A Way Out of Hyper-Individualism?

I regularly hear sharp critiques of America’s culture of extreme individualism. 

What exacerbates the issue is each person has a unique take on this problem.

In case anyone was unsure, I am not a political scientist, so these are my personal observations.

Sometimes the critique of radical individualism identifies this trend as the diseased fruit of secular postmodernism and relativism. For instance, if each individual self-defines even their gender, we have lost a shared understanding of what it means to be human. This kind of argument is associated with religious or political conservatives. I affirm that every person bears God’s image and is worthy of profound respect.

At other times, the critique comes from secular or political progressives. In this telling, the fault of radical individualism lies with religious conservatives, who insist on all kinds of personal privileges. For instance, their entitled sense of religious conviction jeopardizes the collective action needed to end a public health crisis. If they answer only to God, we can’t find a rational way to cooperate, no matter the scientific consensus.

So what kind of perspective can rescue us from extreme individualism?

Whatever choice we make will be contested.

Some will argue that increasing individualism is a desirable goal: more personal autonomy allows more people to experience greater happiness. Who wants to live under the unified politics of the Taliban in Afghanistan? 

Yet, we also have to reckon with how individuals seek belonging, security, and meaning by allying with like-minded folks. Together, we build tribal groupings, and then we often fight each other because we have divergent approaches to life. The principle, let everyone live as they’d like, often devolves into everyone should live under our ultimate beliefs. Whether you detest the effort to ban abortion or mandate transgender bathrooms, we want others to conform to what we think is right. Do the unborn have a right to autonomy? Are there certain legal rights for each person’s gender identity? The culture wars are fierce and endless.

We each have a role to play in finding a common way forward. But the problem of individualism is more extensive than any one individual: it is a social challenge. So as best I can tell, we need to participate in a community that believes in loving one another — and our neighbors — and our enemies. 

Mere intellectualizing isn’t enough, and I want to raise my hand to try to get us there. So, I’ll be launching a community that aspires to form us in these ways.

But from the start, this effort faces a perplexing challenge: every community needs boundaries. There’s no way to create a community for anyone and everyone. LGBTQ+ organizations don’t hire conservative Christians as their CEOs, and Republican PACs don’t hire progressive Democrats as their spokespersons. 

To set up the boundary, “this is a community for people who want to love their enemies,” is to exclude from the start. But how else can we form a group that seeks to overcome our differences? We have to start somewhere and with certain convictions. 

More on this soon. 

Giving Credit:

Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash (I’ve cropped it).