Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Irrationalities and Contradictions of the Mythic Construct, Individualism [Anthony McCarthy]

Claude Fischer, in today’s paper, does a little looking around that very odd self-attribution common in American life, rugged individualism. It’s long been my experience that the strongest and most aggressive claimants to individualism, are, inevitably, the most conformist of all. In the past, here, we’ve listed jocks, bikers, cowboys, .... macho guys in general, as about the most violently conforming identifiable personas there are. Yet all of these are commonly identified as being “rugged individualists”. Which says more about the phoniness of identities than it does about any people adopting those set models. In his article Fisher says:

American individualism is far more complex than our national myths, or the soap-box rhetoric of right and left, would have it. It is not individualism in the libertarian sense, the idea that the individual comes before any group and that personal freedom comes before any allegiance to authority. Research suggests that Americans do adhere to a particular strain of liberty - one that emerged in the New World - in which freedom to choose your allegiance is tempered by the expectation that you won't stray from the values of the group you choose. In a political climate where "liberty" is frequently wielded as a rhetorical weapon but rarely discussed in a more serious way, grasping the limits of our notion of liberty might guide us to building America's future on a different philosophical foundation.

Which is about the first time I’ve ever seen any kind of official explanation of that obvious phenomenon. You’re allegedly free to choose what rigid role model you adopt but once inside of that role, you’re expected to meet expectations. Though I doubt anyone chooses to be a biker or Rexall ranger without living up to other peoples coercive expectations.

As a New Englander, hearing people from conservative states and areas identifying themselves as rugged individualists has always seemed absurd, but no more absurd than my own state and region also saying the same thing people here. I don’t think that people in Maine are notably less conformist than those in Kentucky, the last state I remember being identified with “rugged individualism” on the radio. I'm certain New Hampshire isn't. There isn’t a state or region that doesn’t claim itself to be the home of “rugged individualism”. It’s an idea that people seem to like to please themselves with. Never mentioned is that the idea of collective individualism, as seen above, being a non sequitur if ever there was one. That the “individuals” so mentioned all seem to conform to a type doesn’t register either.
I don’t think that Americans really tend to think for themselves and act out of principle divorced from social expectation much more than most other people do. The pose of doing so, I think, masks a deeper conformity. For what it’s worth:

But in modern America, when you look at real issues where individual rights conflict with group interests, Americans don't appear to see things this way at all. Over the last few decades, scholars around the world have collaborated to mount surveys of representative samples of people from different countries. The International Social Survey Programme, or ISSP, and the World Value Surveys, or WVS, are probably the longest-running, most reliable such projects. Starting with just a handful of countries, both now pose the same questions to respondents from dozens of nations.

Their findings suggest that in several major areas, Americans are clearly less individualistic than western Europeans. One topic pits individual conscience against the demands of the state. In 2006, the ISSP asked the question "In general, would you say that people should obey the law without exception, or are there exceptional occasions on which people should follow their consciences even if it means breaking the law?" At 45 percent, Americans were the least likely out of nine nationalities to say that people should at least on occasion follow their consciences - far fewer than, for example, the Swedes (70 percent) and the French (78 percent). Similarly, in 2003, Americans turned out to be the most likely to embrace the statement "People should support their country even if the country is in the wrong."

I’ll leave aside any skepticism I’ve got about the whole idea of measuring something like that to go on.

Fisher also points out:

This quality in the American character struck observers from overseas, including Alexis de Tocqueville, who in his 1830s book, "Democracy in America," famously tied the relatively new word "individualism" to what seemed so refreshingly new about the Americans. Popular culture today reinforces this image by making heroes of men (it's almost always men) who put principle above everything else, even if - perhaps especially if - that makes them loners.

He began by mentioning Clint Eastwood, or rather, the various roles Eastwood has played. He’s the rugged individual following only the imperatives of his will, living his life for his own reasons and to his own ends. Then he mentions the public persona of Frank Sinatra But those roles as individualism is a bunch of hooey, it’s all about the set expectations of machismo in the end.

While, sometimes, Eastwood’s characters have a touch of self-sacrifice to them, the good of other people was seldom presented in a way that would escape cynical self-interest. The code that he was presented as following was hardly one of daily self sacrifice for people unconnected with him. Which wouldn’t have made a tidy commercial movie. There was generally, something grudging about any effort made on behalf of other people. And it then had to be de-sissified by a component of violence. Frank Sinatra’s known association with organized crime, not known as a bunch of free spirits, would make him an even odder role model of “rugged individualism”. You go individualist on those guys in an important way, you were likely to find it not too healthy for you.

I’ve run into the imperative to conform to expectations a lot, writing for this blog and commenting at other blogs. People are always complaining that you hold ideas that you shouldn’t based on your identity or, often, the pigeon hole they’ve put you in. Liberals aren’t supposed to vary from the dogma of free speech absolutism, leftists aren’t supposed to believe in the supernatural, neither are those who accept science, etc. etc. etc.

I hope I’ve never adopted an idea or a behavior on any other basis than that it makes sense, that the evidence available and reason leads in that direction. I hope I haven’t. That other people might have the same idea, even people I disagree with about other things, really can’t overrule evidence and reason. Individuals exist in the universe, they don’t escape its requirements and the limits imposed by it.

The important consideration in adopting an idea or a course of action isn’t if it is conformist or not, it’s why you’re doing it and to what end. Our lives are generally dictated by necessities, not elective choices. It isn’t conformist to eat an adequate diet to maintain life. Eating an eccentric diet that causes malnutrition isn’t rugged individualism, it’s irrational. Dressing in ways that will expose you to the cold and wet could kill you even faster – as any worried relative to fashion conforming teenagers will know.

An even more exigent restriction on individual will than that is the demand of morality that my rights don’t override the rights of other people and living beings to their lives and their rights. Rights and the people who hold them aren’t single entities, they exist in tension with others. Ignoring that doesn’t make you more individual, it makes you more of a selfish jerk.

The necessities of living in a society forces a level of conformity. Dirty Harry was a rogue cop, one who managed to keep his job through a couple of sequels, as I recall. He was in the business of enforcing conformity to the law, while breaking it as he saw fit. In at least one of his other movies he enforced frontier law even as he saw it was unjust. Though if I try to parse out all of the conflicting possible analyses of his movies, more so than the writers and directors seemed to, it would take books, not a blog post.

Igor Stravinsky once said that the more restrictive he made the parameters from which he chose to make a composition the freer he was to write the piece. Arnold Schoenberg famously came up with his method which seemed terribly restrictive to many. That both of them wrote some of the most extraordinary music produced since Beethoven while their detractors didn’t, would seem to indicate that they might have been on to something.

The obsession with individualism is understandable, given the consequences of nervous conformity and the irrational and often immoral strictures placed on us by society and government. But, as becomes clear when you think about it, what we call individualism is sometimes an even worse form of conformity. Maybe the entire concept is flawed and we should develop new ways to think about these issues. One that doesn’t present a false dichotomy of the kind that philosophy and formal study create for their convenience which only becomes increasingly removed from reality as they pursue it. If you’ve got to set up a bifurcated system of looking at it, generosity verses selfishness or irrationality verses rationality would be far more useful than individualist verses conformist. Which means little to nothing, when you look at it closely.