04 September 2006

The myth of individualism

The Archbishop of Westminster (the head of the Catholic Church in England) gave a lecture last week in which he argued that the contemporary, postmodern world is characterised by "individualism" and by "scrutiny and suspicion" of authority.

"Individualism threatens social cohesion, the family and the community. And ultimately it threatens one of the most vital and, perhaps, fragile support systems that human beings have ever devised: the community. Our sense of communion, of community, is the most fundamental part of our being human. Sartre, who wrote 'Hell is other people', was fundamentally wrong. To be human means to be in relationship with others and so the concentration on the individual in contemporary society has brought in its wake greater personal isolation and loneliness. One need only look at the high incidence of suicide among young men."
The Archbishop essentially trotted out the old chestnut (which everyone now seems to accept as dogma) about living in an increasingly “individualistic” and “critical” age. This is only true if you redefine those terms.

“Individualism” used to mean self-reliance and respect for the individual, now it is used to refer to rudeness, and spending power for the masses. People being able to express themselves in terms of clothes and hairstyles, in a culture which regards it as "fun" to humiliate and degrade others, is not individualism.

The supposed questioning and scrutiny of the postmodern world is largely confined to things which are pro-individual, e.g. capitalism. And a citizenship which accepts that nanny state interventions are (a) ethical, and (b) likely to work, can hardly be described as “critical”.

A spirit of community thrives, not as a result of telling people to be less individualistic, but by encouraging them to respect other individuals.

As for more young men committing suicide, how absurd to blame excessive respect for the individual. If one is going to start theorising, one might just as easily link this phenomenon to any of the following factors:
- an egalitarian, politically correct society which frowns on ambition and idealism, making people (especially young males) feel hopeless about being able to use their drives in socially acceptable ways
- the ideological attack on personality traits regarded as 'masculine'
- the increasing aggressiveness of dating and of sex relationships
- a culture of bullying, descended from the ethic that anyone with pretensions to superiority should be cut down to size.