‘Individualism’ comes in more than one flavor; all are needed

Published 11:13 am Wednesday, June 27, 2018


Contributing columnist

Individualism is as American as motherhood and apple pie. We are proud of it. Its benefits include freedom, creativity and entrepreneurship. However, individualism comes in several kinds, and there are warnings to consider.  

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From its beginnings, our history manifests several individualisms. Sociologist of religion Robert Bellah and his four co-authors did a valuable job of delineating these in “Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life” (1985). They describe four individualisms — all of them woven into the national character. At best, they coexist and balance each other. At worst, though, some of them consign others to decline, when all are crucial for a democracy.  

The four are utilitarian individualism (as in Benjamin Franklin), expressive individualism (Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman), biblical individualism (John Winthrop), and civic   individualism (Thomas Jefferson). The lament of the book is that the first two have pushed the other two onto the endangered list with dire consequences for the health of our democracy

Utilitarian and expressive individualisms undermine the importance of community membership and civic virtue (zeal for the public good). They risk reducing the individual to an isolated, autonomous self, driven only by self-interest.

A utilitarian individualist believes that the greatest good for the greatest number will result if we simply let everyone pursue financial success in an unregulated market. No one should be able to take from me what I have gained legally to better others in the name of someone’s version of the common good. In today’s conversation, we may call this stance libertarian individualism in the tradition of Ayn Rand.

Expressive individualism is expressed in the “Me Generation” label. An expressive individualist avoids any relationship or association that does not pay off emotionally or otherwise. Become or stay connected to a location, a friendship, a marriage, a job, a religious community, a political party or any other institution or organization only until you stop getting more out of it than you are putting  into it. Civic identification and participation are electives to be discarded at will.

One current version of this viewpoint has been called “flea market individualism.” To the neglect of important societal institutions, it espouses patriotism without government, religion without church or other community membership, and capitalism without corporate affiliation.

Biblical individualism and civic individualism see the individual finding his or her identity in community. We are connected before we are independent. In Israelite religion, every community member had a covenant with every other member. In Thomas Jefferson’s vision of civic or republican virtue, the healthy larger republic would be divided into “small republics,” in which every citizen would become “an acting member of the Common government.” The republic was in trouble if the people forgot themselves “in the sole faculty of making money.”

“Love your neighbor as yourself, and your country more than yourself” was his injunction.

When we sort individualisms in this way, we can be grateful for individualisms that protect individual rights against tyranny and discrimination and encourage individual creativity and independence. We can also be critical of individualism that undermines commitments of community membership and neglects civic virtue.

If extreme individualisms of the sort cited are one hazard to the common good or the general welfare, tribalism is a form of affiliation that harms conversation about the common good and pursuit of it from the other direction. Identity politics is the label currently attached to those standpoints that are completely defined by one’s race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, class, family, religion or other tribal connection.

The cross purposes that these several identities can often manifest can make common concern about a larger, more encompassing common good seem futile and hopeless.

Into this mix comes Tim Wise and his espousal of “illuminated individualism.” In “Colorblind,” he emphasizes that we as individuals are combinations of several identities that shape our civic participation and could separate us into enclaves of tribal interest. For example, one person could be a woman, an African-American, and a Muslim.

We need to recognize in ourselves and others such distinguishing combinations that belie the narrowness of singular social locations. Our individuality can be a reflection of plural identities. And we might add that our protection against fanaticism can be our appropriation of influences from more than one community membership both in our personal identities and in our social interactions.

Such illuminated individualism can foster fruitful conversations about the common good. Individualism is not one thing, and it is not the only thing.  Handle it with care.

Eric Mount is the Nelson D. and Mary McDowell Rodes Professor Emeritus of Religion at Centre College.