Individualism: the Reappearing Ideal, part 2: The hollowness of “identity”

“Identity is the theft of the self.” – Estee Martin

How do we define ourselves?

We are not milkshakes. To make a milkshake, you put in a few ingredients and come out with a drink that is the same almost everywhere you drink it. A human has far more ingredients. The ingredients of our personalities are our unique genetic makeup, our cultures, our choices and our unique experiences. And yet, when asked to talk about our identities, we reduce them to a few basic ingredients.

Identity is almost always framed as collective identity, as if we were not individuals except in as far as our group identities allow us. You are not your nation, your culture, your religion or your hockey team. You are not a milkshake that is the same as all the others you have tried. And neither is anyone else. But instead of acknowledging those things that make us different, we want to be the same. We want to belong to groups that we see as the same as us. We even chip away the rough edges of our personalities to belong to these groups. Sure, I have a nagging feeling that others in my group are all wrong, but I am not going to speak out. I am going to conform, to move to where it is safe, where everyone thinks the same. This post will argue that, not only should you relieve yourself of your collective identity, but also that it is making our world worse for everyone.

Club membership and collective pride

Nations should be like clubs. You should be allowed to join and leave at will, pay your dues—just enough to cover the club’s administration costs—and hey, if you feel loyal, do your duty. Clubs are something that we take up freely and feel are some part of our identity but usually not all of it. Instead of imposing their obligations on you, you can choose whether to accept them. You might belong to the working class club, the golf club, the fat, middle aged men club, the street hockey club, the World of Warcraft club, the math teacher club, Club Mexico, Club Guadalajara and Club Canada. That is an individualist’s portfolio of affiliations.

Instead, nations are more like cults. You join without knowing what you are joining. You are pressured to stay for the rest of your life. You pay large dues. Your duty is at the whim of slick talking leaders who take your dues and give back to you the pride of belonging to an exclusive group. Obligations are imposed on you. You believe you are in the right group, because you are told the whole time you are there why it is the right one. Conformity is thrust upon us as a virtue.

When I lived in China, I found that people were expected to do and think the same way. After the earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, classrooms full of children were donating their parents money to the cause. (Why the children had to donate instead of the parents’ donating is a face creating exercise.) Some of the children were quite poor, with parents who were struggling to make ends meet. They were expected to give just as much money as everyone else. But how is that fair? If there was any real sense of community, as of course the donaters were claiming as their reason for giving, they would give to the poor child they knew instead of (or as much as) the ones they did not. But in a collectivist society, giving is an act of obedience, something done not for the sake of giving but to conform and save face.

If you ask proud collectivists what they are proud of, they will often cite the wonderful contributions that group has made to the world. Of course, collective action is how we create wonderful things. But as any anthropologist can tell you, inventions are very much a product of conditions. (See, in particular, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.) There are few things that make one society, race, culture or civilisation better than any other, although there are many such groups that are better at imposing their beliefs on others—the majority groups in any country with minorities, for instance.

Moreover, proud people tend to miss all the things their group did not create (ie. everything created by another group) and all the bad things they did. We Chinese invented the sailing ship (but not the plane, the car or the train). Russian culture produced such masters as Dostoevsky and Pushkin (and Stalin). Italy gave life to Michelangelo and da Vinci (and mafia crime families). We British ruled the world (through cunning and cruelty). And since every group has something good and something bad, does it still make sense to be proud?

Besides, your country was created for a purpose long since served and forgotten. Are you proud of your border, too?

Collectivist economics

Shortsighted populism led to tariffs and other trade barriers that perpetuated the Great Depression and look set to do the same now. Tariff barriers in the 1930s were erected by self interested minorities like trade unions but tolerated because of collectivist arguments about employment among our people being more important than efficiency. Efficiency could not only have limited the pain of the Great Depression, it might have averted a war. Trading nations with open economies would have helped foster cooperation, making it more costly to go to war.

Individualism is compatible with teams and alliances. Teams and alliances are people with similar interests working together to achieve their goals. And why not? Collaboration is one of humanity’s greatest skills. Capitalism makes room for both the competitive and cooperative sides of our nature. Collectivism demands loyalty to the group, which may not be in your best interest. It disallows you from working with anyone who is an enemy of your group, thus limiting your ability to collaborate.

Look at what collectivism in economic policy is leading to today. The officials of the US and China, possibly the only two countries that can save the world economy, are sniping at each other over small things like currencies. Immigrants to Spain, Ireland, the United States, the United Kingdom, South Africa and the Persian Gulf are being kicked out of the dirty jobs they were originally brought in for (or at least protested against) because native workers want them. Our car companies need saving, so we will bail them out at the expense of foreign companies. What is next? Steep tariffs to protect our steel industry, import quotas on clothing, bigger subsidies to farms big and small and goodness knows what geopolitical maneuvering to support domestic oil and gas corporations. No one seems to understand the havoc these policies will wreak on almost everyone. Again, a small minority threatens to reverse all the progress of the past half century, and will probably succeed, by appealing to collectivism. The benefits of specialisation, competition and openness fly away through the fast closing window of opportunity. As the Economist puts it, “when nationalism is on the march, commercial logic gets trampled underfoot.”

