THE RISE OF INDIVIDUALISM

 

            Imagine a hotel ballroom, filled with parallel, white-cloth covered tables, ice-water pitchers, and celebrants, facing one another, separated by game boards of 64 squares, with up to 32 pieces, a pretend-population of two “races” and of several castes: Kings, Queens, Rooks, Bishops, Knights, and lowly Pawns. Chess is a game whose parallel to society is so arcane that it seems it must have had an extraterrestrial influence.  It is ultimately deterministic, yet at the club level sometimes seems like a game of chance, where on any given day any pro-football-like upset can happen.  The chess player is the ultimate master of his own fate in a given game: only his or her own mistakes can lead to defeat, no matter how accomplished a grandmaster opponent.  He is like the major league baseball manager making up a pitching rotation when he selects an opening repertoire.  Psychologically—beyond, at least, the aesthetic satisfaction of a perfectly conducted attack or endgame—the objective is to demonstrate one’s intrinsic superiority versus another individual.  Bobby Fischer used to gloat that the ultimate satisfaction comes when he sees his opponents’ “ego crack,” as if split open like an egg shell.  Chess is the ultimate individual sport, a chance to demonstrate your superiority over an adversary.  Yet, the game itself, the drama on the board, demonstrates the most important point about community—beyond the service academy version of chess as a paradigm of war, and the notorious idea of “unit cohesion”—for the principle of good chess, the proper cooperation of pawns and pieces, is always in tension.

            Imagine, if you will, that White opens with the Queen’s Pawn, apparently desiring a positional battle (“patzer playing Queen Pawn”) and his opponent counters quickly in the center, accepting an isolated Queen Pawn for quick mobility and ease of development.  Is the pawn strong or weak?  It is the individual heckler, battering ram, self-promoter, yet it lacks the support of its teammates.  Or, say, White has the two bishops.  Does he open the position immediately, or close it up temporarily so that it may be opened with greater effect later?  So it goes.  When does a pawn center  confer more space, and when does it indicate over-extension?  When is less really more?  Life itself is so much like that.

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            Individualism, to me, amounts to the notion that a person may live for his or her own purposes, become an influence upon others, follow his own path and life, and break away from any station that would be assigned by “society.”  Yet, individualism only makes sense when there is a surrounding civilization to relate to.  History presents centuries of men’s attempts to learn to work together to provide a community that really makes the pursuit of happiness meaningful.  For centuries, this amounted to setting up stable political states, along with a monetary system, a matrix from which technological process can emerge. 

            The role of the individual in historical analysis is uneven, but it certainly began to emerge in ancient times, especially with the Greek philosophers, most notably Socrates with his absorption of the human mind.  Christianity, despite the apparently self-effacing appearance of some its theology and moral teaching, contributed (especially when pitted against the Roman society in which it had to survive) ideas which make the notion of basic human rights take on a driving force in moral thought, even if early Christians expected the end of time soon.  For example, in the book of Galatians Paul wrote explicitly about freedom, and some of the parables of Jesus actually have a libertarian flavor. Perhaps the same ideas can be found in Judaism and other faiths, although the Old Testament often seems preoccupied with the idea of the Jews as a “chosen people” who need a collective identity in order for future civilization to develop around it.

            During the Middle Ages, of course, social progress stalled for hundreds of years, as men backslid in their efforts to learn to live together productively.  Feudalism and manorialism produced a social structure in which most men had little hope for better lives, either for themselves or their children. With the Renaissance, this gradually began to change, as reflected in the great characters of Shakespeare and other playwrights (although there had been great individual characters—the Pardoner, the Wife of Bath--as far back as Chaucer).  With the American and French revolutions around end of the 18th Century and leading into the 19th, the cause of freedom for more “average” people would increase, even as horrible abuses like slavery would continue (and even as inherited landed wealth and patriarchy would persist for decades).

            By the outset of World War I, freedom had made quite a bit of progress, even if the process was exploitative, abusive and painful, such as (after the Civil War) with the working conditions in factories and coal mines.   If World War I was largely a fratricidal political war, it may have been exacerbated by the tremendous tensions by then between rich and poor.  Communism and Fascism would both follow, horrible collective experiments that would have to be overcome or burned out, by World War II and the ensuing Cold War. 

