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Individualization
July 11th, 2015
Individualization

   Individualization has been a recipe for engineering economic growth: by separating generations, one needs more houses, more TVs, more cars, more phones… Some new services were required, to compensate those once provided by familial solidarity across generations: more nurseries are needed when grandparents aren't at hand, homes for the elderlies are needed when the youngsters 'delegate' the task of helping the elders live in dignity…
   As this could only go so far, individualization was pushed further… so that each member of each family would have one's own TV, computer, car, phone… Some new services were required, to compensate those once provided by the basic familial unit. Diners are all the more needed when families don't dine together, VOD services are all the more required when each person looks at a different program on their screens, ring tones services are 'required' when each person wants to individualise their own phone… 

   Once sharing is completely gone, and each person individually owns equipment that makes more collective sense than individual sense (house…), the pseudo-opportunity for 'growth' has run its course. How many TVs and phones and cars does one single individual need?

   Blinded by GDP, people have lost sight of what counts. People have called economic 'growth' what grows on the misery of people, e.g. legal proceedings (from divorce to commercial conflicts) and healthcare… Rejoicing when conflicts multiply and when people are sick is ethically questionable, to say the least!
   People also have called economic 'growth' what grows on the morally-dubious selfishness of people, e.g. financial services to minimise/avoid tax, professional lobbyists… Many new services are born around maximising the exploitation and the misery of others!

   When this becomes acceptable (or even desirable) 'economic growth', then solidarity is lost, fraternity is lost (and humanity is lost: we're social  animals!); the big picture is lost.

   Naturally, the individualisation formats the psyche of people so that they don't even consider that solidarity might be a real possibility, that collective action could be wholesome… The individualisation also undermines all ethical guidelines (since ethics start with considering the interest of others and not only of oneself…): the law of the strongest is easily used to justify ignoring people having it worse.
   This can be hidden behind one's "conscience" and other nice-sounding narratives (nice-sounding until they appear for what they are, e.g. a story of "religious freedom" to oppress others while also claiming to be oppressed before others could possibly maybe rely on the same narrative back!).
   The combination of lower ethics reduced to self-serving narratives, of vanishing compassion, and of lack of trust in the power of the group (including lack of trust in democracy) mostly weakens the weaker though.

   At this point, it is important to remember that individual free will and other theories of freedom never reject social responsibility: if you're free, you're not forced  to be horrible to your neighbours.
   And if you're not free, then there are enough humanistic guidance (religious or not) around for you to stop spending so much energy trying to explain why the world is 'fair' when it happens to be to your advantage, and unfair otherwise.
   Logical fallacies abound that allow one to erroneously convince oneself that one is right (even to convince oneself that one doesn't fall for fallacies while  very much falling for them); fallacies abound, but they don't make reason!

   When reasoning about such issues, start by inverting roles (put yourself in the shoes of the person you so easily condemn) and see if your conclusion holds.
   Try to do so with honesty: no, you wouldn't gladly accept that you should be 'fully responsible' for mere mistakes or ignorance… no, you wouldn't silently accept to be accused of 'cult' or of 'axis of evil' as soon as your spiritual tradition or non-tradition is not aligned with your interlocutors'… no, you wouldn't like others to impose on you the 'truths' from their 'right' book, while dismissing anything you might say… and no, you wouldn't necessarily recognise yourself as 'lazy' just for being unlucky at birth! You wouldn't embrace poverty as 'fair', or health issues as 'fair'. No, you wouldn't exactly dream of finishing your life alone, abandoned by others judging you to be a 'dead weight' as soon as convenient for them to do so…

   Ethics start with taking into account the interest of others, not only of oneself. You can frame it as the Golden Rule (do onto others…), you can frame it as God's instructions (through its prophets) of solidarity and fraternity, you can frame it as mathematical game theory even!
   At the end of the day, individualisation is an extreme, and like all extremes it runs into the wall by denying the nuances of reality, the ineffable richness of circumstances and conditions, the exceptions to the (simplistic) rules.

   Individualization makes sense as long as the group's interest is also  considered, as long as the balance between individual and group is engaged with, negotiated, worked through.

