Oct 10, 2007

On the American Cult of Individuality

There is a pestilence on this land, a cancerous, festering philosophy that threatens the future of the country. It is not al-Qaeda, dear friends, nor is it necessarily the province of the major political parties. For lack of a better term I am referring to this plague as the American cult of individuality.

This is the worship of the individual, a sort of self-deification in which adherents believe that their lives are immeasurably more important than others. These are the people who demand that they receive their birthday off from work, or who wait until they reach the service counter before they begin to collect their thoughts about their transaction. I am not writing about our cherished individual freedoms or human rights, but rather the rise of the individual as the Alpha and Omega of human existence, and the sole focus of one's daily efforts.

Part of this cult is driven by our consumerist society, as music, fashion, and technology capitalize on self-worship to move merchandise. Yet the cult of individuality has roots deeper than Madison Avenue, and even deeper than the rise of capitalism, which Marxists sometimes blame for the evolution of self-worship.

I would wager as I look back across several millennia of human history that the problem of narcissism is a recurrent one, and we trace the etymology of this phenomenon to the Greek myth of Narcissus. Of course, the Greeks were wise enough to recognize that self-worship is a destructive force to both the self and to society.

Yet in American society we seem to have have lost the balance between the individual and the community, and my perception is that each of the most recent generations has shown an increasing atomization and self-absorption. We wander around in our own isolated iPod worlds, wearing expensive clothes that are supposed to highlight our uniqueness (but which demonstrate we are slaves to fashion), and look upon communal activities as a drain upon our oh-so-important self-time. Mass transit? Hell no! Give us eight cylinders and the biggest freaking truck we can buy, because the individual is king in the United States.

And everyone has to have a blog. Ahem.

The height of the cult of the individual might be exemplified by a recent driving experience on Secor Road in Michigan. While driving on this stretch of rural highway, I came upon a slow-moving vehicle whose driver appeared to be fumbling for a CD. After a few moments of driving 10-15 miles below the 45-mph speed limit, I decided to pass the car.

Yes, I too was in a hurry, and I am as prone to the cult of the individual as the next shlep, so turn the blinding quoizel lighting my way.

The driver of the car in front of me, in a fit of hyper-testosteronity, took offense to the fact that he was about to be passed by a 4-cylinder Hyundai, and floored his accelerator. Not wishing to play with the self-absorbed twit, I slowed down, but Mr. Racey-Boy wanted to demonstrate that HE was in control, and he slowed to match my speed.

I speed up, he speeds up. I slow down. He slows down. Speed up. Slow down. The game continued for him for almost a half-mile before an oncoming vehicle necessitated that I come to a complete stop and let him get ahead. Not exactly a white-knuckle moment for me, but unnerving enough, and I am too old to be getting into road-rage incidents with self-absorbed idiots.

And until I see otherwise, I remain convinced that this uniquely American cult of individuality looms over this nation like a portentous storm cloud, poised to undermine - through our obsession with the self - the collective strengths we have demonstrated so many times in the past.


Mad Jack said...

I agree with you. The 'me first and foremost at everyone else's expense' is evident in commercial television, shopping malls and on the road.

People enjoy a form of anonymity when they drive,. We aren't likely to see each other again off the road, and the driver is surrounded by the vehicle which tends to reflect the driver's personality. A fairly recent survey found that mini-van owners were more likely to be courteous to others on the road, less likely to be in an accident. SUV drivers were the opposite.

Driving is a form of standing in line, an activity few like to do. Being first in line equates to better service and more importance, while being stranded at the end of any long line is, well, discomfiting. The only thing better than being at the head of the line is being able to bypass the line altogether, as police are able to do. Driving is not about all of us getting where we want to go. It is about ME getting where I want to go, when I want to go there, and doing so at YOUR personal expense. After I'm finished traveling, you may do as you like.

What bothers me most of all is that people have no right to drive. Our constitutional rights as enumerated in the Bill Of Rights are being limited a little more each year, with the second amendment leading the pack. I believe that any and all restrictions on the BOR should be removed, and the resulting freedom protected by the US Armed Forces. That isn't too likely, but it certainly could be done and done legally, while restricting a constitutional right generates no end of legal wrangling. Now, since driving is a privilege, the government could limit people on the road. Getting a license could be a non-trivial task, and auto accidents could be investigated with the thoroughness they deserve. This isn't likely either, though.

By the way, did you get a license number?

ollie said...

I think that this guy was merely a psychopathic jerk.

The Screaming Nutcase said...

OK, I'll complain....

I have been trying hard to keep the word "individuality" from developing negative connotations...the word you want is "selfishness." To me, the ability to express one's individuality is what makes America great...and selfishness is what you experienced on the road.

I'll probably lose this battle in the long term. Either way, the guy was still an asshole.

Barb said...

Whether it's individuality or selfishness --it is really the "cult of self-esteem" --the title of a cover story in newsweek in the mid-90's, I believe. They noted that all the kids were taught they could do anything and be anything they wanted to be --and thus they were nearly deranged if they didn't make the team, the cheerleading squad, the dance team,and if they didn't get the choir solo, get the lead in the play, get an A --etc. And some schools thought for awhile that pass -fail was better for their little egos than grades --that red marking on papers was psychologically harmful.

About a year before this vindicating Newsweek article, in a class I observed, the instructor had the kids wrap arms around themselves and shout, "I am wonderful." When I suggested to that school district's administrator that maybe "self-love" was not the big panacea we thought it was, I got a lot of attention on the front page of the Blade.

I believe in fostering a positive yet realistic self-image in children--not this belief that "I am wonderful." More important that I tell them "you are wonderful" and that they learn to tell others, "You are wonderful." Not all this self-focus and self-congratulation.

Reminds me of the very needy young lady who took money her boyfriend gave her to help her with bills --and instead, she bought a new high tech tv --when she already had a decent tv. He asked why she did this --and she said, "Because I deserved it. I think I deserve nice things."

Mad Jack said...

More important that I tell them "you are wonderful" and that they learn to tell others, "You are wonderful."

Truth, especially the latter. I remember watching a segment on 60 Minutes about underprivileged, problem children in a special class. The instructor believed in heavy supervision and lots of immediate praise for good behavior. None of these children had ever been praised for much of anything, so by the end of a week or so the kids would do anything the instructor wanted, and by the end of the year they were all excelling at school, and were all well behaved.

I wonder how many public school teachers in the Toledo system praise their students individually?

Barb said...

A positive self-image is good, of course, and we want children to experience approval and praise for their achievements --and to experience love and acceptance just for existing.

We just don't want to cultivate egotists who are insensitive to the feelings, rights, needs of others. Who also have unrealistic delusions of grandeur and sense of superiority --though I've observed that we should never limit a child's dreams because they do surprise us --especially if they are motivated to put work and persistence behind their dreams.

I was inspired by that recent blade article about a young man born with no arms --who is an art teacher --and a soccer coach of a championship team of 6th grade girls.