Individualism: Glass House and Fortress
I was watching Twin Peaks: the Return last night and was enjoying one particular scene with a character named Diane. Now Diane had been only mentioned by name in the original series like several times, so this is was the first time seeing her with no real grasp about what she was like. Turns out she was loaded with attitude and hedonistic binges, fucking strangers, chain smoking, and constantly greeting people with, “Fuck you-insert name”
It was funny, but there was one moment when her old FBI colleagues pay her a visit. They sit down and one of them compliments her on her attitude, to which she blatantly snaps, “My attitude is none of your fucking business”.
There were other great moments in the episode but I did notice the many twitter responses cheering Diane for her no-nonsense, mind-your-own –damn-business responses. It was very confidant, modern, and indicative of what our world is about: individuality.
A Certain Point of View
I spoke about individuality in a previous article in the context of community prejudice, but this is looking at it from another angle. Like the fictional character of Diane, if you were raised from the 1980’s onward, you are likely to believe that individuality is not only common sense and a given, but a universal, god-given human right as well. We compliment ourselves constantly whenever we do something against an establishment telling us what we should believe or do: being gay or transgender, wearing different clothes, and voting for Donald Trump being some examples.
Because this is the environment we are raised in, that environment also becomes the lens through which we see the rest of the world. Specifically, non-western parts of the world, where individuality doesn’t exist or struggles to co-exist with social obligations. Westerners and like-minded people who live in these parts that believe in modernism, see these archaic behaviors and condemn them for denying a absolute truth. I largely agree with them.
However, individualism is not an absolute truth that has always existed. Individualism is the new kid on the block, shouting at the older ‘kids’ that it is not only equal to them but better, because it believes it is free of the baggage of its predecessors.
"....it was seen as a threat to larger and older communities because of its disregard for established belief and traditions for the sake of the individual."
The Idea of the One
The idea of the individual being a separate entity from society first gains traction with the birth of Christianity. I know, surprising isn’t it, given what we normally associate with it now, but it is true. Even democracy and the republic were still defined by communal responsibility and not the person. In its beginning, Christianity established a faith that was not about what your parents or ancestors believed. In fact, it advocated breaking from that because those old family and cultural beliefs were sinful. Its advocates initially taught that God wanted to make them his adopted children through the acceptance of Christ, though it was often through rituals like the Eucharist.
For this and other reasons, it was seen as a threat to larger and older communities because of its disregard for established belief and traditions for the sake of the individual.
As the religion got older though and became more entwined with other cultural beliefs and especially politics, it became what it rebelled against. And the individual was once again defined by their community, albeit often times their ‘spiritual’ community. Islam underwent the same transition, as did Buddhism. Like a tree that gets older, they calcified and came to be replicas of the old ways they replaced.
Alternative ideas derived from the mainstream did happen, but were often forcibly put down or forced underground for their heretical thinking. Meanwhile other places across the world simply never questioned the community because of the need to survive, and the person was always judge by what hierarchy they were a part of. I had even heard that some tribes in the American Southern states regarded people not a part of any tribe or community as being sub-human.
Individual value makes a successful return during the Enlightenment period in Europe. During this time, new ideas began to be out forward about science, human existence, and a questioning of how people were living prior to that point. The old ways still existed of course but this time they couldn’t silence the fledgling philosophy. Among the undermined traditional values was the idea of community over the individual.
This may be debatable, but the first time that individuality became enshrined into law was when the United States came into being. No, I’m not saying that there was no communities demanding its members conform to social ideals. That was absolutely there, but it also existed and many times conflicted, with the idea that a person makes their own destiny. This strain continues in every American sub group today despite their differences and histories.
Finally Individualism became what we know it as now from the 1960’s onward, and it has slowly spread to all corners of the world. Even places that are strongly, community based have people that on some level see themselves as separate somehow or desire it.
Obstacles to Individualism
The problem that older communities have with individualism is many. In brief though there are four basic ones. First is that it is seen as a Western invention, and most places in the world were colonized or occupied by western powers at some point in their history. So there’s automatic distrust already there. Thanks imperialism.
The second point connects to the first in that as a reaction to their suspicion, many nations have come to cling to their past stronger than before. In some cases this is not as much to believe that it was right, but as more of a “fuck you” to the west and not being their bitches anymore.
Third is that may countries see individualism as in reality being hypocritical. When Ghana was considering passing a law to arrest and possibly execute Gay people, President Obama and many Americans openly condemned it. However Ghanaians saw it as their society, their right: and pointed out that Americans were suppose to be all about tolerating others values and yet showed none if you disagreed with them.
And lastly, there’s cultural survival. With the world changing at an ever faster pace as each year goes by, many communities established in their long traditions are finding themselves left behind. If they reject change, they miss the benefits of modernism like food, trade, and even weapons. Yet they are equally afraid that the cost of that survival is their communal soul. Some societies react very violently to this fear. India has become notorious for honor killings were family members murder relatives who marry someone out of love, which goes against centuries of tradition, for example.
I think we often take for granted just how fragile our individualism truly is. Going back to Twin Peaks, if Diane had said the rant about her attitude being no one else’s fucking business in some other place other than a first world country, she’d could quickly find herself in a very bad place. I believe in individualism, but I also think it is largely a product of prosperity rather than of necessity.
When the shit hits the fan, human nature is one to worry less about liberties and more about survival. And communities have always been the way to survive that shit storm, and communities demand conforming in order to do that.
There are those who maintain their individuality even in the face of external pressure and violence. Socrates was infamous among Athens for constantly criticizing Athen’s part in the Peloponnesian Wars and was killed for it. Spartacus, rebelled against the Roman system of gladiators being expendable entertainment, led a war against it, and died for it. Jesus (if you believe the scholars) spoke out against the traditions of his own Jewish culture and died for it.
You see the trend here?
I don’t think many people have the moral fortitude to willingly give their lives or suffer to protect their individual preferences and rights when push really comes to shove. Some do, some make out alive, but many also don’t.
So, the next time someone gets in your face about your personal choices, sure, tell them to go fuck themselves. But afterward, be thankful that we-hopefully-are in a place that respects the individual without extreme consequences, and also remembering most of the world is going to fight us on it.