Wednesday, June 22, 2005

individuality: to be or not to be for myself.

Please correct my vocabulary if you know a better word than collectivism to set in opposition to individualism. Though had glowing words for individualism ["virtue"] , it and drew total blanks for an antonym and I conclude that our culture and its language are deficient for carrying on a vital debate. I want words that stake out the two ends of an axis or spectrum on which political animals array themselves, find their spot and then, sometimes, dig in even though the line often moves. Examination of the nature/nurture issues that lead a person to their spot may be an interesting topic... perhaps later. Location on this axis is not exclusively the measure, but to my mind, a good summary of a person's politics. In the US, individualism gets great press. It can be applied to lefty inspirations like H. D. Thoreau despite conservative commentators being sure the concept is in their corner, rooting for every selfish cause they advance. Despite a pall of vilifying rhetoric claiming an unbridgeable gap with monsters on the other side, all you have on the left and right are people. Face to face, you could find out whats eating someone and if you were perceptive, what they are afraid of, what they have thought through and what they are inclined to accept uncritically. You could. But for too many Americans, this axis is not seen as an avenue of intellectual commerce, a space to be explored to the right and to the left. Instead, its chopped up, and the most damage is done by partisan campaigns to put "bridge out" signs where, in truth, they simply fear to get into a dialogue. "Collectivism", per Webster, is not ramified with the awareness of community or other members of the system in which one operates but rather is just written up as the opposite of privatized, as if it only meant to describe farming in Stalinist Russia, a synonym for Bolshevism. So what is the word that is the opposite of individualism? Egolessness?

Sorry Rush, individualism is a broken word. Its not that we aren't each unique in our thinking. I mean, you could pick a church, ashram, mosque, or whatever and carefully question each member in private and come away with the impression that they each had a slightly different religion. The same goes for political parties. Extolling only one end of the spectrum makes for a broken culture in that it fosters a bias against developing awareness of how connected and directly and indirectly interdependent people actually are. Indirectly includes so much: the resources we share, the wall to wall social environment we form for each other just by being on the street or in the much. To stress individualism exclusively is a stuck-in-Reagan's-80's arrested development, egotism enshrined and the inconvenient burden of sharing the world with others deftly cropped out of the world view. Go ahead, take all you can grab. But tell me, for what slaughterer do you fatten yourself? Do you know you drag the rest of us to a slaughter of exhausted resources?

Another way the word is broken is that it has broken into two connotations: "courage to need no crowd behind you when you announce your cause" [positive spin] and "denial of connection to the opinions and resources of others" [a social philosophy based on personal immaturity]. I am out of my league if I try to speak for [which, as electronic and impersonal political discourse has devolved, means against] all conservatives in saying that they operate from the "denial " usage but loudly claim the "courage" usage. Claiming to know the real thoughts of liberals is an industry among conservative commentators so perhaps my assertion puts me in their shabby league.

So its broken and overused and kind of like the idea of faith, subject to suspect claims, always relative yet inviting self assessment in terms of absolutes. The most literal and chest thumping claim of individualism would require a blindness to the country, the community and the many others who played in the life story that brought the claimant to their moment of proclamation. Individualism as the dictionary defines it: "A doctrine holding that the interests of the individual should take precedence over the interests of the state or social group" is simply one of those cakes you cannot both have and eat. The opposition seen between individual and social group is a false and childish take on the inevitable and necessary fact that we cannot live alone. As I have said elsewhere, group and individual are yin and yang, only defined in terms of each other and meaningless without each other.

To profess that you are a rugged individualist, dependent only on your own wits and resources is delusional unless you are literally a hermit. And to whom does a hermit profess?

Mature apprehension of and constructive discussion of the balance that our survival requires us to strike in integrating personal or subgroup wants and needs with group and societal needs could start with stepping outside the bickering we call politics and seeing the length of the axis.
One of the most succinct yet fruitful expressions of this process of balancing [yes "process"! the world has never stood still and no fixed line or rule would long mark the balance point] the interest of group and individual was set down by Rabbi Hillel around 100 BC and taught to me by my dearest teacher:

If I am not for myself, who will be?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?

I think pondering those questions on all scales from personal to global is a healthy exercise. It's led me to a couple of thoughts.

  1. That government [or lack thereof] implementing a social philosophy that neglects the needs of society [e.g. bush league doctrines] will fail just as that government [or excess thereof] that neglects the needs and aspirations of the individual [Bolsheviks e.g. as opposed to Mensheviks ]. Either will hurt both society and individuals on the way to failure for in the end, society and individual are allied and their joint welfare is all that should be established and protected. Any other purported objective, history has repeatedly shown, degenerates into the establishment and protection of power and the powerful.
  2. It might be that talking up individualism is just safer than coming right out and saying that "society" is a fiction and has no real needs. That idea is a bit more subtle than message machines are good at delivering but, Mr. Limbaugh, Ms. Coulter, Mr. Rove, I will be looking at your words more carefully hence forth. Your great leader is still trying to pronounce words...I'll skip him.

So much for brevity and for being oblivious to particular persons. And no, the executioner does not take himself all that seriously, in fact "The laity doth protest too much, methinks". But he does take the wreck of society by a bumbling captain and pirate crew very seriously. He has to note that he had great fun writing this because he did NOT start by knowing that individualism was Mr. Limbaugh's personal talisman but googled to it while sanity checking his perception of the trashtalking conservatives [there are MANY conservatives who the executioner reads, enjoys and occasionally learns from. No offense meant to all conservative persons as a category, just the mean, the cheap and the unconstructive]. He also found that National Socialism was at heart always racism and that continues today. The executioner does not think that sort of warped view plays in the bush league's politics and whatever bad things fall out along racial lines are just an artifact of socioeconomic stratification not invented, though not helped, by the republicans. To call the bush league Nazis is then a dumb mistake. [Fascist, on the other hand fits better but take care: few audiences will know the difference or pay attention long enough to have the difference explained] In terms of depth of thought and effect on society, Bush is much more like King Louis the XIV, a bumbler who woke up with his finger on the trigger of big guns he inherited and just said whoo hoo and started shooting. [hey! Americans LIKE a guy who's uninhibited and decisive!]

postscript 25 July '05: Little vacations are get a chance to read a bit. A review in TPM Online led me to a book by Kwame Appiah in which the author presents some carefully thought out views about identity. Such analysis requires addressing individuality and its dynamic with social and personal forces that work toward community and the review persuades me the author did careful work there as well. I will have to read the book to be sure but what I think is left out is the deeper analysis often left out of works by authors in the western traditions of thought: the ground of being is a bare consciousness, that can hardly be said to vary or be distinguishable from one person to the next. We all possess this of necessity, but like a diamond in a mud hole, it is lost to us without a very special, focused and patient search.

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