American Individualism Is Complicated

Our blurred vision, manifest in sports, religion, and, of course, politics.

See The Farewell. Image courtesy of A24 and a compelling write-up at Radii China

It’s risky to begin with globe-encompassing dichotomous generalizations, but, as this essay might prove, perhaps seeing “the globe” and “the self” as so separate is the problem.

So, at the risk of generalizing, “the West,” (you have no idea how wrong I feel typing those words), and perhaps America in particular, is an individualistic society, while “the East” (please wait while the shadow monster emerges from my silent scream) is collectivistic.

This difference is succinctly presented in Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a film from earlier this year with some long-shot Oscar buzz. Billi, raised in America since she was six, returns to China with her family to be with her terminally-ill grandmother, and she is frustrated with the family’s adherence to the Chinese tradition of keeping such an illness a secret from a family member. Her uncle, making the generalization I’m trying to avoid, tells her: “You [as a Westerner] think one’s life belongs to oneself. But that’s the difference between the East and the West. In the East, a person’s life is part of a whole.” Billi’s trip to China casts light on many tensions in her life, and her conflicted feelings are often based in her individualistic tendencies.

Americans do, indeed, value individualism, and thus China’s cultural practices relating to family and community often do not resonate. The teachings of Taoism and other philosophies and religions remain relics of foreign mystique. A film like Zhang Yimou’s Hero would never be made – let alone succeed – in the States. And, amid trade wars and “economic anxiety” and inconsistent foreign policy stances, anything “Chinese” arrives on American shores with a literal or figurative tariff.

But Americans could learn something from the Chinese. Increasing commitment to individualism is not always a good thing, and can pave the way towards even greater problems.

Let’s pause for a moment: who are you picturing when I warn of extreme individualists? If you lean to the left, you are probably envisioning a stereotypical MAGA man or libertarian bro who calls himself a rugged individualist going on about gun rights, the excellence of capitalism and private enterprise, and the oppressive nature of the government. But if you lean to the right, you might be thinking about a genderqueer atheist college student with dreadlocks clamoring for safe spaces. Again, I’m generalizing, but people on both sides of the political divide have an idea of what excessive individualism looks like.

Remain paused: this thought exercise is not some gotta-hear-both-sides centrist BS aimed at showing how we’re all wrong in some sense and what we really need is civility. The dangers of individualism are many and varied, and I am calling for nuance, but I’m not about that Ben Sasse life. I’m writing this as someone who is, well, really liberal. The point of the above thought exercise is to reveal that, despite individualism being an American value, how it is understood and put into practice is anything but black and white. For the sake of brevity, let’s just move past identifying the ways in which we are all selective (and at times hypocritical) in what kind of individualism we value.

Our selective individualism is, at times, not so much because we want to deny somebody the agency to be their best self (though sometimes it is), but because Americans do maintain some collectivistic tendencies. We should be able to hold both of these things in our minds at once, but a failure to consider the complex nuances in balancing the individual and the community often creates a tension that is present in many areas of American life, and it is a tension that may not be easily resolved. Three important areas which provide a good starting point for continuing to explore this tension are sports, Christianity, and politics.

Player empowerment has been one of the most important developments in American sports in the last decade. Players, especially in the NBA, have more control over their careers and are more able (and encouraged) to express their personalities than ever. It’s brought many positive changes, as it favors labor over management, makes the players more fun and the league more dramatic, and allows for players to speak out on issues from mental health to institutional racism. Not everyone is pro-player though, and, as happens too often, disagreement leads to polarization. Andrew Luck’s retirement from the NFL is a complicated matter, but nuanced responses were drowned out by voices on either “side” of an issue that shouldn’t have sides, as some view him as a hero brave enough to do what he wants with his own life, and others think he’s a wimp who betrayed his teammates and fans. It’s a problem if we’re letting our opinions bifurcate like that.

Player movement from team to team in the NBA provides an excellent case study in tension within individualism. While I think player empowerment is generally a positive thing, the manner in which star players are forcing their way off certain teams and onto others is an unfortunate development. Not everyone agrees with me, and younger NBA fans are gravitating towards being fans of players rather than teams, following them from stop to stop. I want players to be happy at work – I want everyone to be happy at work. I want labor to have power over management – my test results came back Democratic Socialist. But you know what? I think Kevin Durant is a punk. I think Kyrie Irving is a clod. And I hope *sarcasm* they have fun together in Brooklyn.

Team sports are about collective endeavor and loyalty. Players should see themselves as part of a community that includes teammates, fans, and – yes – the name on the front of the jersey. At the end of a decade of player empowerment, American sports fans are having trouble sorting out our understanding and appreciation of players vs teams. There’s a way to love and support players while prioritizing the club – English soccer fans seem to do it (well, unless the player is Black and playing for Chelsea). Some individual freedom has to be sacrificed for sports to work, and players who commit to a team should be celebrated. Is it possible that prioritizing teams can foster dangerous tribalism and sometimes brings out the worst of us? Yes. But whether or not sports are good for society is another discussion. For now, I maintain sacrificing teams for the sake of individual players could erode the bedrock of sports, and that’s worth considering even as we encourage players to be themselves and live their best lives. Maybe you don’t care about sports, but you live in a community that does.

