Individualism

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(previous post, “Rethink”)

e·go  (g, gn. pl. e·go)
1. The self, especially as distinct from the world and other selves
2. In psychoanalysis, the division of the psyche that is conscious, most immediately controls thought and behavior, and is most in touch with external reality
3 a. An exaggerated sense of self-importance; conceit
b. Appropriate pride in oneself; self-esteem
[New Latin, from Latin, I; see eg in Indo-European roots. Sense 2, translation of German Ich, a special use of ich, I, as a psychoanalytic term.]

The individual units that make up society, each one of us, play a concrete role in how our social reality is shaped. If we buy organic, even the Wal-Marts of the world take notice and change or add to what they stock up on. If we respond to large banks’ taking advantage of people through exorbitant charges by moving your business to local banks and credit unions, the Bank of Americas of the world will trip over themselves to change some long-standing policies. In so many areas of social reality, each individual’s decision makes a difference, and the differences that I’ve thus far described are only economic. Companies like Google have designed a different kind of workplace environment from many companies of their size to improve the creative atmosphere for those doing the innovating, rather than stuffing their employees into bland cell-like cubicles. All this demonstrated to me the power of the individual to shape reality.

The other side of this reality for the individual, though, is what I’ve heard described as “unfettered individualism”, which I understand to be closely related to ideas like “survival of the fittest” and “may the best man win,” …a mindset that sees “my driveway,” “my yard,” “my job,” “my space” and the like. In short, ways that we’ve managed to teach ourselves and each other in this country to think of ourselves as “separate” from the next person to us. I say “in this country” meaning the US, because I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but I’d be very interested in hearing what my family from other parts of the world have to offer for perspective.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/manunited/2378936803/sizes/o/in/photostream/So, unfettered individualism… the celebration of the self, the pursuit of pleasures for pleasure’s sake and regardless of the cost to others… the thought in one’s mind that says, “I got mine, why can’t you get yours?” We see it in the lines and parking lots of malls during holiday seasons, with people adopting cutthroat tactics to consume the most goods. We see it in political discourse when public figures, who may have never known poverty flippantly mention that the poor are “lazy” or “leeches” because they can’t arise to the economic standard they consider the norm. We see it in advertising, where we’re constantly bombarded with messages telling us to buy more or the newest version, even as we endure job insecurity and a general level of personal comfort not shared by many in the rest of the world. We see it in the rise of the use of mobile devices that can have a room full of people not at all present to each other…

Many people who have settled here from other countries with a strong community culture (where grandma and grandpa are cherished for their experience) have assimilated within one or two generations into a pattern of exclusivity, and putting one’s parents or grandparents in a home for the elderly when they can no longer produce. Many of us have gotten used to “plugging in” to our technology at most possible moments, texting and checking social media through mobile devices, thus solidifying a new barrier to building new relationships in the public spaces we share. I see trends like these, and I ask, “For what?” Do we find ourselves happier simply because we have put ourselves into more comfortable material circumstances? Are we really being connected i meaningful ways through the technology we have ample access to now? Many who I speak to say emphatically, “No”.

I’m not trippin’ either… I’m no monk. I buy stuff, play video games, engage in social media and waste time like so many of my peers, but I am working actively to reconsider my behavior in light of the understanding that these things won’t bring about a sense of contentment that I get when I am working closely with my friends, family and coworkers to build something different. Something new.

What does our society look like when the powerful individuals that I described above begin to value different things? What happens to the systems and markets as they are when we value the sharing resources over each individual unit consuming one, two or three of everything? What happens when the people of a neighborhood begin to retake, or “occupy,” the task of educating and nurturing children in that neighborhood or town? Will they be weaker because of it, or might they be building a new type of social security?… A security based upon mutualism and cooperation, not an economic model designed to take the decision-making power away from its people. A community with the capacity to learn from each other in a spirit of generosity and justice, not an expectation of taking advantage or manipulation from the next man.

The trick is: we have to try it. What I am describing is not some time-travel journey to something done in the past, but something entirely new. This new thing requires that all are at the table… not just a few. Only when voices from all backgrounds and experiences are at the table is the meal destined to be complete… and delicious.

With that, what communal or shared experiences do you have with the people in your immediate vicinity? Do you know them by name? Do you connect with the kids in your local area? What have you learned from their experience and through their eyes? Do you plug in to a cell phone or ipod when you’re in public spaces, rather than being available for connecting with those around you? I’d like to hear what experiences or thoughts exist around this idea….

By the way, I have in NO way exhausted this theme, so we will likely need to talk about this more in future posts…

Oak Ritchie is a native of South Carolina, and has lived all over the East Coast and the Caribbean. He presently lives in Carrboro, NC, where he is working with a variety of visual mediums and blogs at Steady Flow.

4 Comments

  1. Renee

    26 January, 2012 at 4:55 am

    You bring up lots of great points, Oak.

  2. Shelly Bernal

    1 February, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    Great article Oak! I look forward to your future posts on this topic. Ironically, to champion individualism, we have to strengthen and advance the community. We have individual rights and with those come responsibilities. The necessary habits of individual freedom include participation in the republic/democracy, the responsibility to communities, and the dedication to improving society. Individualism is only possible in the context of strong communities and individual accountability and responsibility to them. We are in fact losing our individualism and the opportunities derived from it because of the destruction of our communities. As we lose the ability to treat each other decently, we also lose our personal rights. facebook/StreetJusticeBrand

  3. Gordon C. Stewart

    13 February, 2012 at 10:15 pm

    What a thoughtul piece! Thank you. We need more like this. Keep it coming.

  4. Shirin

    13 May, 2012 at 8:09 am

    Thanks very much for this, Oak.
    I’m sure these thoughts and this implied call for action resonates strongly with many.
    Such discourse will undoubtedly begin to plant seeds as we all become more aware of the need to contribute towards the spiritual, intellectual and social wellbeing of mankind.

    Shirin