The god of Individualism

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. … 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?

15 thoughts on “The god of Individualism”

  1. We had to watch it for class examining different ways religious groups attempt to use science. There is so much dirt on that movie, it’s like they were deliberately inviting ridicule. Nevermind the pseudoscience. Dig into the profiles of the ‘experts’ (which they buried in the closing credits!)

    Besides, happy thoughts can solve your poor self-image, relationship problems, and make it so you can throw away your prescriptions meds. Ramtha says quantum mechanics says so. My problem is I’m just in the ‘wrong paradigm.’

    To distract from your thesis:
    Ramtha School of Enlightenment
    What the Bleep do We Know!? (Full movie on google video)
    JZ Knight/Ramtha interview (google video, unsympathetic, but it’s still scary how she/he/it? echoes a certain character in Gen 3)
    What the Bleep are they on about?
    Bleep of faith

  2. It’s a valid critique, IMHO. And the seeds were planted with Descarte’s cogito, ergo cum; I think, therefore, I am. Though I seriously doubt he understood its full import, his philosophical starting point placed the individual at the center of everything.

    Never underestimate the power of the words coming out of a philosopher’s (or anyone’s) mouth. Makes me scared (not comparing myself to Descarte, here, at all!) to say anything.

  3. I have no idea how to determine where this aspect of our culture came from. That’s certainly part of it, but I imagine there are many contributing factors. Nisbett (the “Geography of Thought” guy) I think would attribute it in large part to the basic worldview orientation we inherited from the Greeks. In perceiving our world we emphasize discrete objects defined by their inherent characteristics, whereas the ancient East Asian orientation emphasized the context of relationships (environment) in which objects are located and by which objects are defined. We look to internal innate characteristics of an object to understand; a more typically East Asian orientation tries to see all the relationships an object has in its environment in order to understand that thing. Both worldview orientations see people accordingly.

  4. A slight correction in my quote: cogito, ergo sum. I must have been tired! And I think Descarte was simply following the logical progression in a path set by ancient Greek thought.

    Funny thing is, the inherent characteristics of any one object are altered by any other object around it. Physicists are discovering they have no hope of stepping outside the experiment to observe physical phenomena. Their very presence affects to some extent the outcome of the experiment and the behavior of the physical phenomena. No matter how far away they get. Hmmmmmm.

  5. You know, we just watched a movie called What the Bleep Do We Know!? where a bunch of New Age kooks Ramtha, the 50,000-year-old warrior from a town next to the lost city of Atlantis, and his willing (I think) followers took that observation and ran ALL over the place with it.

    Though I agree with what you’re saying. One thing that is really interesting for me is reading Westerners’ takes on Eastern culture and then Easterners’ takes on Western culture. In one book I’m reading right now a Chinese intellectual is critiquing Chinese face practices from a social constructionist perspective, and is proposing ways of instigating change in Chinese face practices that would lead to increased “individuality, equality, freedom, and diversity.” He explicitly doesn’t want to adopt Western values uncritically or completely jettison face practices, but he’s not afraid to do what we’re doing either: critique aspects of our own cultural heritage while favourably viewing aspects of another. Not that I think that’s bad, or see any indication that we’re going too far with it. It’s just interesting to read people from the ‘other side’ doing the same thing.

  6. you guys watched what the bleep do we know?!! did you catch at the end that the blonde lady was “channeling” a spirit during all of her interview? freaky!!1

  7. Hey Joel,
    Always an interesting read when I get caught up on your lives through your blog. Plus I need friends like you that are introducing me to resources like this and conversations that keep me thinking. Unfortunately my wok here does not afford me time to read too much like my profs said we should take time to do. I checked out the link to this movie. Definitely looks interesting. I will try and watch it when I have 2 hours open. Time seems to fly even more with a baby. But its all good.
    Only a couple of papers left. Hang in there.
    TTYL, Travis

  8. Travis – don’t bother with the movie. It’s a gong show. And the bits of science they don’t misrepresent they get the details wrong. However, if you want to watch online movies, google video has the 1994 Stanley Cup finals Game 7 in its entirety – if you’re in the mood for a tragedy.

    Kelly – there’s no end to the mountain of dirt on that movie or the people involved. Have you checked into their theologian?

  9. And the whole “Jesus had a twin brother” thing didn’t score him many points either, in the academy or the church.

    hmmm… (thinking of how to tie this back to individualism).

