IS THE DESIRE TO EXPRESS OURSELVES KILLING INDIVIDUALITY?
Over the past year or two we (in the West) have at times been exposed to some of the shocking global crises that we rarely experience first-hand in the safety of our cocoons of self-dissatisfaction. What seems to be at the heart of these issues is a recurring contrast of worlds. One such case is the enduring migrant crisis. Indeed, for many of the helpless victims in the unimaginable situation of fleeing conflict, physical safety is the utmost motivating factor. But as refugee turns to migrant in their uncertain journeys across the relative safety of Europe, what is it that so strongly motivates them, and in other instances causes such a divide between the first and third worlds? For a long time, it has been considered prosperity or perhaps political liberty. And at the heart of all of this, it seems, is the prospect of individuality. But the more we hear in the news about the juxtaposition of worlds, the more it seems to me paradoxical how in our largely liberal world, where everyone has both voice and opportunity, individuality is increasingly drowned out.
I often find it depressing to get bogged down in self-dissatisfied criticism against our relatively fortunate society here. But such a fundamental misconception, even myth, of ‘individuality’ I believe warrants a brief moan.
Throughout history, individuality has marked out certain people and their achievements and has been influential in changing and shaping history at many levels. Even among the most ordinary of people, such as the post-Reformation miller profiled by Carlo Ginzburg in his book The Cheese and the Worms, individuality always seemed to flourish. This microhistory (a method which tends to focus on an isolated person or community in minute detail to draw a wider conclusion) demonstrates how one man’s religious ideas – perhaps influenced by and interacting with the increasing world of thought and print – had the ability to be so independent, original and, most of all, fearless of being judged. They say the past is a foreign country, and I’m beginning to feel they have a point.
What has changed to make our society so generic, conforming, and with so little scope for individuality? In truth, the modern and globalised world that has emerged, since the Italian miller’s distinctive individuality got him into trouble with the Catholic authorities 500 years ago, has brought incalculable benefits: most fundamentally, deciding how to live rather than how to survive. But what’s troubling about this modern world, especially for a young person looking ahead to their life and career, is the extent of stereotyping and commodification of how we live. It’s now our career, our education and how much money we earn (or, indeed, were born with) that become our defining features: identity has become socio-economic instead of personal. Other than a handful of exceptions, that isn’t individuality. Perhaps this is a generalisation, and nothing’s changed since the remnants of clear-cut feudalist social strata. But I think anyone has to concede that we seem much more obsessed with social mobility and arbitrary labelling than in the more simplistic societies of the past. I believe we’ve lost the much more personal focus of ages past – hence the scope for a truly personal philosophy of the 16th Century Italian miller.
Of course, the modern world has seen a rise of personality and opinion, all disseminated by social media. But to misconstrue this as individuality is certainly mistaken, for the fundamental reason that we’re ever more aware of our audience and, unfortunately, shaped by it. Social media, for instance, is not simply somewhere where our voice is drowned out by a thousand and one others, but where we self-consciously subscribe to fashionable or trending ‘views’ regardless of individuality or rationality. As a result, it is a hive of predominantly left-wing, often senseless or radical opinion. This is of course in part due to the high concentration of young users who, even before the internet, have been famed for their disillusioned, left-wing outlook, but we’ve got to a stage where our individual mind-set or opinions are governed by trends. When is it ever fashionable to join a Facebook event for a UKIP rally or to share a link praising ‘sensible’ Tory fiscal policy, for example? Never – at least in our age of scrutiny online. This is probably something to be grateful for, depending on our own opinions – if those still exist. But it’s a worrying trend.
The attempts to ‘no-platform’ figures like Germaine Greer and Donald Trump are a particularly dangerous case in point, however unjustified their views. Simply because someone goes against the grain of overwhelming popular opinion in their efforts at individuality, if we’re too afraid to hear these people out, who’s left to criticise and expose the flaws in their views?
I’d like to hope that individuality is undiminished in the most cutting-edge and artistic figures in society, but even here it seems more and more difficult. The quest for originality has already led to more and more controversial and even esoteric movements: from music’s Stravinsky and Schoenberg to John Cage, for example, and wider literary and artistic trends through Modernism and Dadaism. We seem to be hitting a dead end where the only way is backwards, and much less individual. All we can do is hope for more breakthroughs to come – and, who knows, perhaps from someone like you and me.
The illusion of angst-free prosperity and individuality that is so attractive to the migrants in their desperation and is so often juxtaposed against the huge suffering and backwardness in the world is undeniably powerful. But it is just that: an illusion. Of course, greater problems exist (both here and abroad), many of which hindering those that can’t look beyond socio-economic hardship or misfortune towards the hope of individuality. But never has there been more of a need for a wake-up call. Get rid of this overblown self-consciousness, and just maybe we will salvage some remaining scraps of individuality.