Is it possible we've reached a limit on the extreme focus on the individual in America? By this I mean the supremacy of the individual's rights with little regard for the group. I hope we have reached some limit.
American was created to include the then unique concept of individual "freedom" as in "it's a free country" to do as you please. The limit of freedom has always been when you cause harm to others. Your freedom ends when it negatively impacts me. But, there are many cases where this line between freedom/rights of the individual and those of the group are unclear. The classic example is you are not free to yell "fire" in a crowded theater (unless there is a fire). You are free to choose your own medical treatment but what if that choice impacts my health such as with vaccines?
In recent years, America has pushed firmly in the direction of individual rights. Group "rights" or freedom has nearly disappeared. This is true in many areas; speech, guns, health, and taxes to name a few.
We've reached a point where "freedom" is now used to exclude people rather than including them. Some examples:
- ban the teaching of critical race theory to be "free" of this influence on our children,
- lift mask mandates in public schools, citing "individual liberty",
- conservative politicians in Georgia created a Freedom Caucus that seeks to keep "dangerous ideology" out of schools,
- in Iowa, a Parental Freedom in Education Act would have allowed parents to prevent children from learning anything they find objectionable,
- open gun carry laws where individual freedom confronts the groups desire to be free from coercive threat,
- mask mandate opponents have cited "health freedom," even if their refusal to use masks denies the freedom of movement to immunocompromised people and makes communities more vulnerable to COVID 19.
These are particular interpretations of freedom that are not expansive, but exclusionary and coercive.
This isn't the first time our interpretation of freedom has become an issue. America's historic use of "freedom" has been problematic a number of times.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, would-be settlers coveting native lands spoke of their "inalienable rights" to claim indigenous territories. Southern secessionists maintained that theirs was a fight to "secure the blessings of peace and liberty".
In the 20th century, racial segregation was justified as the freedom of white people to control public space and make their own business choices. Apologists for segregation framed federal action against it as an attack on the freedom of Americans to do as they please.
"Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South," Gov. George Wallace of Alabama declared in 1963 in his now infamous Inaugural Address. "In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny."
I guess in America, we need to think of freedom in at least two ways: a freedom from domination and a freedom to dominate.
In a recent editorial David Brooks wrote of the topic:
Finally, Karen Swallow Prior said something that rings in my ears: “Modernity has peaked.” The age of the autonomous individual, the age of the narcissistic self, the age of consumerism and moral drift has left us with bitterness and division, a surging mental health crisis and people just being nasty to one another. Millions are looking for something else, some system of belief that is communal, that gives life transcendent meaning.1
I hope we have peaked. I hope we can find a communal solution.
To be clear, while I strongly believe in the critical concept of individual rights, and the supremacy of the individual, that is included in the founding of America, I also think that in modern society we have grown overly extreme in placing focus exclusively on the individual without regard to the group. Partly this is as individual rights are expressly documented in our Constitution and laws. Responsibility to the group is not documented in such a direct way.
Historically societal institutions balanced individual rights with responsibility to the group. Groups had their own code of conduct, written or otherwise. Group peer pressure and the desire to be part of the group provided a strong incentives to behave in concert with the group's code. Membership in such groups has declines in recent years. The church2, civic and service clubs, extended families, adult groups around education (e.g., PTA, Scouting, and sports) are all rather weak and no longer influential. They don't hold people accountable for actions damaging to the group. There's no punishment for lying or cheating others in public. For example, no group shames you into wearing a mask or getting vaccinated not (just) for your own benefit but because it's good for others.
At the same time we have increased focus on the individual and what's good for the individual. People make decisions in accord with individual focus, the creed of "what's good for me" with little to no consideration of "what's good for the group". Gordon Gekko, a character from the 1987 film Wall Street, has become a symbol in popular culture for unrestrained greed with the signature line, "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good".
While individual greed applies broadly across our society, it is more consequential in leaders—political, corporate, and otherwise. They routinely make decisions that optimize the outcome for themselves, and by extension their class, to the detriment of others. Is it any wonder that the "working class" has extreme frustration with leaders, often referred to as "the elite".
Let's find means to better balance pure individual freedom with group responsibility and seek a better balance.
1 The Dissenters Trying to Save Evangelicalism From Itself, David Brooks, New York Times, Feb. 4, 2022↵
2 Data from the Pew Research Center's National Public Opinion Reference Surveys (NPORS) show that between 2007 and 2021 adults that declare themselves religiously affiliated with Christianity fell from 78% to 63% with "no religion" growing over the same period from 16% to 29%.↵