Independent Thought & Individualism – Myths of a Kind

Looks easy but may be the hardest thing of all for any of us to do…Think for ourselves.

Is it possible that the most difficult thing for a human is to have an independent thought?

It has been said that everyone is the unconscious exponent of some dead philosopher or other. In other words, we’re all drinking somebody’s Kool-Aid. Every idea you have has been borrowed. Every belief inculcated. From birth, each new idea is absorbed brick by brick from the people around you. This continues on into school, high school, college, books you choose, media you consume.

If true, then what we Americans like to think of as individualism is just a certain species of social confirmation theory. In other words, we reinforce (and are reinforced by) the ideas we and our adoptive tribe subscribe to. In too many ways we are automatons, conditioned  to thinking, saying, and doing what we’ve been reinforced by our preferred social group to think, say, and do. (In the military for instance, independent thought is not a value, it is rebellion.) What would your friends think, or your ”followers” if you happen to voice an idea outside the accepted orthodoxy of your circle? So you don’t. You want to be accepted. You want to fit. You want to belong.

To push that idea further, that means there are no true individuals in the classical sense; that being who is truly independent, non-reliant, un-attached, un-molded, un-shaped and unique.

Certainly not you if you’re reading this. You’re dependent on someone even for the ability to read. Somebody else, long ago, turned these squiggles into a language that you were taught to speak and read. Your brain sees the squiggles and with no effort on your part, converts the shapes to meaning. You didn’t do ANY of that for yourself. 

And the squiggles appear on magical virtual paper in front of your eyes. They aren’t carved in stone, or painted onto papyrus, or inscribed on vellum, or scratched into bark. Unless you developed the technology to display abstract language on a screen using only ones and zeroes, some silicon, glass, and light supplied by electricity. You are dependent on those who did. You are this moment dependent upon those who keep the electricity flowing to your device of choice for reading this. Mic drop. 

It is very difficult to escape ethnocentrism. We believe the culture we are born into is the best one. This is probably not unique to Americans, but it may afflict us to a worse degree. America’s greatest export by volume, is our culture, or at least the pop-Art aspects of it. But is one’s birth culture really the ”best” one? Or is it merely familiar? 

But wait, Americans aren’t satisfied with being simply American, are we? You need a jersey to wear. Red, or blue for you? And you need a code to follow. We divide along dogma and credo down to the granular level. And be mindful not to step on the cracks of separation, or you’ll get labeled, ”other”. 

It fascinates me that in Japanese there is no word for ”individualism”. A deeper dive removes some surprise since they have a culture shaped by Shintoism with its profound veneration and appreciation for ancestors. A Japanese citizen is not too proud to acknowledge the help they’ve received to become what they have become. To think they’d done so on their own would be a sacrilege.

In America, individualism is a religion in its own right. I am more convinced than ever, that it is a form of cult-like psychosis. There is a willful denial of the interwoven, inter-dependent nature of our lives. What a particularly Orwellian brand of ”group-think”, in which the adherents ludicrously claim ”individualism”, while parroting the same words, wearing the same clothes, supporting the same issues, flying the same flags. Oh, right, individuals…I see. 

I find ironic humor in the fact that so many professors of independence and individualism make their claims via the megaphone of billion-member social networking platforms. Kinda belies the claim, doesn’t it? 

Americans have arrived at a cultural, social, and political inflection point at which we must determine if we are flexible enough to allow for a plurality of viewpoints. Are we going to continue to splinter and fragment? Are we going to wage the RL version of Battle Royale against one another? Is your group so sure of its righteousness that it is willing to go to war with a differing group? Even a war of words using the weapons of vilification, condescension, and ridicule is counter-productive and mutually destructive. Are you that certain you can do without them?

The idea of America is quite literally coming apart at the seams. I’m not unique in believing this house is too divided to stand. Can we recover? Maybe. If we’re willing to embrace the ideals that the country was founded upon. If we adamantly reject all disinformation from whatever the source. If we hold crooked and lying politicians on both sides accountable. If we look more for similarities than for differences in one another.

I think in the next few decades, not just in America, but globally, it will take all of us, working together, pulling together, mutually dependent, and mutually benefitting to stay alive on this planet and help it recover before we go extinct ourselves.

This planet we ride on can do just fine without any of us, and it will recover speedily once we are gone. It doesn’t need us. Consider that.

I have seasonal allergies. My body responds to pollen as a pathogen. It attacks it as harmful and invasive. Pollen is certainly not a pathogen. It is the substance of fecundity and life. There is something wrong with me, not the pollen, or the trees, and other flora producing it.

Just because this stuff attacks me, doesn’t mean its bad and I should attack it. It’s doing its job, the problem is mine.

In our melting pot society, different cultures and ideas have always melded and blended, and coalesced and cooperated. Our cross-pollination is what makes us unique among the roster of nations. Differences of opinion, experience, history, and perspective should not be treated as pathogens! They shouldn’t be attacked, but embraced, understood, mined for truth, and winnowed for better ideas. 

The differences between us are the pollen of a society fertilized and pregnant with possibility. If you’re allergic, it’s likely there is something wrong with you.

Americans by nature are allergic to concepts that challenge “rugged individualism”, but we can grow up now. It’s ok. There’s plenty of Kleenex to go around.

And we might as well start with the idea that none of us is really all that independent. None of us is really as individualistic as we might puff ourselves up to be. Lean in. Here’s a tissue.

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