On Individualism (a Brief and Partial Defense)

Yesterday I was talking with someone who had lived in the U.S. for a few years but ultimately didn’t like it there and moved back to Europe. I asked him what in particular he didn’t like. He said that it was the individualism. There wasn’t time for him to explain what he meant, so he gave a specific example: the lack of public transportation. I agree with that particular point. In much of the U.S., you need a car to get around (with reasonable swiftness). I have managed quite well without a car in New Haven, San Francisco, and NYC, but those are exceptions. Morever, it’s difficult to travel from one part of the country to another without a car (or without flying); trains are expensive and don’t necessarily go anywhere near your destination. Buses can be very slow. In Europe overall, it’s much easier to live without a car (though people buy and use cars anyway).

But just as he didn’t have a chance to explain his point more thoroughly, I didn’t have a chance to speak up for certain kinds of individualism. Individualism often gets a bad rap, not only in Europe but in the U.S. too. People often oppose it to “community,” “cooperation,” and so forth, as though selfishness and individualism were one and the same.

But there are different kinds of individualism. There is indeed the “me, me, me” kind, whose agitation is fed by the belief that you (“I”) either are the center of the universe or should be. That your job is to grab whatever you can for yourself, the rest of the world be damned.

A different kind of individualism, one that I cherish, doesn’t deny or trample on others. Instead, it asserts that in this short span of life, I can do what seems best to me or what suits me best, even if the crowd doesn’t approve of it. This kind of individualism can be found in American poets, writers of fiction and nonfiction (and their overlap), songwriters, scientists, athletes, librarians, and many others. I find this kind of individualism in Hungary too, but it isn’t quite as embedded in the way of life. There’s a respect for privacy here—people more or less leave each other alone—but there’s also an expectation that you follow certain norms, and a kind of pity when you don’t. (This is less true in Budapest and other large cities than elsewhere.)

If there’s something I especially love and miss about the U.S., it’s the spirit of finding your own way. (By the way, I hear this spirit in the music I love here in Hungary—in Cz.K. Sebő, Platon Karataev, and others.) It isn’t always present in the U.S. But I share it with friends and colleagues there. “Your own way” isn’t really your own; none of this is really your own or mine. We’re all subject to influences, forces, circumstances that we might not even notice. Moreover, whatever we do is not only for ourselves; it pours out into the world. The self isn’t even the point. But to the extent that each of us gets to choose what to do with our lives, this choice, with all its limitations and pitfalls, is worth defending to the end.

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4 Comments

  1. Michael in Seattle

     /  July 23, 2022

    Another thoughtful post, Diana.

    I’m afraid we have recently seen what damage the “herd mentality” can produce.
    Cheers.

    Reply
  2. Anna Silverman

     /  July 24, 2022

    What I like in European individualism and lack in most of American one, apart from really intellectual elite, is the understanding that your freedom of choice goes only as far as trespassing on the freedom of choice of others. Communism and/or “American way of life” wanted to destroy it, each in its opposite (?) way but it is still ingrained in lots of people. Community is working if many individuals think for benefit of themselves with others. What I observed in the US is mostly lack of differentiation and confusion between individualism and selfishness, freedom and anarchy, seeking respect for the “me” by disregarding and proving it by destroying and trampling on the “I” of others… I have seen many exceptions, but those I still sadly count as exceptions. I am sad European understanding of individualism is being in ever greater part influenced by American ways, massively imposed on us by films, music and those who shout louder. Not many Americans read American poets, I am afraid…

    Reply
    • Thank you for your comment, Anna. I agree with you. American individualism has become confused and undifferentiated. It can take the form of “I’m going to make noise right now” (in the classroom, on the train, in the apartment building) “just because I feel like it.” Or in extreme cases (which are much too common), “I am mad at you and who I think you represent, so I am going to shoot you.”

      But strangely, some of that comes from group thinking. The noisemaker is often bolstered by a peer group. The shooter is bolstered by conspiracy theories, online groups, etc. This kind of thinking and action results in part from *not* thinking for oneself.

      That opens the question: what does it mean to think for yourself? It doesn’t mean shutting out other people’s thoughts; quite the opposite. It needs a foundation of poetry, philosophy, history, sacred text, music, art. And it relies on listening to others.

      Reply

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

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