America’s Individualism Fetish Will Be the Death of Us
For a country that was taught “united we stand, divided we fall” we sure are falling fast.
There is no denying that the symbolic idea of individualism is one of the pillars upon which the United States of America was founded. The citizens of this newly minted country embraced the values of independence and sovereignty that were wrested from the “Old World” in the late eighteenth century.
But the blind adherence to these values slowly created a dichotomy that continues to characterize this country today — individualism versus collective good. Somehow we’ve reached a state of being as a society where the two cannot coexist — where wearing masks during a pandemic to help protect our fellow people have become an “infringement” of our liberties, and where social safety nets have been dismantled year after year because people just need to figure it out by themselves.
Now, I don’t mean to say that a strict adherence to the collective good is what this country needs. I don’t deal in absolutes. The freedom that comes with individualism and the cooperation that comes with collective good can exist together in one system — but the system must be able to think critically and determine when is the time for which.
Unfortunately for this country, critical thinking is a skill that’s been phased out of the education system throughout past decades and it certainly shows in the adult populace. We are a people who are taught what to think, not how to think. We’re encouraged to form opinions quickly, or better yet, adopt the ones you see on TV. Choose a side to root for, they told us, because every day that passes in which you fail to choose, the other team wins.
There’s no question that the rise in neoliberalism was the seed that was planted that then sprouted into the malformation that is America’s values. Neoliberalism cherishes, above all else, the belief that competition should be the defining quality of our society — that competition should be the most important principle in defining our relationships to each other as human beings. For every person that wins, someone must lose. And while this sense of competition may have produced some of the greatest titans of industry the world has seen, it’s also done us grave harm. Once everything became a competition, we had no choice but to become individualistic in our pursuit to survive in a society where you knew no one else would look out for your self interest.
And make no mistake, Americans are suffering for it. COVID-19 is not the only pandemic ravaging this country, so is loneliness. 47% of American adults say that they are affected by unhealthy feelings loneliness which is double the rate it was a few decades ago. Greed and envy are quite often the feelings that form the foundation upon which our loneliness is built — feelings that are natural conclusions of a neoliberal system where we’re constantly pitted against one another, each person fighting for a seat at the table.
We were fed the idea that becoming a self made man standing alone and obligated to no one was the ultimate form of success and we eagerly devoured it because in theory, that kind of freedom sounds excellent. In practice, well — all I can do is gesture vaguely at the general state of society and I don’t think I have to say much else.
What has become of America now is the result of a society that constantly told its individualistic inhabitants that the right to have and preach their own opinions and beliefs mattered more than any objective truth. America is the land where you’re offered a number dissenting news outlets to choose from so you can have a constant stream of validation that encourages you to live an increasingly insular life.
We as a people are so fragmented now. Organizing in a socially cohesive unit to demand our human rights to health care or other components of a dignified life is nigh impossible because a faction of our country views basic human rights as the antithesis of individualism. What started off as a healthy thirst for freedom has turned into empty platitudes that people believe are worth suffering or inflicting suffering to other people for.
Yes, we have the freedom to do as we wish, but our practice of freedom has mostly mutated into the “freedom” to suffer and die in cruel ways that most other developed countries have realized are not freedoms at all.
For a country that always urged the idea of “united we stand, divided we fall” it’s kind of mind blowing to see where we have ended up. I do realize that the phrase was used mostly to unite our country in times of great upheaval, such as in the eighteenth century when our existence as a nation was tenuous, or more recently in the previous century when World War II ravaged the globe. I thought the novel coronavirus pandemic would be the kind of upheaval that could unite us again, for the virus knew no race, gender, social class, etc. but I was proven gravely wrong.
It feels like we as a country are at a fork in the road. I believe the way this country conducts itself in the next few decades will thrust us down the road of our choosing with no way back, and our conduct will have ultimately greater implications regarding our very survival as a species. The greatest existential challenges that we will be faced with in the future will require that we put aside our blind devotion to individualism, just as we were required to when faced with challenges in the past. But I guess we’ll wait and see if Americans are able to muster the effort to do that when the time comes.