On Individualism

I would like to repeat these words by Martin Duberman, who I really do not think wrote them to defend a false universalism:

For women, the common enemy remains the patriarchy. For blacks and Latinos, it is still white racism. For gay people, heterosexual oppression. None of these movements function effectively when the focus is on catering to the diverse needs of those enlisted in the ranks; the diversity can be acknowledged and supported, but a shared purpose must, for maximum effectiveness, remain the point of concentration. The common assumption that political action should be based on a fully shared–even identical–set of values and perspectives among those committed to a cause isn’t a good operational guide for effective organizing.

Within a given movement, differences are bound to exist among the rank and file in regard to class, race, gender, age, geographical location, religious belief and so on. But when those differences become the prime focus of attention, the energy that should be saved for working against a common oppressor gets diverted and sapped. To form powerful, effective political organizations, individuals cannot be allowed to let the differences that separate them usurp the agenda. One central reason movements for social reform in this country have rapidly run aground is our commitment to the ideological belief (not the practice) of the supreme importance of the individual.

It is also time, once again, to refer to the Angry Black Woman’s series of posts, “Things You Need to Understand” (on privilege). On individualism, she quotes from Alas:

The more privileged you are, the easier it is to envision human beings as pure individuals, unconnected to other individuals in any way that matters.

It sometimes puzzles conservatives that progressives are so concerned with what people think. What is racism, sexism, homophobia, etc, after all, other than a way some people think about some other people? And as long as I’m free to pursue my own self-interest, what does it matter what others think of me?

For someone with a lot of privilege, the rational answer is, “it doesn’t matter at all.” The more privileged you are, the less other people’s thoughts count. You go into a store, and you buy what you want, or you don’t buy. You don’t have to worry about what the store clerks think of you – what could matter less?

Axé.


4 thoughts on “On Individualism

  1. i agree. there is too much emphasis on the individual. its very american, from what i can tell. i certainly grew up learning that. i’ve had to come around to seriously questioning it. and i have left some of that behind.

    and yet, on the latter quote from Alas, i would have to say that in my experience, sometimes not opening up your feelings to what others think is not privilege, but protection from undue and undeserved attack. i’m sure there have been many people who were actually suffering from others’ feelings and behaviors based on privilege who could not afford to walk around caring what everyone thought of them after a point, que no?

  2. Yes, it’s American! And I definitely agree that “not opening up your feelings to what others think is not privilege, but protection from undue and undeserved attack.”

    “i’m sure there have been many people who were actually suffering from others’ feelings and behaviors based on privilege who could not afford to walk around caring what everyone thought of them after a point, que no?”

    Agreed, also. I think maybe Alas’ comment means, to not actually BE affected is a privilege of the privileged (so to speak ;-)).

  3. Alexis de Tocqueville had it pegged. The “I-don’t-have-to-give-a-shit-about-anything-but-me-and-mine” attitude upon which this country was founded is in the process now of running the whole experiment right into the ground. The only way for humans to survive is as a community. And the principle of “individualism” functions in direct opposition to that.

    But only those with the power to define, of course, get to operate as “individuals.” Those without power are not considered. Ergo, their feelings and their suffering are irrelevant, in any case. How can they be “individuals” when they don’t (by all “important” accounts) even exist?

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