Thinking About: Individuality
Our culture idolises the individual in books, movies and music. The hero, alone, different, superior, triumphs over the mass, the mob, the group every time. He (or more rarely she) is iconic and held up to be praised and emulated. The heroic individual (who is, rather ironically, usually an outcast in one way of another) is the one who produces the answer to whatever challenge is presented to us, be it a monster, a disaster, an invading force, the workings of twisted politicians or just the run-of-the-mill evil bad guy. It is the individual, initially dismissed as a crank or worse, who follows their own individual instincts (after being warned not to or simply being laughed at and ignored from then on) who puzzles things out, builds the outlandish weapon, tracks the creature to its lair or discovers the alien/creatures hidden weakness (which is often pretty mundane) and saves the day against all expectation and prediction. Initially feted for doing so they are often then ignored or shunned again because they are simply too different or, at least sometimes, welcomed into the fold – thereby implicitly losing their individuality at that point – once things have become normal again.
Of course that’s one of the great ambiguities of the hero – both idolised and isolated, or accepted and, by extension, destroyed. Yet we are expected not only to look up to the hero of the piece but also to emulate them. We are told, both explicitly and implicitly, that it is the individual that saves the day whilst the group flounders in argument, confusion and in-fighting. Working alone, to their own agenda, the individual is free of all of this. The hero’s doubts are their own and are not compounded by the doubts and failings of others. Flawed, they are still free to act in ways that the group, the herd, the mass cannot or will not. This is their strength and why they are heroes in the first place. They can act, decisively, to end whatever crisis is in front of them.
Meanwhile, in the real world, things are not exactly so clear cut. Despite individualism being apparently so highly valued at a cultural level it is usually viewed as at the very least odd and at the extreme seen at best as challenging or even dangerous. People who flaunt their individuality are, more often than not, outcasts. They, quite obviously, don’t fit in. They’re not ‘team players’, they’re not ‘with the programme’, they’re disruptive, asking difficult questions, challenging decisions, even shockingly, undemocratic. Generally such people are laughed at (or at least sniggered at behind their backs – if not to their faces), talked about in derogatory fashion, wondered about, pointed at, questioned, ignored, marginalised, discriminated against and, from time to time, hounded, expelled, exiled or, given the right set of historical circumstances, eliminated.
As you can imagine this is all rather confusing. How can individuals be both lionised and feared, extoled and exterminated? Is it that our culture, for thousands of years, has a deeply dualistic nature? That we want people to be individuals but only within the safety of groups? Are only culturally approved versions of the individual allowed and anyone who steps outside of those bounds to be punished for being just too individualistic? It would seem to be that way. Unless it’s designed to be this confusing. Are we being encouraged to be ourselves only so that we can be punished for it? It that the real reason behind the deep gulf behind culture and reality? Are individuals so dangerous to society that they must be controlled through this kind of social-cultural double think – be an individual but don’t express it too much? Being careful not to cross the line – which you aren’t told about until you cross it – whilst being encouraged to do just that? Is our cultures portrayal of the individual just yet another means of control? Is it worth the effort being a wolf when you can lose yourself in the herd of compliant, peaceful, seemingly happy sheep?