Individualism, Its Perversions And How To Avoid Them
We live in an age when individualism seems more widely valued than in any other historical period. Yet I think there are some important nuances of individualism which are not sufficiently emphasised nowadays. Greater awareness of these might reinforce enthusiasm for the ideal against disillusionment.
“In a time when [even] politicians have tattoos,” Aladin el-Mafaalani, a political scientist, is quoted as stating, “the greatest provocation and the most radical self-separation is… abstinence” (quoted in Neumann 2016: 113). This is supposed to explain, in part at least, the appeal of Islamism to “people who feel ignored or marginalized by society and who are searching for a new identity” (ibid.). Sounds plausible enough. This also suggests that an underlying problem here is the assumption that individual freedom and a meaningful way of life are incompatible values. Likewise, political analyst George Weigel quotes “[a] distinguished group of European intellectuals” as writing that “[l]ibertine hedonism often leads to boredom and a profound sense of purposelessness”. Note the specification that it is hedonism that is in question. They continue: “In the roiling sea of sexual liberty, the deep desires of our young people to marry and form families are often frustrated”. Again, note the qualification that the authors are discussing sexual liberty. So here is an idea that I think I have seen grazed many times, but never explicitly stated: some elements of a person’s character deserve to blossom more than others do. Hence, a society’s liberalism and individualism should aim to get the best out of people rather than giving them a blank cheque to pursue whatever harmful or wasteful activity they want. In this vein, Weigel writes of “freedom rightly understood as freedom for excellence, freedom for nobility, and freedom for solidarity”.
This idea is somewhat akin to one articulated prominently by Patrick J. Deneen in “Why Liberalism Failed”, which, I thought when I read it, wildly overstated its case. The notion I mean is probably the book’s central one: that freedom is best understood not as freedom to do what one fancies, but primarily as freedom from one’s own base desires.
Therefore, greater individualism in trivial matters may be undesirable insofar as it hampers the manifestation of will to power in matters of great significance. Likewise, a society should be cautious not to provide bad incentives by channeling people’s will to power into harmful or wasteful endeavours.
For example, Emily Kao writes for “The American Mind” that
Th[e] sudden rise in girls identifying as transgender was identified as Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD) in a 2018 article in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Brown University physician and medical researcher Lisa Littman found that girls were especially vulnerable to social contagion from friends and teachers who are heroized for transgender identities.
I think the Nietzschean idea of “will to power” is especially pertinent here. Professor of Philosophy Emrys Westacott writes for ThoughtCo:
The will to power as Nietzsche conceives of it is neither good nor bad. It is a basic drive found in everyone, but one that expresses itself in many different ways. The philosopher and the scientist direct their will to power into a will to truth. Artists channel it into a will to create. Businessmen satisfy it through becoming rich.
Through this lens, it looks like the toxic situation that Lisa Littman uncovered was that girls’ will to power (that is, approximately, to assert themselves) was being harnessed to get them to act in ways prejudicial to their own well-being and which actually prevent their healthy self-expression. If the will to power can be a driving force behind individual accomplishment, directing it towards the harmful adoption of a group identity seems not only dangerous, but downright anti-individualistic.
The problem revealed here appears rooted, to a great degree, in today’s “expressive individualism”. In a Heritage Foundation report, Professor Carl Trueman writes:
Expressive individualism assumes the authority of inner feelings in what it means to be an individual, which [implies that t]o be truly oneself requires behaving outwardly in a manner consistent with those inner feelings[.]
While there is indubitably something true and respectable to “expressive indvidualism”, one can take it too far as well — for instance, when, as described above, “heroisation”, which probably should be reserved for extraordinary feats, is offered as a reward for expressing a supposed inner identity one possesses. Again, Nietzsche’s vision was nearer what Weigel describes as “freedom for excellence[ and] freedom for nobility” when he maintained that “your real self lies not deep within you but high above you”.
Another important aspect of individualism which I believe is too often ignored is the genetic component in individual differences. Weigel sees in “expressive individualism” the root of the danger that people may be forced to “act as if we believed[…] that such givens of the human condition as maleness and femaleness are in fact choices or cultural constructs, to be altered at will”.
This harkens back, among other sources, to Steven Pinker’s 2002 book “The Blank Slate”. The author defends a more liberal politics by arguing for the existence of an unalterable human nature. However, in Professor Pinker’s view, what is innate in people is not just a universal human nature, but also an abundance of individual variations. This is one of the strongest intellectual bases for idividualism that I know, and yet one very seldom hears it mentioned. Perhaps this is because of our traditional and sentimental preference for the “blank slate” understanding of the human mind, discussed by Professor Pinker in the book. I suspect it also has to do with misguided modern sensibilities. Michael Knowles is on the money when he writes for “The American Mind” that “transgender activists would have us believe that our bodies have nothing at all to do with who we really are”. Again, individuality is ignored in service to a misdirected form of individualism.
Individualism is good, but, like many grand ideals, it is open to perversion. To maintain its beneficence, the principle should be applied intelligently.
Neumann, Peter R.. 2016. Radicalized: New Jihadists and the Threat to the West. London/New York: I.B. Tauris.