What our world needs now is true individuals. We need individuals who are willing to step outside of the dominant groups, individuals who will not conform strictly to the expectations of the tribes. We need individuals who are willing to transcend the divides of partisanship and polarization, individuals who will refuse to simply take sides in response to genuinely complex issues, individuals who will courageously seek to understand and constructively challenge all sides. We need outstanding individuals who are truly willing to stand out from the groups and speak up about the problems they see in our societies wherever they occur. We need individuals who are willing to responsibly bear the burdens of being true individuals, for the purpose of identifying and addressing the problems we face, and for the positive advancement and benefit of all. We need true individuals who will be committed to manifesting their potential and following their individual conscience above all else.
Belonging to groups isn’t necessarily bad. We can often accomplish far more when we cooperate and work together. And despite the costs of belonging to groups, there are many significant benefits. Groups can provide safety and security. Groups can provide friendship, community, acceptance, and a sense of belonging. Group cultures can also establish common and predictable orders that provide stability and helpful resources for their members, which promote multiple positive benefits. Everyone needs groups to belong to. Living in separation from others is a harsh and dreadful existence that can end in insanity. This is why solitary confinement is one of the worst punishments a human being can be subjected to. We need one another, to a great extent, in order to discover and become our best selves.
And yet allying unconditionally with groups has immense costs as well, particularly for the individual, but also for the group. If I place my group’s expectations above my individual conscience, I may have to sacrifice my own individual conscience, perceptions, thoughts, beliefs, desires, and values in order to conform to those of the group. Part of individual development certainly involves voluntarily learning how to discipline oneself and make personal sacrifices for the good of others and the good of the group. But this can be taken too far, and when it is taken too far the cost is immense. Group cultures can also become tyrannical, rigid, stagnant, and oppressive forces, zealously imposed by their members in ways that demand strict conformity and uniformity at the cost of real individual diversity. Groups that consistently ignore and punish individuals will also eventually face extinction, because it is individuals who creatively revitalize and adapt the group’s heritage to meet present and future challenges, without which the group will ultimately ossify and fossilize like the dry bones of their ancestors. And indeed, allying unconditionally with one’s group can end in tribalism, the result of which is primitive social conflict and the loss of the individual.
Despite its benefits, being and becoming a true individual is fraught with many costs and challenges and risks as well. Sometimes groups will crucify true individuals. History testifies to this. But even if the group doesn’t go so far as to eliminate individual nuisances and troublemakers in this way, the group may instead choose to abandon or exile the individual as punishment for their independence. Because individuals may stand in opposition to the patterns, problems, and pitfalls of the group. Individuals uncomfortably challenge the status quo. And individuals who express independent viewpoints or exhibit interest and openness towards “outsiders” may be treated with suspicion and disdain. This kind of behaviour may be perceived as a violation of trust and a punishable act of betrayal by other members of the individual’s group. So being a true individual opens one up to the possibility of intense criticism, social rejection, hatred, and even violent punishment and abuse, and not just from one’s own group but potentially from every dominant group in society. This would be intolerable for most people, and understandably so.
But there are surely benefits to being an individual. Individuals may be more independent, authentic, and truer to themselves than the typical tribesman, following the dictates of their own conscience above the dictates of the group. Individuals may develop and manifest their unique potentials to the best of their abilities. Our societies have also been advanced by individuals, by those who heroically engage in difficult and even dangerous challenges in creative and new ways, thereby adapting beyond what has previously been achieved by those who came before them. Individuals may be the creators and innovators and world-changers who help move humanity forward.
There are costs and benefits to belonging to groups, and there are costs and benefits to being a true individual. So understand your options and pick the costs you are willing to pay along with the benefits you desire. And know you will not be able to have all of the benefits without any of the costs. One of the most challenging and necessary problems everyone must face in life is how they will simultaneously meet their social needs and their individual needs in a way that benefits themselves and others. One of our culture’s greatest advancements and achievements was granting inherent dignity, worth, and freedom to the individual. Yes, unrestrained individualism has its poverty and dangers. But I fear we are at risk of returning to dangerous forms of tribalism if we continue to marginalize and obscure the individual in favour of giving greater priority to groups. So may we each seek to become individuals, and may we each value and listen to the individual voices around us, and may we each have the courage to offer a truly individual response.