God died. The seas of metaphysics were limitless again. A new horizon of possibility opened for all beliefs and ideals. Values were re-evaluated, re-molded, re-constructed – and each new value was made in the image of its creator: the individual self.
We were “freed” to think whatever we want, say whatever we want and believe whatever we want – more or less, that is. What we got: apparent freedom, inalienable “individual” rights and in America, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Later came the prevalent I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude – with all its cool and edgy indifference. But I-don’t-give-a-fuck really means I-don’t-give-a-fuck-because-it-doesn’t-affect-me – this is the prevalent attitude of non-judgmentalism meets moral relativism. Sociologist Charles Smith found, after interviewing 230 young Americans, that the common response to standard moral questions (about rape, murder, theft) was one of bafflement. Young people lacked anything substantial to say about even extremely generic ethical questions. The default attitude was that moral choices are a matter of individual taste, where one’s morality is just a small piece of a carefully crafted individual self that one fashions at whim. “It’s personal,” many interviewees responded: “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say? Who am I to judge?”
When beliefs, aesthetic preferences and moral proclivities are all left to personal style, we have the hipster mentality, where nonchalant nihilism is cool. Indeed, the word “moral” itself is a dirty word amongst anyone outside the realm of conservatism. But the cult of individualism transcends politics: we are all in the cult. We’ve all had its invisible lens pulled over our eyes such that we perceive the world through a warped and myopic tunnel vision. Aiming to find and remove this lens is as futile as trying to bite your own teeth – for it is built into us.
The great myth of our time is the heroic pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps tale of His Majesty the Autonomous Self (and how convenient is it that this selfsame trope is the foundational myth capitalism needs most for its continued political survival). But this myth needs no creeds to perpetuate its dominance, for it is woven into the very fiber of our being.
We were all inculcated into the cult of individualism – by our families, who tell us we are special; by the vision of the American Dream; by schools, who demand that we specify fields; by advertising which compels us to carve out who we are by consuming certain commodities; by capitalism which teaches us that to succeed is to win in a competition of yourself against all others; and by the ever-growing new-age and pop psychology œuvre which tells us to create our own realities…
But if everyone were to believe themselves as the center of their own universe in which they create their own world, values and all meaning – civilization would quickly deteriorate into solipsism, narcissism, megalomania and/or collective insanity. So it comes as no surprise that “we” are in decline – for what is really wrong with the united “us”? There is no “we,” no “us,” just me, myself and I. This nation is not a unified whole but a cacophony of atoms, each spinning alone to their own idiosyncratic rhythm – and frequently colliding. The Declaration’s axioms are relinquishing their sacred aura, for the glue that holds us together is… well, it isn’t there.
The marriage of this egoism to rationality – the hubris that comes with our self-awarded status as the sole “rational animal” – this may be the fatal flaw of Western civilization, we just don’t know it yet… or do we?
With discoveries in neuroscience that expose us as primarily social beings, the ecological crisis which demands global cooperation in spite of differences, and amidst the peril of capitalism, which reveals the limits of a “survival of the fittest” social philosophy – the fabric of who-we-thought-we-were is being unravelled. It is like waking up from a long hallucination… disorienting, frightening, yet epiphanic… for what we are facing is nothing other than an identity crisis, one that forces us to create a new account of what it is to be human.
It’s uncomfortable to go against the grain of a totalizing and pervasive culture that reinforces a dog-eat-dog conception of human nature. It’s frightening to reconsider who you are in the midst of realizing that what you were taught all along was a lie – a myth exposed as a myth. But this is just what Buddhists have been saying for thousands of years, that the notion of a “separate self” is an illusion, and a dangerous one against which we must constantly exercise vigilance in order to correct this misperception and not forfeit our potential as beings capable of empathy and conscience.
Our concept of the individual self was born in the context of the 18th Century, at least, and it is reaching the end of its course. What is the new paradigm of human nature that is emerging in response to the world as it is in 2012 and 2013? Should we continue to carry the curse of unchecked individualism, it will be our undoing.