Friday, May 26, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: The Individual

Personhood: 1:14
“Happy is the man…”

Photo Credit: ©2017. Eli G. Greenbaum























“The argument for collectivism is simple if false; it is an immediate emotional argument. The argument for individualism is subtle and sophisticated; it is an indirect rational argument. And the emotional faculties are more highly developed in most men than the rational, paradoxically or especially even in those who regard themselves as intellectuals.”

Milton Friedman [1912–2006] in the “Introduction”
to the 50th anniversary edition
of The Road to Serfdom (1944) by Friedrich von Hayek


“Thus very far from there being the antagonism between the individual and society which is often claimed, moral individualism, the cult of the individual, is in fact the product of society itself. It is society that instituted it and made of man the god whose servant it is.”

— Émile Durkheim [1858–1917], Sociologie et philosophie, 1924;
Trans. D. F. Pocock, Sociology and philosophy (1953)



The history of ideas shows that it is individuals working toward a worthy goal who have produced the greatest discoveries for humanity, and the nations that valued and rewarded individual achievement were the ones that achieved and benefited the most. The individual has an essential place in western civilization, in democracies and in societies that value human thought and human life.

I think that most people will generally agree with this last statement; the disagreement often lies with the particulars, the details. It’s always about the details, isn’t it? How one goes about making the rules of society, which basically revolves around how much freedom the individual ought to have; this aspect of human relations could be seen with children at play and with adults in boardrooms and backrooms.

In this sense, the individual also acts as a prophet who voices “the dangers of authoritarianism,” common when the powerful state denies all dissent, often (but not always) done in the name of consensus. It can also happen when resentment among minority groups (the powerless) seek violent solutions to social or economic differences, hence the revolutionary approach, unleashing the fury of the mob and, as a result, the installation of a dictator to restore law and order. Dictators rarely leave on their own volition.

This leads to order, but not to freedom and often to the suspension of human rights, and to greater unhappiness at the loss of such freedoms, now hard to regain. Few benefit under such a political system, despite the promises made. What is lost is never easy to regain. Despite its faults, democracy remains the best political system, requiring give and take, a tricky balance, but a necessary one. This is the only system where the individual is free to be an individual.

Collectivism has its appeal, a beguiling one, but not for the individual who is also the contrarian. He sees in collectivism a danger of “the mob” acting in intolerant if not tyrannical ways. You can see such things happen today, both in small form and in large form, notably at secular university campuses, but also at unexpected places, like Silicon Valley, which views itself as libertarian and yet has its particular in-group thinking.

It’s a brew available to everyone, and it often goes down easy. Do we really want a society where everyone thinks alike, at least publicly? What is the value of consensus if it is forced, not given or agreed to willingly and thoughtfully? Conformity and consensus comes at a price. Not found in such ideologies, including the current emphasis on “national identity” in some quarters and identity politics in others, is that disagreement and disparate points of views are safeguards against totalitarianism.

Worst-case scenario: North Korea; historical lesson: the former Soviet Union and Maoist China.

The call for the regulating or curtailing of speech is an early sign of repression, but this does not take place overnight and does not happen in a vacuum. Typically, this takes place as a countervailing force to a long period of “hate speech,” to what is often viewed as the normalizing of aggressive use of speech, often anonymously and shamelessly, to marginalize original ideas, common on the largest free-for-all known as the Internet. Yet, it is also true that the term “hate speech”is used too often for what is often offensive and unpleasant language, for speech of resentment. Or, lately, for ideas that a group does not agree with, as a means to shut down debate.

Personal attacks and troll tactics, although often effective in curtailing certain kinds of speech, are not without consequence over the long term. The public square becomes smaller and possibly less tolerant, often an unintended consequence of self-censorship, since only certain ideas deemed acceptable by the mob are allowed. What is acceptable today might not be acceptable tomorrow. Who decides? What are the criteria? Unpopular ideas (and unpleasant ones, too) need airing as well as popular ones, otherwise speech is no longer free for everyone. Speech and language reveal the health of a nation.

But then again, we are also here talking about how speech has become passionate and inflamed to the point that it has become unpleasant and ugly; we are here talking about things like manners and etiquette and the importance of these when delivering the message. As someone once said, you counter bad or hate speech with good speech. You attack not the person but his ideas, doing so by marshaling not opinions but facts; one is not the same as the other and the distinction is essential. Such is the hallmark of a literate society; such is the importance of language.

Here is a curmudgeonly reminder: As much as the individual is important, historically, he does not stand alone outside society (in contrast to the Cartesian model of the Self), but, instead, acts as a contributing member of it. In other words society comprises many individuals residing together, not necessarily agreeing on everything, but agreeing that at least disagreement has a purpose and a meaning, including arguing on the benefits of the “common good.” We have to remember what is the importance of good; it is not the opposite of bad, but a force of its own.

In the best of circumstances, such an individual brings forward ideas to improve the lot of his fellow man; he brings forward ideas that lead to real benefits and opportunities for all individuals residing within its borders; he builds the nation with inclusive language. He uses encouraging language that welcomes outsiders, language that makes the invisible more visible. Such is an individual who is also a leader.

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