            The social progress from about 1776 through 1945 may have a couple of subtle explanations.  One may be that the nuclear family took upon a new importance.  Marriage had always been “important” but about the time of the “Age of Reason” the idea that one man chooses one woman to have children and to care for one another “till death do us part” took on new importance, as people started living longer.  Moral thinking began to center around the social institution of marriage and fidelity.  A man of unremarkable special talents would find a sense of himself as an “individual”(when compared to his buddy-like ;relations with other men in group pursuits like hunting or war) by marrying, raising children, and in some way staking out a domain of property. At the same time, there was a hidden intellectual development that would help men and women grow independently—the romantic movement, in literature, painting, and most of all, music, with its ability to program circuits in the mind.  As exemplified by the symphonic canvases of Viennese composer Gustav Mahler, a big musical conception could become a universe of its own for the individual mind.

            After World War II, technology would become a driving force for the release of the potential of the individual. It would be a subtle process because by now the prospect of both prosperity and peace alone were a great elixir. Property, crops, and livestock (“real” and living things) had always been the primary goods measured by fiat money, but gradually information and aesthetic pursuits would become more important with technology. This process was abetted by a surprising development: the way the federal government responded to the Cold War.  Under President Johnson, married men no longer had a draft exemption before college students and fathers.  The asocial nerd, if he could contribute to defense with his brains, was to be spared as well as the father.  Concurrently, the Civil Rights movement, to be followed by disenchantment with the War in Vietnam, would provide a social incentive for gays to organize as a minority to fight what seemed like oppression aimed at preserving the privileges of patriarchy and inheritance.  Even so, there existed a persistent pressure on young men to engage in collective pursuits designed to protect the community. A 1954 Cub Scout manual tells a young reader, “you are no longer just a little boy, you belong to a pack.” 

            It is an irony, and perhaps no accident, that the Stonewall Rebellion and the walk of man on the Moon would occur about three weeks apart in 1969.  Society would turn on this before-and-after.

            Technology, spurred by defense to be sure, would progress through the next three decades, but not ultimately toward the collective idea of voyaging the solar system in manned space ships (as once thought) but to the power of the individual to obtain and publish his own view of the truth on the Internet. 

            And society, while organizing politically often enough around the idea of suspect-class minorities, would discover increasing intellectual tension over the role of the individual and ultimately begin to appreciate the subtlety of a whole polity (not just public policy) based around individual rights rather than collective group political barter.

            In the gay community, this trend may have been best expressed in the writings of Paul Rosenfels and the New York City group, the Ninth Street Center,, that he would help found in the early 1970’s. He would organize the ultimate philosophy of psychological individualism:  psychological polarity independent of gender, along with another axis to measure the degree to which individuals defined their own goals or integrated those collectively with the needs of others. While articulating a philosophy of psychological surplus, he would see the quick chess-like traps, which he called psychological defenses (“sour grapes and sweet lemons” perhaps) and develop a moral philosophy of “love and power” where practical work in a relatively closed but stable community was necessary to overcome the defenses.  Although Rosenfels would not become widely known in the larger media, his ideas would take effect in the community like an intellectual virus.  Along the same time, the Libertarian Party was forming and growing, around the idea of personal freedom and responsibility and the idea that people would be freest and social and economic justice would come most quickly if the government did as little as possible.

            The problems of increased personal freedom and mobility would become manifest.  The oil shocks, urban financial crises, and economic stagflation of the 1970’s would raise the specter of a “fat, decadent” middle class living beyond its means, with the added international tensions that religious groups (especially Muslims) could claim that the Western world was living high on the hog at the expense to people of faith.  The Middle East wars and oil embargoes, and later the Iran hostage crisis would stem from this.  Ronald Reagan would come along with an optimistic version of individual freedom based on (by now) old fashioned family and moral values.  His quasi-libertarianism, incompletely and inconsistently followed, would lead rather to a yuppie “me generation,” followed by mountains of personal and government debts, while the limits of sexual freedom and even sexual unorthodoxy would come under the near apocalypse of AIDS. 

            In the 1990s we would learn to manage our freedom better, largely because of our technological revolution in information distribution. For gays, ideas unthinkable a decade earlier in mainstream politics, like gay marriage and gays in the military, took on a new moral urgency, let alone credibility.  The idea of no income tax would be proposed, and the possibility of major constitutional changes would be contemplated even before the 2000 presidential election.  We would, on the day of George W. Bush’s inauguration, take some pride in how well our system can work and begin to echo his words about civility and personal responsibility.

            Through all of this, the basic significance of technology for advancing freedom becomes clear: technology gives individual the opportunity to form their own aesthetic worlds, and, after the philosophy particularly of Oscar Wilde, project this personalize aesthetics to others.  This can become as important as personal relationships or other achievement in the conventional sense.

