Individualism: the Reappearing Ideal, part 6: Becoming an individual

“The function of wisdom is to discriminate between good and evil.” – Cicero

Years ago, Gary Larson, creator of the Far Side comic strip, made a cartoon in which he presented a pair of gorillas in a tree. The wife gorilla picks a hair off her husband and says “Well, well – another blonde hair… Conducting a little more ‘research’ with that Jane Gooddall tramp?”

Many laughed. The Jane Goodall Institute, however, had a fit. They sent Mr Larson a furious letter full of words like “inexcusable”, “incredibly offensive” and “absolutely stupid”. Had they considered consulting with Dr Goodall on the cartoon, they might have found out that she loved it. Try not to feel sorry on behalf of others you do not understand.

As I said in part 5 of this series, I feel sorry for those who are too weak to shed their groups. Individualist thinking means no longer feeling loyalty or duty toward or pride in any groups or any of their accomplishments, and instead choosing your affliations and being proud only of your own accomplishments.

The biggest shift in thinking from collectivism to individualism for most people is treating people as individuals and not as groups. The first thing I want to say sounds simple but it is a big shift. Do not respect, fear, like, hate, take offense on behalf of, stick up for or feel sorry for groups, or for people because of the group they belong to. Feeling sorry for slaves, the mentally ill, disaster victims and so on is not about the suffering of a group like a nation or race: we feel this way because we feel for all of the individuals that possess that quality, and we have put them into a group for convenience. But ill defined groups like nations, religions, races and linguistic groups must be recognised as groups of diverse individuals or we will misunderstand them. That goes for your groups too.

Choosing your groups

Too many of us, when we look at people, see only their groups. It happens more so in a crisis of confidence. Most Americans now look at the Middle East as one big group of Arabs, and ask Arabs (even Arab Americans, born and raised in the US), why do you force women to cover their faces? Why did you blow up the twin towers? and so on. In a video on Youtube, some Arab Americans talked about these questions and said they would prefer to hear questions like, you’re Arab? Thank you for inventing beer and algebra, belly dancing and coffee. Cute idea, funny and a good watch. And a little “solidarity” in the face of hostility is understandable. But they are fighting fire with fire, instead of water. The root of racism is collective thinking. Saying “you/we invented coffee” is wrong. YOU invented nothing. People slightly more closely related to you than me invented coffee.

Try not to be too quick to dismiss things. Educated people can be a skeptical lot, and that is fine; but too often people will mistrust a big group of people. Countless people outside the West (and even within it) will reject things as “western”, sometimes because it is assumed that westerners are ethnocentric imperialists; sometimes simply by adding the word “western” to a word like science, philosophy, clothing, food, medicine, culture, countries and people, thereby implying they are somehow inferior to the speaker’s. [link to the west] I have even heard an Iranian say that she objected to the term “the Muslim World” because of the way “Westerners” use it.

We let our collectivism get in the way of our better judgment. According to politicians sitting atop third world states, everything they do not like is “western” and “western government intervention”. (Everything politicians do not like in the rich world is the fault of China or immigrants.) A European leader criticises and African dictator of wrongdoing and he is accused of colonialism. An American investor demands that a country clean up its cronyism before he invests and he is told “your cultural values don’t fit with ours.” And the people let nationalism get in the way of logic, so they fall for it.

Choosing your family?

Even your family is a collective. Surely we cannot choose our family? And surely it is natural for one to be loyal to one’s family over others? To the latter statement, I say yes: there is evidence that we are more loyal and self sacrificing to people whose genes are more similar to ours. But biology is not destiny. To the former statement, I would argue that, actually, we can choose our family.

I once heard the idea expressed that, since we can choose whom we love, since we can choose whom we spend time with, since we can feel loyalty to anyone under the right conditions and discard it under others, we can actually choose our family. Many people go as far as to throw off their family because of a falling out. As an individualist, this is something I thought carefully about. I came to the conclusion that I do love my family, as a group and as individuals, and I would not change them for anyone else. But my loyalty or duty to them is not unconditional. They cannot do no wrong. For instance, if my father beat up my mother, I would not forgive him for it. If my brother killed my wife, I would turn him in to the police. I am not suggesting we smash the family. I am saying that, just like all groups, the constituents of your family are all fallible, and I do not see a reason to be forever bound to them.

