Imran Farouk, one of my kickstarter supporters for Mindfire, had this request for a blog post:
Q: How has de-individualization impacted society in the recent years and will it grow or can it be stopped?
This is one of those fun but messy questions that is so loaded with assumptions there’s no way to answer it without taking it apart first.
Which societies are we talking about? There isn’t some annual meeting of nations where they all decide collectively whether this year they’re going to be more or less against individuals than last year. Each has its own trajectory and action. Some are more hostile than others, some less. Some are improving, some are getting worse. And some are getting better in some ways, and getting worse in others.
I’d say in general, around the world, freedom has progressed, but not in a straight line and not for everyone. According to wikipedia, in 1972 there were 40 democracies in the world, and 123 in 2007. The use of the word democracy has wide variance, but even so, this suggests the general trend is positive. If people can vote, and their votes influence the government, a certain kind of individualism is allowed.
The next distinction is between society and government. If we are talking government, the question becomes is the government a non-corrupt republic, where the citizens are represented effectively in the government. If everyone votes to elect representatives who limit individual rights, then that is, by proxy, the will of the people. They can choose next time to elect people who extend more rights to individuals or not.
I don’t know that a society can be against individuals, since a society is composed of individuals. If they collectively agree to restrict certain behaviors, than the individuals involved are making those choices: how can you be against yourself? All cultures allow and restrict behavior based on their shared values, and one shared value is tolerance (or not) for people who have different values. While I’m be free to a NY Yankee Fan in South Boston, the culture there would likely beat me to a pulp regularly for choosing to express allegiance to that sports tribe openly. Alternatively, if I chose to be a NY Yankee Fan in Jakarta, where few people might know what a Yankee is, I might be free to be as big a fan as I like.
If people aren’t free to move to a different society (say, a more or less conservative town in their country) then the question is less about individualism and more about mobility. They are related, as your ability to be an individual depends on your ability to find a town that accepts the you that you want to be, but mobility and individualism are not the same thing.
Freedom of expression is one way to think about individualism. The rights of free press and assembly are two good measures to look at. I couldn’t find an index value over time for this, but did find that Reporters without Borders does rank nations annually in their freedom of press (The U.S. ranks 47th this year, Finland #1). However, you could define individualism as property rights or other specific freedoms, which would change what data you’d look at answer the question.
What does individualism mean to you? And how would you measure whether a city or nation is making it easier or harder to be an individual?