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.

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