Just how individualistic is America? Or, how might American individualism appear to someone from a non-Western society? Kishore Mahbubani‘s critique of what he calls one of our cultural “sacred cows” is one example of how our values and the societies they’ve spawned might look to people who did not grow up with those same values. From Can Asians Think? Understanding the Divide Between East and West:
…freedom does not only solve problems; it can also cause them. The United States has undertaken a massive social experiment, tearing down institution after social institution that restrained the individual. The results have been disastrous. Since 1960 the U.S. population has increased 41 percent while violent crime has risen 560 percent, single-mother births by 419 percent, divorce rates by 300 percent, and children living in single-parent homes by 300 percent. This is massive social decay. … But instead of traveling overseas with humility, Americans confidently preach the virtues of unfettered individual freedom, blithely ignoring the visible social consequences. â€¦ the West’s relative decline is being brought about by its own hand (97-98).
Coming from a society and culture which does not value individualism in the ways that we do, Mahbubani sees a connection between our social decay, which in his mind entails legitimate human rights concerns, and our obsession with giving freedom to the individual.
I think he’s describing the picture of what happens when each person worships him or herself and thus collectively support ideology and legislation that promote and facilitate the pursuit of self-worship. We each want to be on the throne of the universe, or at least our own individual little universes; we can’t tolerate the idea that anyone or any thing superior to us would be over us. Just in case you were wondering. ;)
I don’t look back to an idealized past; I would not want to return to the world that produced Leave It To Beaver. But regardless of how accurate or not we may think Mahbubani’s particulars are, I think it’s worth it to reconsider our assumption that human society is best when individuals are afforded such an extreme degree of freedom. The private choices of individuals have public consequences; isn’t there some sort of responsibility factor in there somewhere?