Monday, April 19, 2010
The Beginning of the Age of the Individual
Last week I read a brief blurb in Politico, in which a scholar expressed his opinion as to why labor union membership was in sharp decline. The scholar stated that, in his opinion, the decrease was a result of the fact that people are now inclined to think more individually than communally. He added that this trend will become more, not less pronounced with time. Backing up this claim, he noted how, these days, people get jobs by packing their resumes full of exhaustively long lists of individual accomplishments. Americans have always been resistant to thinking as a group and placing group priorities above individual gain, but with the death of labor, one of the most notable exceptions to the rule, expect more problems to manifest themselves that have their nexus due to a hyper-individualist attitude.
This past weekend I attended an all day training session full of young politicos. Each of them had carved out a very specific niche job for themselves. They knew exactly what names to drop, terms to cite, and how to act the part. They had the right parents. They had attended the right school. They had made the right connections. However, they also seemed for all the world like blind moles, digging diligently away through their own unique tunnel, ultimately unable to see anything else beyond it. In so doing, they did not grasp the intersection between ideas and concepts, or, for that matter, the big picture. Instead, having been groomed almost since birth to do a very specific task a very specific way, they failed to understand the reason why it is important to see past one's own immediate job responsibilities to view the larger picture. This kind of setup shortchanges everyone, especially when successful political campaigns require group vision, not just slavish devotion.
The political agenda we wish to put into place as activists would be much easier if people identified more as a collective body rather than as individuals. This is true for ministerial efforts within a faith group, labor organizing, electioneering, or any number of related functions. We must understand that a different kind of strategy and comprehension is needed, one that has the ability to reach across seemingly different skill sets while wholly disregarding much which may seem impressive on a resume. Big problems call for big ideas, and being a worker bee is only as effective so long as conditions at the hive never change. Anyone who has ever worked on a campaign or observed it in action knows that the old adage is true--the only constant is change. Often too many people are indebted to the process, seeing it in terms of some mathematical formula that always produces the same solution every time. Their faith in is the infallibility of the plan, but it should be noted that nothing produced by human hands will ever be perfect or beyond correction.
Movements, elections, and religious gatherings have lived or died based on their ability to adapt to change and not fight it. The most successful ones have taken into account a desire to think outside the box. Doing so isn't just good sense, but it also is imperative to the group's overall health. Similarly, it is vitally important to include a strong component of critical thinking into educational strategies, starting at a young age. It's not enough to know what to think. We need to be able to know how to form our own unique viewpoint by applying what we have learned to create our well-reasoned arguments and opinions. In what might seem like a paradox, learning how to think doesn't produce separation between people, rather, it provides context.
With context comes the realization of commonality and common purpose with others. Learning the letter of the law is adequate, but learning the spirit of the law in addition provides a richer understanding. Connecting the dots should not merely be the domain of those who wish to take high-level leadership roles; it should be for all. For example, Martin Luther sought to translate the Bible into the vernacular so that all might be able to read it without having to use a priest as an intermediary for interpretation. He believed that a personal connection with God through individual study of the scriptures was empowering. Before, those who did not have the ability to learn Latin were unable to study the text, and those who did know Latin managed to do so because they were wealthy enough or privileged enough to receive it. This decision, among many others, was enough to split all of Christendom in two.
A particularly powerful irony is that a focus on individual accomplishment and achievement have, to some degree, made us different from each other. But in reality, in acting this way, we are behaving quite similarly. Stuck in the grooves of a planned track for the whole of our life, we are no different than other people following their own path in their own way. When we structure our very lives this way, we sacrifice not just a more effective means of looking at a problem, but also we forsake a bit of our humanity. Individualism taken too far is little more than isolation and when we adopt it wholesale, we do not recognize that every person feels a strong need to be a part of something greater than himself or herself. Those who I sat with during the training all felt this same desire. However, they didn't recognize that only by comprehending the whole and applying it to one's own experience is what builds true unity. By contrast, learning only the specifics and grinding away at it unintentionally fosters distance and disunity.
As the population of this world continues to spike, there will be a temptation to break people down into more manageable groups separated by niche and identity. This temptation must be strongly resisted, because it runs contradictory to our needs as humans. Connecting the dots and drawing parallels allows us to recognize, first and foremost, that each of us functions in slightly different, but largely similar ways. We then realize that we really are in this together. Recall again the example of the young politicos at the training session who were experts in a very particular task, but novices regarding the entire process. I'm not seeking to point them out to pick on them---only in an effort to cite that they are true believers in a philosophy that they see as integral to their own success in life. They have never felt any need to question the system and, sadly, few of them will.
At this point I could easily launch into a familiar screed about bad parenting styles while ripping into those parents whose hyper-achieving, self-centered ways have completely corrupted their children. I will refrain because such arguments have long since passed into cliche and are now teetering on the brink of parody. I don't need to conjure up a bogeyman to make my case. Many parents have failed to make the same connection as their children and often for the same reasons. As a society, we owe it to ourselves to have an extended dialogue about where we place our priorities from now going forward. Do we continue to rely on the paid expert with the briefcase who lives more than fifty miles away, designed to translate our metaphorical Bible for us? Or, rather, do we adopt a kind of self-sufficiency that is oddly not especially selfish, but is highly sufficient for our needs? A Jack of all Trades might not necessarily have to be a master of none.