            Even so, some would question, sometimes destructively, whether this was good.  Some (the “Luddites”) would maintain that technology tied people to hierarchal social and political chains that denied them the real freedom of dealing with nature on their own terms. 

            We have gradually shifted our political and moral debate—to some extent—away from categories of people to the idea of personal accountability and freedom drawn into balance.  A person is to be evaluated as a separate individual by a separate event.  One is to become one’s own adult person before one is ready for a “relationship”—especially marriage and family. Sexual freedom can be accepted when there is safer sex and accountability.  A person’s private life is finally to be his own business.  Patriarchy and organizational success is to be replaced by meritocracy.  Sometimes, however, a moral or legal system based entirely on deservedness and accountability can have harsh, zero-tolerance consequences for those who slip off their pedestals even slightly.  So there will be pressures for new emphasis on communitarianism.

            There are endless perturbations of this formulation of human rights, however, and one gets into troubling paradoxes and complexities.  At the very least, rights sometimes have to be traded off.  Given that a sentient unborn child must have his or her right to life recognized in a civil society, the mother may have to sacrifice some privacy.  A parent may have the right—and responsibility—for his children’s education and moral direction, but then the rights of the child are compromised by the neglectful parent, and in the most extreme case, by the idea of cloning or genetic pre-selection.  The right of a disabled elderly person to life may confer upon adult children the obligation to make personal sacrifices to care for them.

            Family values pose a certain paradox about individualism. Women typically have a natural incentive towards childbirth, and men typically are induced to provide for them with sexual investment. A man often says that the event of fatherhood is the most important and self-fulfilling moment that he has ever known, to a psychological extent that shocks him. Finally, the sense some concrete evidence of his own imprint on the world neutralizes all the group prowls in the past. Yet, fatherhood implies a certain conformity to community, and at least a temporary and rather long-lasting psychological sacrifice of expressive interests, which may or may not be regained with the sequel of parenthood.  Political calls to strengthen families may be viewed narrowly, in terms of protecting children already born, or they may be used more broadly to set social standards as to how people are to form and keep attachments (and to put those who do not conform—such as gays—at a cultural and maybe financial disadvantage); it is not always easy to understand the difference, and many people who have traditional families don’t understand that there are those who don’t have them. 

            The notion of sacrifice used to go beyond largely family matters.  Up through the Vietnam war, we expected young men to offer themselves to the draft before they had the legal right to their own lives. Today, the possibility of a draft renewal is sometimes mentioned, as well as broader proposals for not so voluntary community or national service.  Individualism, then, drives the point of a person proving that he “deserves” what he has, that he has “paid his dues.”  

            And behaviors consisting largely of private choices do have effects on others.  Public health is obviously one problem (and many other examples may be given besides the facile link between AIDS and male homosexual behavior). Tension exists between artistic creativity and free speech and the effect that this speech has on vulnerable people, especially those raised by parents with much less than optimal resources.  Tension, accompanied by a surprising intellectual naiveté, grows between those with heavy family responsibilities and “free spirits,” and resistance to undermining the old idea that a man gains credibility by performance (and sexual persistence) within the family remains.  Indeed, one of the most difficult controversies of the individualism revolution comes back to the question, whether one should become one’s “own person” before “marrying” a significant other.

            There is, in unfettered individualism, a risk of progressive personal devaluation. People may come to be viewed as “in the way” when they can no longer please or excite others. An extreme end-result of this may be “body fascism,” by no means limited to gay men.  There is a frightening reminder of what life may have been life for the typical middle-class Gentile German under Hitler, where both apparent prosperity and the pursuit of some kind of collective aesthetic glory [certainly not possible in Stalin’s contemporaneous communist society], reinforced by music and imagery, gave individuals an unjustified sense of their own destiny and importance (with a Nazi leadership which was both homophilic and aggressively and viciously homophobic).  Political liberals want to find “freedom” by turning over the responsibility for care for the disadvantaged to public or government dole, relieving the rest of us of “burdens”—and eventually such a process may, while seemingly benign in a democratic society, start to undermine other individual liberties in subtle ways, an observation that leads conservatives back to the nuclear family as the primary granule of individualism. 

            So liberals and conservative moralists alike are justified in looking for social justice and moral restraints upon at least the most predatory or narrow exercises of individualism.  Perhaps one formulation would be to define “personal responsibility” as incorporating an obligation to show that one can take care of others besides oneself, even when this sometimes requires sacrifice.  Indeed, it is a paradox of individualism that sometimes one expresses oneself by what one forsakes or does without—and this may range from unhealthy self-handicapping to a sense that one is best off when one places oneself where one can contribute the most, even if this means accepting some apparent “discrimination” related to one’s performance in meeting the needs of others.  This would help us aim towards an idea of “personal responsibility with civility.”