Competing identities

Thanks to globalisation, immigration, travel and the internet, we now no longer live in a world of simple identities. The identity revolution has started by giving many of us competing identities. The next time you are on Facebook, join a new group and contribute to its forums. Joining multiple groups waters down each of the previous ones so that you are just as loyal to your country or religion as you are to Prison Break. And joining a group called “it’s cool to be Asian” is not a move toward collectivism, it is just fun.

As I argued earlier, we should be expanding our circles to concern ourselves not only with people in our groups but all people. Why do you feel sorry for some people who had an accident and not others? Because they were closer to you when they died? The logical extension of the expanded circle is to see yourself as part of a human race, or even an animal kingdom, that

You might do this already, but if not, try to make a habit of treating people as an end in themselves. It means considering others’ feelings, making them feel different, treating them as they want to be treated. (That, in fact, should be the golden rule: treat me as I want to be treated.) I have noticed that people, in collective or individual cultures, like to be treated as individuals. And everyone becomes an individualist when their life is the one chosen for sacrifice.

It is likely that humans have a deep desire for dignity, recognition, praise and accomplishment. The only true achievement, however, is what we do ourselves; and the only justifiable reason for a sense of achievement is when you, yourself have done something. If someone from the country you live in or were born in scores a goal, you personally have achieved nothing. It makes no sense to say “we scored” because “we” implies you were somehow involved in making it happen. And if you think otherwise, go to the stadium and insist that you be paid for the goal “we” scored.


In the end, since it would be considered illegal or immoral to send others to die in war, elites who today would instigate war would instead need to resort to duels or fistfights. “The right to the undersea oil fields of the South China Sea will be determined by a twelve round fight between the president of China and his deputy in the red corner, and the president of Vietnam and his deputy in the blue corner.”

As I said in the introduction to this series, we are in an age characterised by a gradual turn toward individualism. In the future, perhaps, we will be free of our dangerous loyalties. This is the day I look forward to. It is the day we realise that our associations are not bigger than ourselves. It is the day we come to see ourselves as members of multiple groups and not beholden to any of them. It is the day we question all our loyalties, all our leaders and all our history books. It is the day we will truly be free.

Individualism: the Reappearing Ideal, part 5: Rights

From the equality of rights springs identity of our highest interests; you cannot subvert your neighbor’s rights without striking a dangerous blow at your own.” – Carl Schurz

Rights, human

Human rights are only rights if they cannot be taken away. Some people have no rights. They live in societies where elites have summoned collectivism to relieve these poor people of the only thing they should have been born with. And sometimes governments will simply take away rights and become more popular as a result. The internment of Japanese Americans and Canadians during World War Two is a prime example. The Japanese are the enemy, these people are Japanese, so just in case, we will lock them up. Though they were citizens, they lost their rights to racism.

The individualist society would not have this problem. There would be an equality of rights, because no groups, no leaders would deserve more or less rights. There would be no justification for a Patriot Act or a Federal Communications Commission, or the Canadian Human Rights Commissions boondoggle, a group whose job seems to be to lock people up who hurt minorities’ feelings. And the only reason that not everyone disagrees with taking others’ rights away is they see it as good for the collective. It is not. As Martin Luther King, Jr, said, an attack on justice anywhere is an attack on justice everywhere. If one person’s rights are in jeopardy, yours could be next.

Rights, collective

Rights, in case I forgot to mention, are the province of individuals. During the 2009 war in Gaza (and for the past half century) one often heard that “Israel has the right to defend itself,” as if it were a beehive. But Israel is not a beehive, nor is it a person. It is a jagged piece of beachfront property with a lot of angry people in it. Does Los Angeles have the right to defend itself? I rest my case. (Indeed, the apologists of the Zionist cause bring much of the criticism they receive on themselves through their pig headed collectivist actions and rhetoric. That said, in another case of treating members of a group all the same, during the same war in Gaza, there was an outbreak of anti semitism in Europe. Of what the small Jewish minority in Europe had to do with the war in Gaza I am not aware.)