Then, governments bait each other to be more protectionist, the global economy slips a little further into depression, incomes fall, trade barriers become viewed as necessary, and people start getting angry at elected officials. Politicians and businesspeople band together to create external enemies to appeal to nationalism, deflecting the people’s anger and risking war. It has happened before. The only way to exit this downward spiral is by setting aside the apparent immediate interest of one’s group and working with outsiders as equals.

Outsiders are not the problem. I expect most of those reading this blog consider themselves unbiased toward race, religion and the other old bases for discrimination. But losing those biases is easy nowadays. We have more difficult questions for ourselves. What are your biases toward nationality? Despite being perhaps the best possible way to alleviate global poverty at a net benefit to almost everyone, immigration is unpopular in rich countries. In Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and Sweden, for instance, about 70% of people favour reduced immigration to their respective countries. And yet, in the same places, 80% or more believe in increased foreign aid. Most of these people want to help others. Why are there so many who oppose perhaps the best way to end poverty, low skilled labour migration? If you are a citizen of my country, you deserve protection from poverty, crime and discrimination; if you were born outside the border, too bad. If you truly do not discriminate against nationality, you should favour open borders to immigration. (It is possible to have moral arguments for closing the border and not be against immigrants. If you are still convinced there is a moral case for closing borders, I suggest Lant Pritchett’s Let Their People Come.) If we are planning to rid the world of dangerous prejudices, we should start with ourselves.

Get your own heroes

The power hungry will do anything they can to legitimise their actions, and the collective will do anything to legitimise its collectivism. In part, they turn to heroification. Heroification means turning someone into a hero, not because of any heroic deeds but because the people need someone better than them to believe in the greatness of the group. Woodrow Wilson is a good example of this. One of the most popular American presidents was not only one of the most racist but an imperialist that, according to N. Gordon Levin, set the tone for the Red Scare and the repeated military interventions of the Cold War. But few high school American history books say anything about that. They say we should revere him, so we do.

However, since some people are smart enough to realise that the elites are only human, the elites have a tool to stir up collective pride: hero worship. Heroes can be anyone who is a good role model—your parents, teachers, even friends can be your heroes. But they are also created by elites to instill pride in the group (particularly the nation). Heroes used to be primarily soldiers and others who did exactly what the state wanted them to do. But nowadays, anyone can be a hero. Sometimes, even unexceptional people are called heroes because there is a perceived lack of them. You may have noticed the following people you have been told to admire:

Soldiers, police, firefighters, athletes, astronauts, volunteers, survivors of tragedies, victims of tragedies, past politicians (though rarely current ones), and in wartime, just about anyone.

We are told to feel proud because these people represent us, they complete us, they are us. Making someone feel proud of something is a great way to get them to do and be what you want.

Collective pride, to me, is incomprehensible. Why would you be proud of something that you did not do yourself? How could you be proud of something that is an accident of birth? Are you proud to be 175cm tall? Are you proud to have a predisposition to colon cancer? So why are you proud to be Canadian, American, Irish, Chinese, Indian or Chinese-Indian?

Similarly, we take pride in the achievements of our country at the Olympics and the World Cup. I can understand wanting your team to win, as most people like competition for the fun of competition. But what are YOU proud of? Aside from cheering yourself hoarse, you probably did nothing to help your team win. Try not to take it too personally when your team loses, either: it’s not your fault.

When we pick sides, we necessarily acquire rivals. Rivals can, of course, be nothing more than the spur that drives our competitive nature, pushing us to do greater and greater things. But sometimes we are competitive in areas outside of art and business. Rivals often become enemies.

The word “enemy” connotes the evil one, the one raring to commit unspeakable acts of violence on us. Enemies are not usually of our conscious decision: they come with the side we choose. If you support football team A, team B is your enemy. You may be called upon to fight some of them later. If there is no obvious reason why we should hate someone else (ie. if we do not know what team he supports), our enemies are surreptitiously imposed on us by government, media and other leaders. We are told who are our enemies ( “we hate”), our friends or allies (“we like”). Enemies are those the elites tell us to dislike, and friends are the ones who agree with us. I will expatiate on the effects of enemies in the next post in this series.

The good news is that, even though collectivism is still strong, the single collective identity is quickly being eroded by multiple identities. In our lifetimes, we have witnessed the rise of online social networks, such as Facebook, Ning, and Google and Yahoo groups. I call this the Identity Revolution. Gone are the days of simple labels. I am whatever group I belong to (and I can belong to dozens of groups), plus everything I disagree with them about, too.

If you think the people you look up to were chosen for you by others, that they were foisted upon you by your history books or the popular media, read more deeply into them. Until then, consider the life changing—and life destroying—effects collective identity could have on you.

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