            Another way to formulate all of this philosophical evolution is to suggest that we have gradually developed the idea of a free society as a collection of individuals, both cooperating and competing, but each with a personal agenda or a purpose. Previously we had viewed many social functions, especially those having to do with “family values,” from a communitarian perspective, that there are some processes in the civilized world (like parenthood) that are so basic and immutable that they should never be analyzed in terms of individual motives.  Hence, it had been all right to “favor” families at the “expense” of singles, and it had been all right to pass some laws (regarding sexuality) to protect these global values: from an individualist’s perspective this must be questioned.  Society had become like an object-oriented system, whose components could enjoy debatable levels or privacy, protection or friendliness.  For example, it is totally unacceptable to confront someone about his adult sexual interests, yet it still seems appropriate to many people to nudge these interests into socially useful directions (the family) with global policy.  (And, unfortunately, “attractive” people sometimes have an easier time making sexual harassment claims believed.) Well-founded concerns about egalitarianism and social justice may be balanced by reassessing the notion of family responsibility as well as by conventional ideas about disadvantaged minorities or economic “exploitation.” Again, the idea that everyone should learn to take care of others beside oneself may produce a resolution point.

            You could cast all of this in the terms of the “sexual outlaw” paradigm.  Gays in particular, as well as “me generation yuppies” have apparently separated sexuality from the socially adaptive goals of family, parenting, and even eldercare.  Gays (men in particular) may have compelling psychological reasons to “deviate” and in modern society find opportunities to use sexuality for self-expression. But then all of this can make “fitting in” to important social functions—family, common defense—a “burden” for themselves and others.  There was no tension over “family values” until technological “industrial” society made traditional family values a credible “lifestyle choice.”      

            Religious people sometimes tell me that the attempt to reduce all of these philosophical paradoxes to a logical paradigm is bound to fail.  Man should accept “natural law,” they say, and accept the idea that some private choices are not legitimately given by God.  Science fiction is filled with accounts of galactic societies where the “group mind” predominates and where individual aims are sharply channeled. New Age and Rosicrucian literature is filled with oblique suggestions that true “understanding” (or “cosmic consciousness”) of the world beyond the usual senses and the observed limitations of physics (and the speed of light) require a certain surrender of personal deliberation, to be replaced by receptive concentration—prayer.  All I can say here is to note this a fundamental paradox in epistemology.

            We have moved from the old-fashioned struggle over class and race to a newer one, a psychological gulf between those whose adult lives are built around the social responsibilities that grow out of procreative sexual intercourse, to those whose lives are more self-expressive. We have three basic paradigms for resolving all these tensions: (1) the liberal one, where freedom and social justice may be advanced democratically by legal means and by redistribution of wealth, with the responsibilities for care-taking reduced on the individual, (2) the socially conservative one, centered on a psychological humility before religion and family, where the family is the only legitimate context to define the individual, and (3) the “libertarian” one, where self-ownership, tied to personal accountability, is advanced, and where the consequences for personal stumbles (or even inborn problems) may become unbearably harsh indeed until tempered by agreements to take care of others, too.                       

                     

NOTE REGARDING SEPT 11 2001 ATTACKS

 

            There has been much discussion of government assistance and bailouts of industries (airlines, insurance) and individuals affected by the tragic terrorist attacks.  Indeed, there is some justification in this inasmuch as the attacks were partially targeted at government itself.  Furthermore, the attacks heighten the need for debate about civil liberties in a society in which government is going to play a much larger role in protecting citizens (as is the case already in Europe). 

            Furthermore, no one wants to undermine the relief efforts for direct victims of the attacks.  However, there is a legitimate question about how much help should be targeted towards individuals who must deal with sudden employment and investment losses due to the attacks.  This is particularly disturbing in a society where financial independence and well-being has become associated with successful interpersonal relations with others.  It is also upsetting because we must deal with the fact that for the foreseeable future we collectively (and to some extent indirectly) will have less total wealth because some has been taken from us by force by terrorists. There is a paradox, that individualism requires a readiness to accept sacrifice, and to take bad luck when it comes one’s way.  There is a saying in the military, “that’s the breaks.”  The proper way to deal with this is well-structured insurance. Overzealous efforts to insulate persons from the unfavorable financial outcomes of risks that they have taken (however remote at the time they are taken) undermines the freedom of everyone in the long run.

 

ãCopyright 2001 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use

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