Individualism, a hallmark of our society, is now our own worst enemy
In our country now, as the pandemic rages, with many people refusing to wear masks as a means of protecting themselves and others, I have had the occasion to take a backward look at some of my personal experiences, as a means of being able to have a better understanding of what the hell is going on here with people’s attitudes about face masks.
A little bit of background. Or, rather, a lot of background.
In his introduction to Making America: The Society & Culture of the United States, the book’s editor, Luther S. Luedtke offers on pages 19 and 20 a list of what he calls “America’s traditional core values.”
For the sake of completeness, I will offer here the entire list from those pages, even though my focus for this essay will be on one single item (bold and italicized) from that list:
* An activist approach to life, based on mastery rather than passive acceptance of events
* Emphasis on achievement and success, understood largely as material prosperity
* A moral character, oriented to such Puritan virtues as duty, industry, and sobriety
* Religious faith
* Science and secular rationality, encouraged by a view of the universe as orderly, knowable, and benign, and emphasizing an external rather than inward view of the world
* A progressive rather than traditionalist or static view of history, governed by optimism, confidence in the future, and a belief that progress can be achieved by effort
* Equality, with a horizontal or equalitarian rather than hierarchical view of social relations
* High elevation of individual personality, rather than collective identity or responsibility
* External conformity
* Tolerance of diversity
* Efficiency and practicality
* Nationalism and patriotism
* Idealism and perfectionism
* Mobility and change
I encountered Dr. Luedtke’s book in 2003, just a few months into my two-year service as a Peace Corps Volunteer, representing my country in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, a nation approximately the size of Texas and New Mexico, located in the West African Sahara Desert.
I had been asked, as part of my service, to teach a class called American Civilization at the local teacher training institute, École Normale Supérieure (ENS). When I asked if I could peruse the textbook I would be using for this class, the director told me there was none. When I inquired about the curriculum for the class, the director told me there was none.
Then what do you want me to teach? I asked. His answer was as short as it was unhelpful. He told me, “Oh, you know. The Mayflower, the Civil War. Stuff like that.”
I decided to interpret his response as, “You’re on your own.” With no guidance, I would simply have to figure this out somehow.
Though at that time, I had recently retired after a 34-year career as a teacher in San Francisco’s public schools, this was a challenge that, at the age of 56, I had never encountered in my teaching career. I needed to find some sort of guidance in this endeavor, and I was clearly not getting it at the ENS.
Fortunately, I was based in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, a sprawling city of approximately a million inhabitants, roughly one-third of the nation’s population. One of the resources I approached for help in this matter was the Nouakchott English Center (NEC), where I was permitted to root through its modest collection of books, which filled only about half a dozen shelves.
That’s where I found the aforementioned book by Dr. Luedtke, with its list of “America’s traditional core values.” I had been living in Mauritania for only a few months, but one thing was already clear to me: every item on this list was about as opposite as one could possibly get to what might have been called “Mauritania’s traditional core values,” if such a list existed.
I used these eighteen bullet points to fashion the curriculum I needed in order to teach the course. I reasoned that being able to understand another country’s values could be boosted by offering a direct comparison to one’s own.
That school year, I based each class on the discussion of these values, one at a time. We began each lesson by talking about the way Mauritanians lived their lives; then I brought in the opposite perspective from my home country.
My students were as eager to learn about the USA, in English, as I was to learn about their own lives, values, and culture. Most of my students were training to work as English teachers in their country’s schools. They were already fluent enough to be able to converse about such weighty and meaningful topics such as comparing the differences in our two societies.
Several of the topics from the list of values were so fascinating to all of us that we held our discussions over the course of two or more class sessions. It was the “High elevation of individual personality, rather than collective identity or responsibility” that engendered some of the most spirited conversations during the course of that school year.
It was easy for me to remain relatively neutral in our discussions because even though I had lived my entire life in the country of my birth, Mauritania had become the 41st country I had ever visited. I, therefore, had not only already witnessed a variety of different societies in countries located on four continents, but I had learned, from my personal experiences, to view disparities between cultures as different ways of doing things, rather than as better ways of doing things.
As such, I never proposed the perspective that our way - the American way - of life was the one and only correct way to live in this world; I was - and I remain - open to the idea that, yes, there are other ways to do things. No society has an approach that is going to suit every inhabitant of our planet.
Some of the collectivism that I had seen in action
During the three months of my Peace Corps training, I spent most of the time living with a family in the town of Kaédi. But I also spent a few weeks in the capital, where I stayed with another family. It was with the Nouakchott host family where I witnessed a gathering of women who comprised a group called el kiiss, an Arabization of the French for la caisse (literally, cashier, as in being the holder of a bank of money).
El kiiss, also known more widely as tontine, has not only a financial purpose, but it also serves as a social outlet for the women who are its members. The way it works is fairly basic: at every gathering, each participant contributes a small sum of money. Those small sums eventually add up to a much larger amount. When one of the members needs to pay for something as substantial as a medical operation, a party celebrating the birth of a child, a or a refrigerator, the group allocates its funds to that member so that she could make the purchase.
Along these same financial lines, one of my students told me in a classroom conversation that he was “honored” to be able to offer financial assistance to his brother-in-law’s family during the time that the brother-in-law was out of work. He explained that in doing so, he realized that if the situation had been reversed, he and his family would be cared for by that brother-in-law.
Yes, he said “honored”! Imagine one of our countrymen using that word, as opposed to referring to his brother-in-law as a “good-for-nothing lazy SOB.” I doubt very much that most Americans would consider it an “honor” to care for a family member in this way.
In collective societies such as Mauritania, as well as in many others around the world, building and maintaining relationships has a significantly higher value than operating a business. This clearly came across to me on countless occasions during my two years there. Just a few examples:
When I sought a visa for my visit to Guinea, I showed up at the embassy during the hours that were clearly posted on its locked door. Where was everyone? It says here that they’re supposed to be open!
The security guard explained to me that the ambassador’s wife was ill, so the secretary, who would ordinarily be tending to my business if the embassy were open, had gone to a pharmacy to retrieve the necessary medication.
Clearly, the personal relationship that the secretary had with the ambassador’s wife superseded the business of a foreigner seeking a visa.
This also played out on occasions when there had not even been an established personal relationship. Numerous times, I arrived at shops where the staff was seated (on the floor) around the communal platter of food, eating their lunch, and before I could even ask for what I sought, I was invited to join them for lunch.
Mealtimes are like that in Mauritania. People coming to a home during a meal are never told to come back later. Rather, the value of this collective society is that they are always invited to join the meal in progress.
So, what’s wrong with individualism?
While I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with individualism per se, I most definitely see that there are concerns with the way it is currently playing out in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic. People’s sense of individualism is causing great harm, as witnessed by the many videos that have been posted on the Internet, documenting the masses of people who are refusing to wear masks, claiming that their “personal rights,” their “personal freedoms,” their personal wishes are of greater importance than the health and welfare of the people around them.
Even though another American core value is “science and secular rationality,” as found on the above list, there are, sadly, too many people who are denying the way this virus spreads, refusing to make a manageable sacrifice, not only for their own benefit, but also for the common good of all people whose paths they cross.
As a result, we now find ourselves to be in a situation that could have been contained, that could have seen us on a path towards normality, and that could have largely been avoided. But there are too many selfish and thoughtless people, totally unmoved by the death toll - currently at more than 145,000 people in the USA - on the basis of their perceived “freedoms,” and “rights” being threatened.
So, yeah. That’s one thing that is wrong with the brand of individualism as currently practiced in the USA, especially when compared to the collectivism that we see being played out in many other societies around the world.