The reason we can talk of “Israel” at all is that we have invented entities that governments or militias or what have you are protecting at the expense of individual rights. Israel is a nation state; it has an official religion and a culture and a territory. All of those things, nation state, religion, culture and territory have their own rights, rights that will be protected before any human being’s rights are. It comes out in just about every country, every day. Politicians try to appeal endlessly to “national interest”, which is just as bad as appealing to self interest. It accustoms people to ask, what is in it for me? for every policy. What of policies that benefit all humans? asks the individualist.

But of course collectivists will not be satisfied with this argument. All right, let’s say that you believe your culture is at risk from another, more imposing culture. Here is the thing about cultures. If they are worth doing, they will be done. If others find value in adopting cultural practices, they will. If they find good reasons to keep their old ones, they will. Culture is collective action by individual choice. An individual should never be forced to continue traditions, or even shamed into doing so by the collectivists around them. In sum, groups do not need rights because if anyone wants to join, they will join. If people want to leave, they should have that choice. Rights are there to protect us not just from other people but from our group.

Collectivists delude themselves when they say that some entity like society, a nation, a culture or a religion should have rights, and especially so when they say those rights trump individual rights. Governments rule according to what is right for society. Is society not made up of people? Different people? Some people want A, others want B; some people want +C and others want –C, which contradicts +C. There is no way leaders could do what everyone in a given group wants, so politicians say they do everything “society” wants instead. Yes, we are trampling all over your rights but we have to protect society!

It similar thinking that has brought us the idea that society is to blame for someone’s crime. It was not Jones that killed Smith, even though Jones pulled the trigger, but society. Since society is made up of people, and we could not possibly blame Jones, it follows that Smith’s death was the fault of everyone EXCEPT Jones.

Crimes, collective

Whatever happened to individual responsibility? Because of our penchant toward collectivism, we tend to make laws that take responsibility away from the actual perpetrators of acts. Hate speech, for instance, should not be a crime. One could easily argue it is immoral, just like some argue that homosexuality is immoral, but immoral and illegal should be separate. If I stand on the corner (or on my own blog) shouting that we should behead Ann Coulter, most people would shout encouragement but very few would actually act on it. Most people can reason that, just because I am angry about something, it does not mean they should form a lynch mob.

But let us pretend that they did. A mob runs to Ann Coulter’s house and cuts her head off. Millions cheer. The sentencing judge’s questioning should not be “who riled them up?” but “who wielded the axe?” There is only one killer here. Blaming the rabble rouser diverts responsibility away from the rational individual. This is the problem with collectivising the crowd as “the public”, or some other amorphous entity and considering that it is just the puppet of a criminal.

But what about the leaders? Surely, many people with titles like “president”, “general”, “pope” and “ayatollah” are the ones providing collective ideologies with killer motives. There is a big difference between an article in Newsweek saying that Ann Coulter should die and a political or religious leader issuing text books and forcing everyone to read, from a young age, who our enemies are and why we would kill them if they made a foot wrong against us. Our history books shape our culture. The article in Newsweek gives you the chance to think for yourself, and even encourages it: it must appeal to you to make you act. The text books assault you before you have developed the capacity for logic, when you are truly defenseless against unreason.

Of course there should still be prisons: if you violate the rights of an individual, you go to jail. We already have a reasonably individualist justice system. And yet, there are still crimes for offending entire groups of people. If you say something bad about a religion, or the government in some places, you go to jail. Only an insecure group, one that knows it is on shaky ground, would lock up someone who insulted it. My suggestion is, if you are the representative of a group like the government and someone insults you personally, call them out. Be a man: have a fistfight, work it out, and perhaps you will show your offender your point of view.

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