The primacy of the individual is an article of faith in the American civil religion. This idea manifests itself in all sorts of places, from popular entertainment to political discourse; it’s so deeply ingrained that it inflects how we think about, well, essentially everything. Our stories are about the one person (usually, the one man) who made a difference. We love accounts of this or that hardworking person escaping poverty and becoming successful, living “the American dream.” We idolize individual leaders like Washington and Lincoln and Kennedy and, if we’re stupid, Reagan. We talk about encouraging personal responsibility.
And all of this is not only a deeply misguided way of looking at the world, but hinders us in making real improvements.
Our thoughts, beliefs and actions do not spring, fully-formed, into being by our sheer will, devoid of all precedent and influence; neither do they take place in a vacuum, with no reverberatory effects reinforcing this cultural notion or challenging that one. Who we are, and what we think and do, is not fully determined, but is predisposed to a great degree, by both our personal, individual history and the sociohistorical context in which we exist. (One notable effect of this is the implicit bias phenomenon, and it’s telling that when people recognize their implicit bias and consciously try to counteract it, things improve; but if they simply deny being biased, nothing does.)
This is why it can be so difficult to get even people who identify as “liberal” to recognize that problems like racism, sexism and homophobia are not mainly a matter of individuals holding unpleasant attitudes toward other individuals because of their race, gender or orientation, but are rather large-scale structures that must be addressed in a systemic way. If tomorrow every white person woke up truly free from prejudice against black people, every man woke up truly free from prejudice against women, and every heterosexual person woke up truly free from prejudice against homosexual and bisexual people, our society would still be (though, we might hope, it would begin to change much more rapidly) a racist, sexist, homophobic society, because the structures would still exist: the wealth and power would still be concentrated in the hands of heterosexual (or closeted) white men. Merely for those in privileged positions to begin treating the underprivileged fairly, as though there were no relevant history, and it were appropriate to use now as the baseline for measuring fairness, is like claiming a race is fair because no one cheats, even though one runner’s starting line was a mile behind the other’s.
The Myth of the Individual tells us that as long as the runner with the shorter distance to travel isn’t actively hindering the runner with the longer distance, and didn’t him- or herself set up the track, the race is fair.
We are not unconstrained by our sociohistorical context. We cannot be; and we certainly cannot choose to be. It is not a question of will. And insofar as we refuse to recognize this, and continue to fetishize individual choice, individual action, individual attitudes, individual will, even those of us who consider ourselves “liberal” fail to effectively confront the conservative project. As Kai Chang has very eloquently said, our society, with all its inequity and injustice, is “an edifice with foundations, load-bearing walls, plumbing, wiring, ductwork; and in order to renovate, you need to study those structures.” To focus on the individual is to look at this structure and try to “renovate” by filling cracks in the plaster with toothpaste, hastily putting up a new coat of paint, and buying a throw rug. This not only fails to make major changes, but in fact supports the existing structure by tacitly acknowledging it as legitimate.
And yet, the foundations are rotten.