Christianity places great value on individuals. It’s about having a personal relationship with God, and Protestant Christianity believes in “the priesthood of all believers.” Anti-abortion Christians are, supposedly, motivated by the belief that every single human being is made in the image of God, and therefore worth protecting from the earliest stages. But individualism is also a serious threat to the health of the local church – the essential nexus where God’s power acts through Christians in the world. The associate pastor at my family’s home church preached recently from 1 Corinthians 12, and challenged the congregation to all use their spiritual gifts for the good of the church. He contrasted the way in which American Christians sometimes have to be nudged towards serving to his time in South Korea where he found people thought of the church community before themselves.

The early churches were communes, more or less, but many of today’s churches fail to even be communities. In order to be a healthy, Christ-centered community, the individual members must relegate some of the values which define both conservative and liberal thought. Being a Christian and being a part of a church does not mean erasing the individual, but it does require a recognition of the ways in which individual desires can get in the way of the collective good, and some individual sacrifices must be made. However, failure to account for the way the Christian experience varies from person to person is a constant source of pain and failure as well. Being one in Christ is not the same as being the same in Christ.

It’s not impossible to develop and practice a nuanced vision for individuals living in community within churches, but it’s going to be challenging as long as we are uncritical in our understanding of individualism, collectivism, and their relationship. If you’re not a Christian, you might not think what goes on in churches has anything to do with you, but the health of Christian communities has implications for the planning of next month’s potluck as well as next year’s election.

Tensions don’t always resolve themselves. My guess is that we will find a more tenable position in sports relating to player empowerment, but I can’t predict what that will look like or when it will happen. I hope that more and more churches will return to early church roots while opening their minds to the potential for diversity of identity and experience among their members, but I also think there will always be more ineffective churches than good ones. But if there is anywhere that our messy version of individualism is unlikely to resolve itself, and thus pave the way to further tension, it’s politics, which has unfortunately become a stand-in for our overall worldviews.

Liberal ideology favors the protection of diverse, traditionally marginalized individuals, but liberal ideology also favors using government to put actions into place that will, for better and worse, make individual people do things they don’t want to do (but, seriously, who are these people who luuuuuv their private health insurance?). Liberal ideology wants the individual to flourish in whatever way they see fit, but also envisions a reorganization of government and economics powered by collectives of reformers – and a team that powerful requires individual sacrifices. All these goals can be acheived, but it will require articulating – with nuance and complexity – the relationship between individual freedoms and the common good.

However, there’s a half a country (eh, less than half, if we’re counting the way we should be counting) working out its own complicated vision of individuals and collective, a vision that is looking through a different set of binoculars. Conservatives want individuals to be able to do whatever they want, but they also place great value in the notion of citizenship as defined by government, and are keen on excluding certain people from those rights. Many conservatives long to labor together to create a wholesome society, but believe that society can be achieved through banning certain drugs and certain marriages and maintaining a militarized police force in the hopes of achieving law and order. Conservatives think everyone will benefit from the individual freedoms granted through free market capitalism, even though millions of people have suffered as a result of greedy individuals. There’s a lot of good in the conservative vision, but it cannot be achieved unless some of the contradictions are worked out.

Disagreement is part of politics, and I’m not making another tired, ineffectual call for unity. I want to move past pearl-clutching laments about how divisive these times are, and I want us to consider if there is something fundamentally contradictory about all of our visions of what it means to be American. If we can’t make clear-eyed assessments and articulations about individuals and communities in politics, then it is likely we will fail to do so in the other areas of our lives, most of which are, in some way, informed by the way we think about politics. A disordered, lazy political spirit could infect the rest of our culture, and if we, as individuals, allow ourselves to think about individualism in simplistic terms, we do so to the detriment of the community.

Consider, finally, the famous image of the Chinese man standing in front of the tank at Tienanmen Square.

This iconic image is a celebration of an individual. There is one human being visible, endangering himself as he stands up to big metal killing machines. We now know this individual as “Tank Man,” and a nickname can only be that unspecific when the accomplishment is truly legendary (like, you know, Star Wars Kid).

But making this image about the individual is a very American way of seeing it, isn’t it? It’s a limited vision. Perhaps we know that this is related to some protests at Tienanmen Square, but how many of us know what those protests were about? How many of us know that there were up to a million people involved in those protests? What if we see this individual as part of a whole? What if what see here is not just an incredible individual, but an incredible collective?

Tank Man showed great courage – that’s the easy takeaway. What the image says about his community is something worth giving a little more thought.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter

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