   Collectivism is an oppressive extreme; individualism is too: the illusion of separateness —seeing essence in mere nuances— is as ignorant as the denial of nuances.
   Buddhist teachings on 'selflessness' are as key as ever to embody a Middle Way between extremes. This being said, other traditions use different vocabularies but reach similar conclusions (e.g. secular Darwinism goes via 'fitness', but the fitness is to the environment, to the Other; it is not some closed loop of the individual onto itself… and the environment notably includes other members of the same specie, as well as other species —either as resources or as dangers).
   The key ignorance is the blind belief that individualism is above all else.  There's no freedom, no choice, when one is blind to the constraints at hand, to the context, to the Other. Blindness leads to mere randomness, neither to choice nor to appropriateness/wisdom.

———
   A society is obviously inter-dependent with the individuals that constitute it; however, it also is a distinct phenomenon, a 'meme' if you wish, with emergent  properties (e.g. a history that is 'bigger' than the history of any  individual of it): just like fluid dynamics are not modelled directly out of modelling each particle of the fluid, a nation can display dynamics that aren't well captured at the individual level.
   Group dynamics are complementary (not contradictory) to individual dynamics. Posing individualism as the "only way" is missing part of the picture.
   Group dynamics might lead to the cessation of the tyranny of the individual, or to the tyranny of the majority. To only highlight the potential of the tyranny of the majority though is to fall into an extreme and, for Americans, a denial of the American roots as a group  ending the tyranny of one  (king)… A naïve belief in individualism leads to the law of the strongest. This is an issue at the heart of inequality, and not of e.g. the American dream: the latter, as the name suggests, relies on a social / national  context commonly cultivated  in order to give to each individual reasonable chances to move upward. The true "American dream" is at heart a collective dream, not simply some combination of unexamined selfishness and unquestioned competition that assumes "the end justifies the means".
   So we ought to consider a balanced approach between group and individuality, with individuals caring about others (ethics) to the point that they don't so automatically focus on their self-interest, and  with the group refraining from its natural tendency to impose uniformity / predictability (status quo) / certainty / control.

   Some individuals already show dedication to others. By reducing the "don't automatically focus on your self-interest"  to an individual choice, we indeed allow for some individuals to show dedication to others. We allow for exceptional, individual generosity… but we don't promote a "balanced approach for most" enough…
   When we reduce "moral education" to a question of individual  choices, we make ourselves see morals solely at the individual level, even though we have clear historical examples that morality may also be tied to group dynamics (we have examples both ways: one of the best ways to make people question the morality of their choices is to ask them to consider how they'd feel if their decision and involvement in it was made public… and one of the worst ways to let people off the hook is to suggest that peer-pressure —or even 'orders'— took their responsibility away).
   No matter how careful and accurate we might be when taking a one-sided perspective (individualism / collectivism), it remains one-sided, i.e. an incomplete picture that might lead to inappropriate (caricatural) answers.

   A balanced approach is not naturally satisfactory for our little heads looking for clear answers, predefined certainties before we even face a situation, a generic easy-to-use "user manual" of "what we ought to do" in the world.
   We'd naturally like to spare ourselves from the anguish of "not knowing but having to answer anyway",  of being 'responsible' without having all the elements at hand to decide with confidence…
   We'd like to spare ourselves from being forced to iterate, to re-engage, to review and try again differently… All we crave for is a silver-bullet that would allow to turn the page at the problem at hand once and for all.
   We may well crave for extreme, black&white answers… but reality is of levels of grey. Too much focus on individual  freedom / ethics is letting some of the current societal  issues unanswered (discriminations, climate change…), simply because no single individual might address them alone! No more than a single molecule changing course would solve the problematic flow of a rushing river.
   So we're individually 'responsible'… in participating to an emerging response at the societal  level, even if this response might 'impose' individual restraint! We can certainly work at minimising the imposed restraint, but that's very different from assuming there shouldn't be any, out of some extremist caricature around individualism.

   Community and individuals co-dependently arise: none exists without the other.


#engagedBuddhism