“Now, an army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap. The bilious bastards who wrote that stuff about individuality for the Saturday Evening Post don’t know anything more about real battle than they do about fornicating.” (Gen. George S. Patton’s Address to the 3rd Army, as rendered by George C. Scott in the movie “Patton” 1970. See video above, at 2:40 mark.)
Individual (n.) – early 15c., “one and indivisible, inseparable” (with reference to the Trinity), from Medieval Latin individualis, from Latin individuus “indivisible …”
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” (4 U.S. Code § 4)
“The origin of individuality was religious, and although often ignored or glossed over, in time the idea of human dignity adhering even to the lowest of the low, transformed society from a place of brutality to one in which the relief of suffering has assumed high priority.” (Richard Koch, “Is Individualism Good or Bad?”)
It’s a rare day when I decide to lead into one of my columns with a quote from an article at Huffington Post. But given what I have in mind for this article, I thought that an affirmation of the religious (in context, Christian) roots of American individualism, taken from that unlikely source, might be more striking. This is especially true when it is juxtaposed with the speech of an historical figure like Gen. Patton, quite popular in conservative circles (at least in the movie rendition of his life), in which he dismisses “stuff about individuality” with a pungent 4-letter word.
We live in a time, however, when the prerogatives of individualism have, to say the least, been taken to unprecedented extremes. I’m thinking, in particular, of the self-conceited assertions of gender now being enforced by law against all comers in places like California. Things have gone so far that scientific proof (for some the only acceptable rubric for distinguishing material claims of truth) has joined conscience on the ash heap of objective facticity. Where gender is concerned, seeing is no longer believing, no matter how sophisticated the method of observation.
Yet, though it appears to promote the prerogative of choice superficially associated with cultish worship of individuality, the implied rejection of distinguishing features, rooted in objective observation, also denies the prerequisite condition of all human choices, which involves distinguishing one thing from another, and similar things from all the rest. If, contrary to objective appearances, I can choose to be what they say I am not, why can’t others choose to see what they say I am? Why is my perception, contrary to material fact, more worthy of enforcement than someone else’s?
One is tempted to respond “because it’s my body.” But since this assertion of possession is purely a matter of will, why is it wrong to demand proof of the objective efficacy of that will? If you say “This is my hand,” then close it into a fist, this goes some way toward proving your assertion true. But, by the same token, if you say “I am female,” but cannot, on your own, alter your body’s male characteristics, how does this failure signify proof of ownership?
In the not that distant past, we could take it for granted that people had to distinguish between those aspects of their existence that are simply subject to an individual’s will, and those that are not. One could move the body’s hand, arms, or legs in continuity with this or that concept of action. There was no break or separation between the movement of the will and the movement of the body. This sense of undivided unity echoes the root concept of individualism. But if the body appears in one way, the mere assertion that it exists in some other way implies an extension of unity without regard to the contrary to the will of others, guided by their perception.
But if one seeks to impose one’s selfish view of objective facts on others, against their objectively determined will, the bounds and determinations that distinguish one from those others must be disregarded. Erase the determinations that distinguish one from another with such disregard, and the individual will disappears. So, the imposition of one’s self-conceit on others, without regard to the objective facts that constitute their separate existence, doesn’t assert individualism—as a matter of consequential fact, by denying the formalities that distinguish one thing from another, it destroys the individual, as such.
The perceived existence of the individual relies on differences that distinguish one thing from another. But at the same time this differentiation represents the will to overcome those difference in ways that affirm the organic unity of disparate things. I see the difference between legs and arms. But in moving to pick up a sandwich, I will obviate that perception, so that legs and arms move as required to do so. Individualism is, in effect, the assertion of unity with respect to an immaterial whole that appears in the activity of the body, but remains, in my consciousness, different and distinct from it. But if we deny to the actions of others this material difference, transcended in reference to ourselves, we erase the distinction that, by revealing those others to us as distinct beings, reveals us to them as similarly distinct.
The distinct existence of individuals thus demands reciprocal forbearance in respect of the material differences that allow each individual to appear as such. Those material differences act as a mediator, limiting the significance of one’s own will in ways that signify respect for the similarly limited will of others. But isn’t this mutual forbearance precisely what one is required to observe in reality, when acting according to the famous “Golden Rule,” which Christ represented as the standard of human goodwill? Where all generally respect that rule, doesn’t the assertion of individualism, thus rightly understood, become the mutual and cooperative exercise of right that allows a group of individuals to live as one nation, undivided because of their allegiance to the rule by which their Creator prescribes the possibility of their union? Cast aside respect for that rule, and licentious individualism commits humanity to bedlam, along with the nation they might otherwise preserve.