Are societies more against individuals than ever?

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?


10 Responses to “Are societies more against individuals than ever?”

  1. michael

    I think the cult of the individual has been going on for well over three hundred years, or about as long as the hero cult of the enlightenment. Some people look at the plight for freedom as a collectivist endeavor, where as others look at it as an individual pursuit. I think that “individual preservation” has a much longer history through Diaspora’s of all times. Whether an Egyptian diaspora or an African Diaspora, etc. etc. collectivist societies through out time have come together to highlight differences and yet preserve individual qualities. I think that any individual is slated in life to have to endure a rite of passage in a participation mystique. At what point that is may be different for different individuals, but I don’t think anyone is really exempt in the larger construct of our societal collectivism; And especially evident in any freedom loving society. As Mary Litch has written in her book “Philosophy Through Film”: “Intra cultural diversity of individuals is high where as inter cultural diversity of individuals is low.” Hence, the importance or example of an inherent historical diametric facilitated through the example of any number of Diaspora’s. What are we talking about in individuality. Are we talking about Aristotle’s “magnanimous man”? If so, everyday people would laugh at such a man. Individualism is important even from within the confines of a collectivist group. But even the “magnanimous man” cannot divorce their selves from the “license to do so” which stems from the confines of the larger group.

  2. michael

    I myself would think that “de-individualization” is a misnomer and very misleading. In depth psychology the word is “individuation”. Individuation is what is very important to any individual in respective societies. It is the time that having, through a participation mystique and a rite of passage that the individual “gets their wings” and attempts to fly. Individuation is much more important to any individual, save for perhaps a modern psychotic. Who we like because the modern psychotic engenders most of what post modern man has lost to some extent. The psychotic life is ripe with the imagery and meaning that was so inherent to our own psyche’s so long ago. That’s why we prefer our individuals and psychotics to be able to live. Individuation is important for any individual.

    1. Kyle Ann

      I may be wrong, but I have always pictured individuation as being the slight differences each person has to distinguish oneself as an individual within the group and an individual as the free thinker on the outskirts of the group; or not even in a group. I might have this backwards or it might not be true at all, but you have given me something to think about and look up. Thank you. I love the topics in this blog. Thanks Scott.

  3. Sean Crawford

    What it means to me is whether people have an internal or external locus of control. Computer guys, being internal, are classically nerds because they aren’t sufficiently afraid of the group style-leaders.
    I am still thinking of something I read it the 1970’s or 80’s. A respected retail loss prevention officer wrote that internal shop lifting is increasing because people have less of an internal locus. I have never tried to verify his statement, but it has stuck with me.

    I wonder if an external locus, keeping up with the Joneses, has contributed to the debt crises that made rebounding from the recession so hard. As Michael Lewis wrote (p 202) in Boomerang, “It is not just a coincidence that the debts of cities and states spun out of control at the same time as the debts of individual Americans.”

    1. Kyle Ann

      What happens to the computer geek when his or her career of choice is in a field where conformity is the norm? How far can the individualized person progress in a field that does not reward individualization? What kind of and how many genius minds never actualize to improve our world due to lack of acceptance of individualization by society? Sad.

  4. Jay

    Interesting, I read the question as being more about individualism in terms of privacy. With the advent of various public facing technologies like personal web sites, Facebook, open source code sharing, etc., privacy and individualism has deteriorated or at least changed forms. In more and more careers, you can’t get a job unless you have an online presence for your past work or public facing references. With this increased amount of information about individuals becoming available (and for some a necessity), I would imagine maintaining a private boundary is a lot more difficult now for many, as well as maintaining a sense of individualism with such an increasing sense of contributing your work to a larger audience. It is no longer as much yours as it is part of the public domain. Just my thoughts on the topic :)

    1. Scott Berkun

      Jay: there are definitely many aspects to the question as individualism means many things.

      Zuckerberg and all the social media makers would say that by having everyone share more, society becomes more accepting, not less, as we know more about everyones eccentricities and preferences. Not sure I believe it, but it’s a theory I’ve heard many times.

      There’s also the notion that with blogs, facebook and twitter there are more ways than ever for a person to express who they are, which could be a boon to individualism.

  5. sdimeglio

    For me, individualism is defined by the level one is willing to conform or not conform to whatever political, societal or consumer pressures that exist in a nation or society. Human history has shown that it is not possible to control non-conforming ideas or mindsets no matter how repressive a society may be. When those non-conforming ideas gain popularity as a result of general frustration or fear, they reach the critical mass necessary to make change happen. The pendulum swing back and forth but hopefully, over the long run, we make progress.

  6. Kyle Ann

    I was struck by your comment about societies only accepting certain or certain kinds of individuals. I have never felt like I really fit into any group and enjoy my individualism. Unfortunately, people almost seem offended by my individualism. The irony is that it was society (lack of popularity in the early years; basically no friends)who helped create my individualism, but now society feels uncomfortable and is troubled by my individualism. It also seems that society goes to great lengths to make your join her club when you are no longer interested in joining. Why are people so afraid to truly be themselves and trust their instinct? Why do people go out of their way to try and make a strong person who can think for herself and likes her individualism feel like she is failing if she won’t conform. She probably will have to prove her worth over and over again while frightened, self righteous society tosses out as many obstacles as it can to keep this individualized, free and progressive thinker hushed up.
    Is it just me or does it seem that the more that people conform in society the more backward thinking people become?

    I was actually a bit uneasy about posting anything like this, but I recently had a very unsettling experience as a mock trial juror. As we watched the attorneys and listened to their presentations I assumed the whole group was hearing the same thing as I was. Before this experience I had always given any adult the benefit of doubt that intellectual thought is what they possessed to get that far in life. One of the attorneys was short, average looking, had a high pitched voice, and lots of evidence. The other attorney was very charming, around thirty, very handsome, and produced no evidence, but rather suggested wrongdoings in which the plaintiffs may have participated. I ended up being the only juror to side with the plaintiff with all of the evidence. I was dumbfounded and I guess that must have been the other jurors’ excuses as well. Not only did just a few of the jurors remember the larger than life, six pieces of evidence that was presented on a twenty foot screen; almost all of the jurors took everything the charming lawyer suggested might have happened as fact. I like a good argument, but I could not even sway the guy on the fence; even with all of the notes I had written and exact numbers and dollar amounts I was able to rattle off faster than anyone. The jury’s belief in this charmer could not be swayed. I never, in my wildest dreams, would have previously believed that I would be the ONLY one on that side of the verdict. At first I thought I missed something, but the more the other jurors talked the more sure, but frightened I became. The drive home was almost two hours and I could hardly get what had happened out of my mind and bounced between feelings of anxiety and disbelief. I did emerge from the experience with the knowledge that if I ever get into some sort of serious trouble I am going to push hard for the plea deal rather than have a group of my peers? decide my fate.

  7. Kevin Martin

    Being an individual is doing whatever it is you desire to do without regarding the actions of the majority. One must keep in mind that there are various consequences (good, bad, and benign) for pursuing individualistic efforts.

    A nation makes it hard for one to be an individual when that nation stops a person who is not hurting anyone, nor infringing upon the rights of others from being an individual. For example, gay marriage is illegal. What are gays doing that is so wrong?


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