Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Slow Decline of Rampant Individualism

Sorry, but its really not always about you.

A kind of false differentiation has existed within the Western thought-stream for the past several hundred years, that which divides the rights of the individual from the rights of the community at large. While this differentiation began essentially as a response to the authoritarian rule of kings, it has reached its apotheosis in the late 20th Century and into the first decade of the 21st. Beyond the insistence of various groups pushing for laws to further expand such rights, the advent of personal electronics, especially the so-called smart phone, has placed even greater autonomy into the hands of the individual.

But there has always been a tension between the needs (read: rights) of the one versus the needs (read: rights) of the many, and today that tension has expanded to include the issue of privacy. That the issue has been pushed to the fore by these very technologies is no surprise. Given that such technology, while on the one hand intended to connect people with greater frequency and intimacy, also intrudes into the realm of businesses and governments due to their ubiquity and utility, not surprisingly creates a dynamic wherein the very concept of privacy is being challenged on a near daily basis. Whether in the form of the government tracking individuals, corporations tracking buying habits, family tracking their children, hackers invading every open portal, our right to have privacy is increasingly decimated by our own individualism as exercised by our choices for communication.

Therein lies the irony, however. Pure individualism has always been a myth - no one succeeds at the game of life purely solo - there are always people helping each of us along the way. From our parents and siblings, our teachers and doctors, our laws and our institutions, we are in fact creatures of community. There is no such thing as a self-made man, to use the overblown phrase. You needed parents just to come into existence. You need many others just to reach the age of maturity. And when you start that great business that you take so much pride as being "your baby", try being successful with no employees, no suppliers, and, oh yes, no customers. No one succeeds alone - not even Warren Buffett.

To communicate with another means giving up, at least temporarily, your purist ideals of individualism - communication requires us to be both sender and receiver, which immediately implies the interaction of another. With each step into broadening that communication - today exemplified by so-called social media - we merge our autonomy with the expanding community, whether we intend it or not. And it is the merging which puts the concept of individual rights increasingly under the microscope. Where do my so-called rights intrude upon, even endanger, the rights of the community? We seem to believe that rampant use of controlled drugs like cocaine and heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine, are a danger to the community, but hold the opposite view when it comes to the possession of weapons, especially guns. One is a right, the other is a danger. Yet more people die every day from guns than from illegal drugs. This is but one such failure of logic that is slowly disintegrating the concept of the right of the individual over the rights of the community.

The use of the word "disintegrating" is telling here: it means, of course, to dis integrate, to cause a thing to loosen its bonds and fall apart from it's original state. There is an additional irony involved, as well - a Constitution is a document that binds individuals together into a community, a Nation. That certain rights are granted to individuals by this document does not give carte blanc to the individual, it merely tells the State that it must not hold all rights solely to itself. We are quick to remind the State when it oversteps it's own limits, but too slow to remind ourselves when our individual liberties overstep the bounds of the community. The respect for each must travel in both directions, else the document loses its power and legitimacy.

It increasingly appears that the cult of individualism is slowly declining, just as the cult of aristocracy once did. All social and political movements have their natural life-cycle, which includes their demise, when they no longer serve the people's needs, or when they endanger the present and future viability of society at large. Today we are faced with a number of such dangers: global climate change (whether one accepts it or not, the truth is that nature bats last, and if we fail to recognize this truth, it is we who pay the price), a severely damaged public education system, far too many guns (it is a red herring to argue that guns don't kill, people do - that is true - people do, and most often, with guns. If one claims to support the right to life, then it is inconsistent to also support the right to universal gun ownership,) global terror movements (some of which we do indeed bear responsibility for, if not for their creation, then surely for their appeal to the disenfranchised, which our own policies continue to support,) and more. And our belief that we can solve each and every one of these problems without ever having to change our underlying rationale for the focus of rights versus responsibilities is going to be tested in ways we cannot yet imagine.

Rome fell for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most important was Rome's own belief in it's supremacy and immortality. The West today finds itself in a similar conundrum: barbarians at the gate (and across the entire Empire,) increasing in-fighting between political factions, and a hubris that makes Rome's look positively quaint by comparison. As long as we continue to believe it is all about us, and what we want, we risk the same outcome as Rome. And as long as we continue to believe it is all about the individual, that risk will continue to grow as close to home as it is across the globe. We have to find the way from me, to us. And them from us, to all. Unlike the false premise of globalism as has been shoved down the throats of people by the actions and goals of corporations and governments, real globalism will have a decidedly different face. I strongly suspect it will be a very diverse face indeed.

No comments:

Post a Comment

If its not rational, well-crafted, on point, and civil, fugedaboudit. I will delete all comments that abuse, are obscene, or refer excessively to how right you are.Otherwise, have at it.