The dictionary defines “individualism” as “the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant,” and “a social theory favoring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control,” which sounds great on the face of things – though in today’s interconnected world I question how truly independent or self-reliant an individual can really be.
The American idea of “Individualism” though goes beyond just “I can take care of myself” and “I want to be free to do what I want without the government telling me what to do.” Instead, the American idea of “Individualism” twists it into “I should take care of myself (and so should you)” and “I should be free to do whatever I want and the government must not tell me what to do, ever.”
We’ve always valued individualism, ever since our earliest colonial days. The United States is a big country, and back in the days when the fastest mode of travel was by horse, it seemed even bigger. As a result, when you were building your home in this big New World, you had to learn to depend on yourself and only on yourself – because there was no one else around! And in these early days, individualism was a good thing, a positive trait, something that you almost needed to survive here.
Even as cities and railroads and even cars came along, this spirit of individualism remained – again, partly because the US is just such a big country that even with motorized travel there were still huge sections of the country where you would be more or less all on your own. So this idea of being independent, of being reliant only on yourself, became ingrained as part of our culture.
However, as the country grew – as towns became cities and urbanization took hold, and as transportation and communication tied us all together into a connected whole rather than isolated pockets – the need to be individual and the benefits of individualism have become less important, or even counterproductive. Truthfully, in the 21st century, the idea of being completely free and totally self-reliant is basically dead. Oh sure there are still wide open places where you’d better be able to take care of yourself, but we are an interconnected society now, and we all rely on one another to some degree. Individualism will only get you so far. We’re all in this together (for better or for worse) and believing otherwise is just deluding yourself.
We’ve romanticized the idea of individualism too much – we’ve placed this ideal on such a high pedestal that it is quite literally impossible to reach.
Furthermore, this idealized individualism has a dark side. The higher we hold the standard of self-reliance, the lower we hold those who aren’t. If being self-reliant is great, then having to rely on others must not be great – it must be bad, or even shameful. If being free and able to do whatever you want is the ideal, then being subject to group rule – no matter how much or how little – must always be undesirable.
It’s fine to want to be able to take care of yourself (indeed, I think this is still a worthy goal to have), but it’s not OK to look down on those who can’t take care of themselves. It’s great to strive to be independent of others (as much as is realistic these days), but it’s foolish to base every decision, without question, on whatever lets you depend on others the least amount.
There’s another flip side to all this as well – the idea of individual responsibility. As an example, if you’re self-reliant and you built your own home completely yourself, from scratch, that’s great – but when a tornado comes along and knocks your house flat, individualism says that you and you alone are responsible for rebuilding it.
It is important to realize the limits of self-reliance and what individualism can mean, and not delude ourselves into thinking it’s more (or less) than it is.
The key here is balance: as with most things, it is important to strike a balance between extremes. Too often we pursue individualism & self reliance at any cost and prioritize it above any other concern. Over-emphasizing and over-valuing the idea of self-reliance and individualism necessarily causes the de-emphasis and under-valuing of the opposing ideas of needing help (from family, community, society, or government) and being part of a larger whole. This extremism is not helpful to anyone, in the same way that extremism/polarization in politics doesn’t help anyone, either. (The subject of WHY we’ve trended towards such extremism and such black & white thought is a topic for another post.)
After all, I don’t think anyone is arguing for true total freedom of action and self-determination – otherwise we’d all be free to run around and murder one another – so really the discussion is about where on the spectrum of “some freedom of action” and “some self-reliance” we should be. The problem comes when that over-emphasis of the value of individualism causes us to consider decisions solely in light of whether they decrease self-reliance or individual rights, and not whether they actually make sense or benefit the most people.
Like it or lump it, we are a collective society. Individual rights are important and good, yes, but the idea that they are paramount and should always trump any other concerns is simply not workable in a world with as many people in it as there are today. In order for society to function we must, of a necessity, give up some individual rights (how much we give up is of course open to continuous debate – and, again, a topic for another post.) Given this, continuing to idealize and romanticize individualism (and denigrate non-individualism) is fundamentally counter-productive.
As a nation, we Americans need to come to grips with the fact that we’re not living on the frontier anymore, that there are some 318 million of us and that we are all deeply interdependent on one another (whether we realize it or not) and, most importantly, that this is not at all a bad thing. It’s fine to try and make it on your own, sure, but don’t take this as the only measure of success – and especially don’t think that failing to do so makes you less of a person.
Individualism was great when our country was just getting started, but our country is grown up now and we need to be as well – we need to let go of this idealized fantasy of individualism and total self-reliance and come to grips with the fact that things aren’t like they used to be, and this is not a bad thing. No man is an island, as the saying goes, but together we form the better part of a continent, and I think that’s something we can all be just as proud of.