Getting Individual vs Community Balance Has Always Been Tough – Now We Seem Lost
Schools of American Thought
America has an interesting, to put it mildly, mix of philosophies about how we relate to each other, the country, and to ourselves as individuals. As we cruise deeply into the 21st Century the two main approaches to such relationships seem in sharp contrast, contributing to much of the current social and political tension.
Terms like Rugged Individualism, Natural Law, and Community Responsibility are wielded like shields – or as swords. Let’s take a relook at our approach to each other as a nation.
The case could be made that America was built, perhaps more than any other country in history, on the Individual. That is often referred to as individual liberty, but also implied is individual responsibility on a personal level: you make choices and reap the consequences, good or bad, for you and your family.
This has sometimes been referred to in our history texts as “rugged individualism,” a term that describes an individual totally self-reliant and independent from outside, including state or government assistance.
To this day, it is a powerful ideology, one that is stronger the further West you go across this continent. It has merit and is well grounded in the national psyche, although as we will discuss shortly, it has its limits.
This certainly was a dominant theme in the early post-colonial period and found its fullest expression during westward expansion, where in fact everyone was pretty much on their own to survive and prosper.
Ironically, although the concept goes back to those early days, the term “rugged individualism” was coined more recently by then-President Herbert Hoover. You may recall this philosophical approach to the Great Depression did not work out so well.
This one is a bit more complicated, with some interesting modern twists. In its simplest description, Natural Law philosophy, which has its origins back to Greek civilization and early Christianity. It was infused into much of the early American foundations.
It is a system its believers say is based on careful observation of human nature. This approach of following human nature is said to provide a system that is independent of enacted laws of the state, calling upon God/nature/reason given rights that no one can take away.
You can see the challenge here. Such a mindset helps create the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, and the Rights of Man. But it also is fertile ground for those who would reject government – and government mandates – as contrary to human nature.
In recent years, this term has been called upon often for bad outcomes. Those who think local sheriffs are the highest authority allowed and they in turn can decide which laws they will enforce often cite Natural Law as their justification.
This is an example of a good idea gone bad and misused in the modern era.
This is a less defined philosophy, but the call for this approach is widely heard. Much of traditional Christianity is rooted in this approach to caring for those in need and being “my brother’s keeper.” Martin Luther King, Jr. and others strongly made the point that we are all in this life together and injustice to one is an injustice to all.
This approach finds its most powerful proponents speaking out today in the matter of COVID 19 precautions. My obligation not to put others as risk calls on me to wear masks, get vaccinated, and follow appropriate medical norms. The obligation to do so outweighs any personal freedoms. I do not have the freedom to inflict harm on others just so I can exercise personal freedom.
The need to follow this model is not a burden, but an opportunity to serve others. It is the medical equivalent of that old First Amendment analogy: You have free speech but not to yell Fire! In a crowded theater.
Are These Uniquely American Alignments?
No, surely not. But the potential conflict among them do seem to arise larger and louder more often here than in most other societies. This is in part because of the importance of the individual in our history and because of the fluidity inherent in our society.
America has always been a country that constantly reinvents itself and one in which fringe ideas get adopted and coopted by the mainstream. It has always been thus in culture and commerce. Why not in political philosophy as well?
What Seems Different Now?
Two things are important differences today.
One is the rise of social media, going back to talk radio but including now the mess that is electronic media in all its forms. Good and bad ideas get widely circulated without filters, reviews, or much judgment. People looking for something to grasp on to have a smorgasbord of choices all the time.
Regretfully, we did not teach ourselves how to judge such material. Lacking critical thinking skills, people attach to whatever fans their prejudices. Anyone can be an “expert,” any story can reach millions in minutes.
The other is the toxic political environment we now inhabit (more on this in a later blog post, soon). The American political and social system has generally worked on the basis of some common understanding of the fundamentals of civilized politics and seeing the other side as competitors, not evil doers.
Regretfully, many of us have lost this distinction. We see the Others as evil, fatally flawed. Compromise is seen as immoral – a tough thing to carry in a large pluralist democracy. We risk becoming the new Lebanon.
A Possible Way Forward
It is a narrow path forward, but we might have some hopes if we can more generally accept that both rugged individualism and community responsibility are valid philosophies, with deep roots in the American nature. Natural Law is more problematic. Those I hear citing it seem fixed on breaking down our national society.
Our discussions and arguments now seem to be all or nothing. Can we not find a way to say to the other side, whatever side you or they are on, that both rugged individualism and community responsibility are valid and worthy. We need to be looking for scenarios where we can which set of values makes the most sense to actuate. Neither is acceptable alone.
In those cases wherein your choices truly affect mostly you, we should support the freedom of choice and the acceptance of consequences. Want to be a day trader? So be it. Want to eat a Big Mac and fries for three meals a day, every day? Enjoy yourself. Individual choice has primacy.
Where our choices have major implications for many others, our responsibility to the rest of us takes priority. Your religion may lead you to support female genital mutilation. Sorry, that is an unacceptable thing here to inflict on others.
Want to risk breathing COVID on others because you don’t like wearing a mask? Not good enough. That is too high a price for others to pay for your freedom.
It is not always so clear or easy of course. People go to jail or suffer other consequences for choices they make, rightly or wrongly. Still, we need to try.
We need those we disagree with to feel challenged, not discarded. The longer we fail in this, the higher the risk of these United States becoming a failed experiment in human potential.
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