. Young people lacked anything substantial to say about even extremely generic ethical questions. The default attitude was that moral choices are a matter of individual taste, where one’s morality is just a small piece of a carefully crafted individual self that one fashions at whim. “It’s personal,” many interviewees responded: “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say? Who am I to judge?”

When beliefs, aesthetic preferences and moral proclivities are all left to personal style, we have the hipster mentality, where nonchalant nihilism is cool. Indeed, the word “moral” itself is a dirty word amongst anyone outside the realm of conservatism. But the cult of individualism transcends politics: we are all in it. We’ve all had its invisible lens pulled over our eyes such that we perceive the world through a myopic tunnel vision. Aiming to find and remove this lens is as futile as trying to bite your own teeth – for it is built into us.

We were all inculcated into the cult of individualism – by our families, who tell us we are special; by the vision of the American Dream; by schools, who demand that we specify fields; by advertising which compels us to carve out who we are by consuming certain commodities; by capitalism which teaches us that to succeed is to win in a competition of yourself against all others; and by the ever-growing new-age and pop psychology œuvre which tells us to create our own realities…

But if everyone were to believe themselves as the center of their own universe in which they create their own world, values and all meaning – civilization would quickly deteriorate into solipsism, narcissism, megalomania and/or collective insanity. So it comes as no surprise that “we” are in decline – for what is really wrong with the united “us”? There is no “we,” no “us,” just me, myself and I. This nation is not a unified whole but a cacophony of atoms, each spinning alone to their own idiosyncratic rhythm – and frequently colliding. The Declaration’s axioms are relinquishing their sacred aura, for the glue that holds us together is… well, it isn’t there.

The marriage of this egoism to rationality – the hubris that comes with our self-awarded status as the sole “rational animal” – this may be the fatal flaw of Western civilization, we just don’t know it yet… or do we?

With discoveries in neuroscience that expose us as primarily social beings, the ecological crisis which demands global cooperation in spite of differences, and amidst the peril of capitalism, which reveals the limits of a “survival of the fittest” social philosophy – the fabric of who-we-thought-we-were is being unravelled. It is like waking up from a long hallucination… disorienting, frightening, yet epiphanic… for what we are facing is nothing other than an identity crisis, one that forces us to create a new account of what it is to be human.

It’s uncomfortable to go against the grain of a totalizing and pervasive culture that reinforces a dog-eat-dog conception of human nature. It’s frightening to reconsider who you are in the midst of realizing that what you were taught all along was a lie – a myth exposed as a myth. But this is just what Buddhists have been saying for thousands of years, that the notion of a “separate self” is an illusion, and a dangerous one against which we must constantly exercise vigilance in order to correct this misperception and not forfeit our potential as beings capable of empathy and conscience.

Our concept of the individual self was born in the context of the 18th Century, and it is reaching the end of its course. What is the new paradigm of human nature that is emerging in response to the world we live in today?

49 comments on the article “The Cult of Individualism”

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smiriam

I really loved this article as well, and you bring up a very interesting point. But I think that since the dawn of time essentially groups have been established solely as "us" against "them." In order to bond we need something that sets us apart. That doesn't mean that we need to fight the "them's" of the world, or be intolerant towards them, as has happened many times in the past, but I think it will be really difficult to develop any sort of large-scale collective conscience without developing smaller subgroups, without developing "us's" and "them's."

smiriam

I really loved this article as well, and you bring up a very interesting point. But I think that since the dawn of time essentially groups have been established solely as "us" against "them." In order to bond we need something that sets us apart. That doesn't mean that we need to fight the "them's" of the world, or be intolerant towards them, as has happened many times in the past, but I think it will be really difficult to develop any sort of large-scale collective conscience without developing smaller subgroups, without developing "us's" and "them's."

Anonymous

"Indeed, the word “moral” itself is a dirty word amongst anyone outside the realm of conservatism."

Right here near the beginning is where the article starts to go off the rails. Such an absolute statement like this one is absurd, suggesting that nobody outside the conservative side of the aisle has any regard for morality. That's as bad as Christians (of which I am one) stating that Atheists can't possibly live moral lives without the fear of eternal punishment for sins.

I feel like this article is trying to say something worthwhile, but utterly fails due to the fear-mongering and absolutism in its tone. The 'cult of individualism' hasn't taken over Western civilization and it never will. In every time, blind individualism is countered by people of character and acts of selflessness. They are not extinct and this writer worries too much (or just feels the need to write about -something-).

Anonymous

Out of all the comments, yours is the one with which I most agree. However, to say 'the cult of individualism will never take over Western civilisation' is, I feel, overly optimistic. Individualism and total selfishness aren't quite the same; while total selfishness will always be countered by "people of character and acts of selflessness", individualism is, ironically, a key driving force behind society in general. Certainly, adolescents (of which I am one) seem constantly to be striving to stake out their individualism and their 'rights'.

One of the key connotations of 'individualism' is the prioritisation of rights over responsibilities, and judging by the behaviour of most (but not all!) people of my generation, the desire for 'rights' seems to trump the desire for shouldering responsibilities. It's always about what we 'deserve' rather than what we can give up, what we 'need' over what we don't actually need. Human appetites for everything except self-sacrifice seem to have enlarged over recent decades.

I wish I could say that, like followers of Buddhist philosophy, I am all about self-sacrifice and what I don't need rather than what I do. Unfortunately, I am one of the many who could probably do with a little more focus on responsibilities in my life.

Some Canadian

Great opinion piece. Great writing. Anyone that says otherwise is welcome to say so, but they'll be dead wrong to the mind of the fierce individual crafting this try-hard reactionary comment. Any sense of collective morality IS kaput in this day and age. Haters should actually think about what kind of brownies they've been eating before they vomit diatribes onto their keyboards. Those who can't do really do like to criticize. Blah, blah, blah...

anonomonobanana

the article itself is a calculated, manipulative diatribe against critical thinking, it wants us to simply give up on ourselves and throw in with the many

Anonymous

I find it interesting that a great deal of people, including the author of this article, hold individualism and communitarianism to be mutually exclusive. Belief in the supreme right of the autonomy of the individual does not necessarily entail a "dog-eat-dog" worldview. Can one not count oneself as a member of a global community without subordinating wholly one's will to the "general will" of that community? Self IS the backbone for action, to use the phraseology of one of my commenting colleagues; it is only through the autonomous will that we can achieve the ends which we desire. However, the bottom line is that there are too many people in the world. To grant each and every one of them autonomy and freedom from hindrance would be a death sentence for stability and peace.

Anonymous

The idea that we all have to come together to save ourselves from individualism/capitalism that is destroying the planet leads to slavery of a BORG collective where ones individualism must be subverted to the will and the good of the Borg collective! Beware not to travel down this path! I would rather join christians who worship a make believe deity out of fear of going to a make believe hell! At least they act in their own self interest while helping others. And I'm always suspicious of collectivists. They talk of everyone being equal but there's always some who are more equal than others! And if you maintain your individuality or point out their inequality they usually put a bullet in your head and say it's for the good of the collective.

Anonymous

The comments are so empty. I'm one with the whole. Part of the ocean of life. All are my family. We are all in this together. Although we disagree, I love you. I love you so much. You are all God's love incarnate and free and glorious. This moment is Holy. I love all of you, so we can never die.

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