Deconstructing the Cult of the Individual

Note: This post is part of my "philosophy bites" series that expands my social media posts about philosophical topics into blog form. These are not academic essays with a plethora of footnotes and agonizingly constructed arguments, but I do hope they spark conversation. Please remember to share, like, and comment! The original instagram post can be found here.


Slogans:

Believe in yourself

You can do anything/ anything is possible

Put yourself first/ You deserve it.

Self-care/ self-love


Pros:

Individuality is encouraged! Children are usually allowed to choose their own professions and forge their own paths.

Creativity is also encouraged (though I would say our creativity lacks the depth of critical thinking)

Self-care and self-love are indeed moral goods, although they only represent one side of the love/ care reality.


Cons:

We fall for the capitalist trap of using our logos and items to signal our “unique “ identities.

Often our uniqueness and creativity is thinly disguised conformity.

Selfishness, disregard for community

Difficulty in understanding our radical relationality, as exemplified through our destruction of the planet, other humans, and other animals.


The cult of the individual is so deeply-rooted in America that we don’t even see its manifestations. It originated with the dual invention of the concept of rationality and the concept of religion as we view it today (a set of abstract beliefs separate from a person’s ethnic or political identity). We will talk about both these inventions later, but with these category changes came the death of God and the birth of nihilism.


Nihilism claims that meaning is arbitrarily imposed on an inherently meaningless world (Nietzsche’s idea of the “superhuman” also contributed to this idea). After God/ Truth/ The Good (and all capitalized concepts) were declared dead, responsibility shifted from God’s will/ fate to the shoulders of the individual. Now we speak of “believing in oneself” instead of “believing in God.” The human is the god of the modern world.


In America, this rugged individualism was also nurtured by the mythic stories of cowboys, settlers, and the wild west. Our founding identity is based on braving “new worlds,” overthrowing the yoke of foreign powers, and establishing ourselves as utterly our own.


This individualism is also carefully cultivated by our American brand of capitalism. Our economy thrives on innovation and creativity, but also on the idea that individuals are solely responsible for their own successes or failures. This unburdens the government from any responsibility for those who are poor, disabled, or disadvantaged. After all, if “you can do anything” and “anything is possible,” then you have no one to blame for your failure but yourself. Our government and economy is kept afloat only because the majority of Americans believe these slogans (and these slogans are virtually everywhere— look for them this week in your movies, TV shows, and music).


What do you think? Is the cult of the individual largely positive or negative? Do the pros outweigh the cons?

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