    Usually people cite the Eastern (Hindu) influences in the whole Ramtha/New Age-y/”You, the Observer, can create your own reality; you are a god” thing. Sure that’s a big part of it. But does this also connect to Western values? If so, how and where?

  10. Try democratic capitalism: you the individual have all the rights, options, and resources you need to create whatever future you want: the American Dream, anyone can be a millionaire if they work hard enough at it, Harry Truman became president with only a high school education, a certain famous multilevel marketing organization (which will go nameless), etc. The cheaper side (like Rev. Ike), and PsychoCybernetics, and a lot of business/management rhetoric sound kinda godlike to me … imagine the future, create it. Not only can we predict the future (based on the present, of course) — we can create it by anticipating it and shaping it the way we want it. The only limitations are our imaginations and our will to work at it. While denying the supernatural outside of our perceptions, we re-define it and affirm it within us.

    The limited truth of some of these assertions, alas, is clouded quite severely by the addiction to slogans and rhetoric, which drastically truncates one’s perceptions. But that’s for another complaint, right? ;-) That’s Eastern, too, isn’t it?

    The whole “empowerment” motif of much of social/political activism here in the Great White North (for oppressed women & minorities, especially) has on its very positive side the same emphasis on taking responsibility for your own life in terms of getting a job, making decisions for yourself and sticking with them, etc. But it also creates a sense of entitlement and a set of unrealistic expectations of “what one’s natural, innate goodness should be able to accomplish in a world full of other naturally innately good people.” We should be able to create our own futures, we’re entitled to do it, woe to anyone or any institution that stands in the way. It’s mostly an extension of the human-potential pop-psych stuff from the 1960-70’s, I think … Much of the “tolerance” ethos here is supposed to create this utopian environment where we can all pursue our individual empowerments without interference from pesky social moralists. Again, the worthwhile and liberating morsel of truth here becomes swamped in all the agendae of our would-be power people — quite ironic.

    So I suppose the parallels with Eastern god-ism are more subtle, but ultimately, perhaps not that much different? Just more activist … Every bit as manipulated, of course.

    BTW, Calvin Coolidge, the US President during the Roaring 20’s, used to use religious metaphors to describe the US economy and its components — factories are temples, etc. I doubt that he intended an Eastern attitude, but it was a curious phenomenon, nonetheless, and a picture that perhaps spoke more than he expected.

    The “Word of Faith” mentality, in its more extreme forms especially, comes out of Theosophy and New Thought of the 1880’s – 1930’s, the same well that produced Christian Science — mediated through Hagin & Copeland and others. This thinking roots our empowerment to create, curse, heal, speak “words,” etc. in our location of identity and shared authority as children of God — but its roots go back to E.W. Kenyon and others, who held a virtually pantheistic worldview, as far as I can tell.

    Oh, and by the way … eventually the the good guys always win. And of course, we’re global democratic capitalist good guys, which gives us superiour virtue and the right to expect victory. So it’s inevitable that we’re going to take over and bring the light of our ways to the darkened world. But that’s very Western, isn’t it! But then, the RSS in Hinduism says much the same thing … hmmmmmm …

    Sorry it’s so long …

  11. I guess there are different ways to epitomize Western individualism, and even though the Ramtha crowd may be on the fringes of the fringe (or maybe it’s the cutting edge ;)), I think her/his/its statements – that there is no God or right and wrong and we are all gods who, as individuals, can literally discover the power within to create our own realities through obsessing over our selves and pursuing self awareness – are anecdotes that can apply to our mainstream individualistic values, at least figuratively.

    Holy cow, what a horrible sentence.

    I mean that even if we remove the Ramtha part and the pseudo-science, Western culture perpetuates a degree of individualism that, in its extreme form, preaches essentially the same message: ‘me first’; ‘look out for #1’; the individual is a god; all other concerns must bow down to the individual.

    I don’t want to make it sound like I think all individualism is bad. There are Chinese academics we’re reading who make a strong case that Chinese culture needs a higher degree of individualism, and many of our Chinese friends have expressed frustration at the lack of it. Collectivism (or whatever the term is for what they’re oriented to over here) has no shortage of abuses. But we have a ways to go before we’ve earned the right offer our own informed critique of someone else’s culture. Criticizing our own culture is another matte :).

  12. Wow…you guys are getting deep. I thought I would just look at panda and Steve Martin videos and here I am caught up in a discussion of cultural differences. It’s a great discussion, though. Wish I had more time before I go to bed to talk about it. Maybe some other time!

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