Lazy Luddite Log

14.10.19

Individuality

I am here to defend individuality. This concept has drawn criticism from many directions. The ‘me generation’ accusation levelled at young baby-boomers five decades ago has since been transferred to successive generations. Both then and now I think the assessment has been a simplistic one. Many seemingly selfish behaviours are less a product of thinking 'me me me' and more to do with thinking only of 'me and mine'. It is a kind of clannishness that I feel is the origin of many problems today.

I cannot here survey evidence of whether we are more self-absorbed or standoffish now than we were in the past. It depends on exactly when and where one chooses to look. Anecdotally I have witnessed both more and less respect between strangers over my lifetime. On the one hand I feel that my generation as youths were less likely to thank a bus-driver than youths who have come since. On the other hand I get the impression that the parents of younger generations than mine are more likely to regard teachers as rivals than as colleagues. It seems we are more combative while acting on behalf of those close to us. Members of the caring professions or providers of essential services (like teachers and bus drivers) are strangers that we nonetheless must interact with for our own benefit. How we behave towards them betrays how we regard wider society beyond our own family and friends. And how much do we even feel a part of an interdependent society?

Scholars in the past warned of the ‘atomistic’ nature of modern society. Old ways of belonging had long been waning. Connections to a productive class or a religious and cultural community grew ever looser. And while we were emancipated from old forms of dominance we were also set adrift from structures that for many were supportive. It was predicted that a mass of isolated individuals was prone to reconstituting into rowdy mobs. At times this has happened and populist demagoguery is the intermittent result.

And yet populist demagogues have come and gone rather than come to stay and I wonder what alleviates atomism. An answer is that humans are very good at finding new ways of forming groups to provide them with a sense of purpose and belonging. Culture is important. Some have a tendency to dismiss forms of group identity that are merely cultural rather than having some natural basis. But it is natural for humans to form links grounded in shared concepts. And these groups have a right to exist even if one thinks them fanciful.

Particularly in the post-war era cultures have been supplemented by sub-cultures dedicated to sports, hobbies, collections, interests, art, music and entertainment. I think that such sub-cultures helped give society a more complex and sturdy structure in which individuals could connect while also expressing themselves. And it is interesting to note that such developments were curbed by those demagogues who survived into the post-war era. Stalin for instance warned that chess should only exist for the regime rather than for its own sake. Loyalty to a game or to ones fellow players detracted from loyalty to the party.

I start by saying that individuals are good and now I’m saying that groups are good. A problem with any such topic is that it uses abstractions. As an animal I am a distinct organism and yet as a pack animal I belong with others. Both are important and getting the balance right is vital. Expecting rugged individualism of everyone is a libertarian fantasy. But subsuming ones personal identity into that of ones peer group has all-too-often been a stifling reality. The kind of societal structures I hope for are ones in which we can both belong and feel free to move. And the kind of groups I think work best are ones in which individuals thrive.

I am recommending more than demographic diversity. Diversity of personality is important too. Till recently I assumed this was a given but something has changed - we have virtual online ‘communities’ which can select or de-select participants from across the global population and with that comes the risk of large monocultures of temperament. The danger is that everyone in a particular group can be defined by anger or fear or hatred. There is a plethora of new ‘spaces’ in which the atomized can form mobs. They never need meet one another face-to-face and so we have something new – a way for misanthropes who cannot even stand each other to form a simulation of society.

Am I exaggerating here? Possibly. However the extent to which such a trend has provided a resurgent form of populism with its own youth demographic is worrying. Much online communication is worthwhile and a welcome response to geographic limitations. But we need to spend more time away from our screens. We need both face-to-face and remote interactions.

It is also worth moving in more than one scene. That tends to happen because our family and friends and workmates are distinct sets. But we can do better than that. If society is at risk of becoming more clannish then we need to find ways of linking those clans back together into our societal fabric. And now I return to individuality because it is far simpler for an individual to belong to more than one group than for groups to overlap by themselves. Those who do this help to distinguish themselves as individuals while also providing avenues of cross-pollination between distinct groups. Such individuality is important to wider society and far from selfish.

And yet I still think that most of us are self-centred and I speculate on what I call a ‘culture of one’. We tend to think of culture as something produced by groups but I feel that all the personal habits and practices that distinguish individuals are a kind of culture. I pondered this a while ago in a cartoon I drew (see below). It suggests that an island with nobody on it has an environment (the foundation on which all other concepts depend). Then an island with one person also has an economy as that person must manage how they use the environment. Finally an island with two people has politics as they must decide between them how to interact and share the island. I ask the question of how culture fits into this progression and I think the answer is that it coexists alongside economics in the way an individual lives.

Or you could say that my 'culture of one' is just personality.

Desert Island Illustrations

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