In the land of the free and home of the brave, individuality is championed and rallied around. Synonymous with creativity, individualism finds itself in the form of art, entrepreneurship and even exploration. This is a concept that has grown on American soil for centuries, but it has morphed into a social epidemic.
Individualism in general, is a concept that values people as individuals instead of a group. When viewed through an American lens, this philosophy becomes the social norm. While individualism is not exclusive to Americans, it's prominent throughout the culture.
Spanning back to the 15th century, colonizers and explorers embarked on their journeys to the New World. Following their arrival, they faced illness, severe weather and many other harsh events. Their ability to fight adversity lasted all the way through the Revolutionary war in the 18th century.
Following the revolution, the new American government drafted the Declaration of Independence. With the main principle being “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” a clear nod to John Locke’s “life, liberty and property,” the government emphasized natural law. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “natural law emphasized duties, natural rights normally emphasized privileges or claims to which an individual was entitled.”
This underlying philosophy of the American experiment in government prioritized the sanctity of the individual, and thus the laws and customs developed in a way that facilitated the success of individuals over family. In today’s political climate, a common critique of the Republican party is that they’re self-serving. While the basis of that argument is a debate for another day, this self-serving behavior can be attributed to individualism and natural law.
The influences of individualism and family structures are tight-knit. Within the nuclear family structure, atomization and the just-world theory are commonly taught to children.
The just-world theory refers to the belief that the world is fair and that personal decisions determine social outcomes. If one’s personal decisions land them in an undesirable situation. This can lead to social atomization. This means they metaphorically fade into the background while being ignored and mistreated by other members of society.
These ideologies tie into individualism because one’s success and failure are contingent upon oneself. Since the U.S. is a capitalist construct, this widens the margins and creates more space for individualism. In this culture, the social and economic systems can be visualized similarly to a mountain; many people are at the bottom and very few at the top.
Picture this: imagine driving up a steep mountain, and at the top is social and financial success, while misery and poverty wait at the bottom. On the way, you spot someone along the road in need of help. If you stop to help them, you may never reach the American dream, but if you don’t, they'll continue to suffer.
This social dilemma is common in professional, political and economic facets of life in America. In pursuit of their best interest, most people would continue their drive up the mountain. This is largely because individuality has been woven into this country since the beginning. The mountain analogy also serves as an unfortunate reminder that a sense of community and compassion is dying in the U.S.
Reaching the American dream is the ultimate goal. So when today’s immigrants come to the U.S. looking for it, they stumble upon something vastly different than what the 15th-century colonizers found. Instead of a land filled with opportunity, they’re met with a society of individuals only looking to benefit themselves. If the American race for individualism continues, it may cause a social avalanche.
Jemiah Clemons is a 19-year-old kinesiology major from Miami, Florida.