31 January 2010

How it feels living in an individualist society

The first time I traveled from Brazil to Germany was over a decade ago. Since then, I’ve been comparing people’s manners, habits and ideals without really understanding why South Americans and Europeans, for instance, can be so different in so many ways.

Why is religion so important, politicians are so corrupt and people are so friendly in some places, whereas other countries have been longer on the way to the establishment of a gender-neutral and individualist society?

After reading a book written by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, I've recently noticed that taking only people in account rather than the moral ideals that support their societies had been a mistake. In The Ethics of Authenticity (1992), Taylor helped me understand what the hack is going on in the USA, Canada and some European countries. Then it became also clear why Southern nations can be so resistant to the influences of the North.

I believe there are many other confused people out there. Most of them probably don know what they should believe or pursue. They might ask themselves how to get satisfaction and, what is even worse, who they actually are. If you’re one of them, perhaps you'll find this brief explanation handful. Please forgive me if it comes across as being too simplistic.

Freedom and equality

Do you remember what the French revolutionaries demanded? “Liberté, égalité et fraternité”. Democracy!

The West (I’d rather say the Northwest) killed all those three birds with one stone: Justice. With equality and freedom guaranteed by law, citizens could rely on the State and social hierarchies slowly started to disappear.

When people realized they didn’t need to follow God’s commandments or to beg for His mercy anymore, religion and its values became obsolete. Now think about what happened when people stopped believing in God and became able to seek self-fulfillment however they wanted.


According to Charles Taylor, that led to individualism and to a disenchantment of the world. It made the soil fertile for the growth of a “facile” relativism and instrumental reason – some peculiar terms that are interconnected and easy to assimilate.

In other words, individuals lost their faith in something “bigger” and turned their attention to themselves (individualism and disenchantment of the world); one could no longer tell the others what was good or bad (relativism); and the environment as well as people began to be considered mere instruments for individuals’ self-fulfillment (instrumental reason, the engine that moves the capitalism).

On the one hand, these societies allow you to be just the way you are. Nobody should tell you what to do or how to act. On the other hand, nobody gives a damn about you. If individuals are urged to find self-fulfillment on their own, there’s no need and no duty to help each other. It’s the egoistic side of individualism that makes Germans say “Das ist nicht mein Problem” (It’s not my problem), for instance, so often.


As Taylor points out, another “problem” for individuals is finding their own identity. If we’re no longer “sons and daughters of God”, and if most social hierarchy positions have vanished, then who are we? Now that everyone is free and has the same rights to be whoever they want to be, how can you differentiate yourself from the others?

It is a contradiction: we want to be equals, but also special. Look around you: you’ll see "the best this", "the top 10 that", "the most this" and ranking lists everywhere. We still want to be different or rather unique. And we want to be authentic. But who’s going to endorse your authenticity? Who’s going to confirm your identity? Maybe we’ll talk about this some other time.

1 comment:

welmoed said...

It's a good book isnt it!! Hope you're well Elton:)