What brand of individualism are you wearing? The original noble individualism, the watered down consumer individualism or the new alternative: compassionate individualism?

Posted on February 21 2012 by frank

Modern western societies have been characterized by individualism. It is said that no other time or place has seen such a strong form of cultural individualism than what we are experiencing right now. But what does this individualism mean? And have we actually forsaken the liberating promises that this individualism originally held for us?

Modern individualism started as a battle cry against the constraints of a collectivistic culture where your position and possibilities in life and society were by and large determined by the time you were born. In medieval times you were given a role from the outside and then you were your role: as a farmer, father, woman, citizen and so forth certain behaviors were expected from you. And you didn’t have much saying against this.

As the cities got bigger and new bourgeois class got stronger in the 19th century the possibilities to determine one’s faith in life increased. This development was accompanied by philosophers who preached that man should not take the values of the society for granted but rather oneself craft one’s own values. This noble individualism was preached for example by Ralph Waldo Emerson in America and by Friedrich Nietzsche in Europe. Man has a right to carve his own way of living. And this quest for claiming one’s own life into one’s own hands starts with searching from within the values that one is willing to commit oneself to.

Then something went wrong and this noble individualism was watered down. Some claim that the horrors of First World War are to blame. Too many stubborn gentlemen followed their ‘duty’ to senseless deaths. Others see that nazi propaganda stole the concept and transformed personal moral strength into mass obedience to a sociopath. As Roy Baumeister puts it: “When it comes to bad PR, there’s nothing quite like a personal endorsement from Adolf Hitler.” Still others claim that the new consumer society and advertising industry with the slogan ‘you are what you buy’ transformed inner moral convictions into outer displays of identity.

In any case, what we seem to have now is quite far removed from the noble origins of individualism. The right to define yourself through finding your own values has been transformed into a right to define yourself through wearing certain brands. I have desires and I have a right to fulfill them all. That’s what modern consumer individualism is about. This attitude was displayed most naked in recent riots in London. Instead of demanding some political changes the disillusioned protesters just broke into luxury shops to steal the products they couldn’t afford in normal life. As criminologist and youth culture expert Professor John Pitts commented on Guardian:

“Where we used to be defined by what we did, now we are defined by what we buy … A generation bred on a diet of excessive consumerism and bombarded by advertising had been unleashed.”

So how to fight this watered down version of individualism where the cultural norm seems to be that everyone should maximize their hedonistic pleasures in life? I don’t believe that the noble individualism is an answer. First of all, writers proposing that everyone should create their own values vastly overestimated the capacity of us human beings – including themselves – to transform our basic values just like that. On the other hand, too much nobleness easily leads one to overlook those fellow citizens that are not so noble. A self-proclaimed Übermensch can have a hard time tolerating that he or she has to spend time with us normal human beings.

What I propose instead is what could be called compassionate individualism. This brand of individualism puts less emphasis on what one looks like and more on what one really feels like. We all have the capacity to be compassionate and care for others. It is just often hidden beneath the cultural propaganda that shouts at us that we should only care about our own happiness. Compassionate individualism is about being able to ignore these messages and listen instead to oneself and what one’s own heart has to say. And this listening leads most of us to find more capacity for compassion than what we were mislead to believe by our dominating culture.

This explains the paradox revealed by research done in US that found that “people who were the most individualistic were also the most likely to value doing things to help others.” People who were most individualistic were least influenced by the cultural propaganda and most able to follow their own way of living. As they followed their own path, they found that within them there was a heart that cared about others. And this lead them to live a life in which they put more emphasis into helping others than the weaker individuals around them.

Consumer individualism is reactive individualism. It is a feeble attempt to be individual by consuming the products that marketers say will make us individuals. Compassionate individualism is active individualism. In it the person truly listens to oneself to find from within the values one wants to follow in one’s life. The question is, what path do you want to follow?

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