The Problem of Individualism
Just about everyone desires inclusion — to belong in a narrative larger than their own and to know their lives have meaning outside of their own stories. But our postmodern culture centers itself on the individual narrative, claiming to celebrate difference, while neglecting the need of something that can unify. The ideological endpoint of deconstructing the individual narrative is this: no one is quite like anyone else. A culture centered on the continual demarcation (differentiation) of the individual is fundamentally in opposition to the concept of belonging. Everyone is alone.
Where we strictly define everyone’s individuality as being different from everyone else’s, there can exist no collective, as everyone is separated by their differences. There exists no cohesive narrative to join people in these differences. No one fits in. All individuals become isolated, and group antagonism rises as small collectives try to define themselves apart from larger ones. This breeds seclusion and discontent. No one is similar, we are all different.
What meaning is there in one paltry existence? If individual identity can be literally anything, and if it possesses no delimitation in its scope, then there exists an infinite number of things one can be. With the plethora of options available, one is left with nothing unifying to believe in — it is no small wonder we live in such a nihilistic time.
What is Identity?
Within the conversation surrounding individualism, the notion of identity is of the utmost importance. Commonly, this is seen as being a claim to what a person is. The phrase, “know yourself”, has historically been loosely thrown around in society — it has appeared in TV shows, inspirational posters, and advertising schemes. The phrase itself has its origins in the writings of the Greek philosopher Plato, through his mouthpiece Socrates, in the form of a claim: “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato, The Apology, 38a5-6). Plato is telling his reader to examine why they are the way they are. Identity is more than a statement of what a person is. To have self knowledge, one should provide a why — a reason that they are what they claim to be.
Suppose someone is angry. To say that they are angry is a statement of what they feel, what they are in that moment. But this only provides half of the story; they are angry, but why are they angry? Sadness is but an effect, what is the cause? How can they ever understand, and from that understanding, address and possibly rectify their anger, if they never understand the reason that they are angry? This reasoning can be applied to anything a person claims to be. Some explanations are simple, others much more difficult. Regardless, when defining our identities, the why is thus equally important to the what.
The Harmful Effects of a Post-Truth Culture
When discussing issues of identity today it is not enough to say that no one fits in. It is often argued that no one is really right anymore, that there is no such thing as truth. It has been remarked by many that we live in an era that is “post-truth”. What does this mean? At its philosophical root, it is the denial of a basic logical principle, the law of non-contradiction. “It is impossible to hold the same thing to be and not to be” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, IV). Between two contradictory claims, there is a true way. To accept contradictions is to discard truth.
Picture a contradiction as a crossroad — a subjective choice that must be made between two roads — each path holds the other as false. In a post-truth world, both are right. This worldview has followed from a time where we [culture] have not only discarded the notion of objectivity, but where we say all subjective opinions are the same. Saying something is wrong is a statement of power; putting one’s own subjectivity over another.
Suppose that cognitive dissonance (the mental state that stems from the awareness of holding contradictory beliefs) breeds mental anguish. This may require further argument, but it is plausible. Does it not seem to follow that telling people to accept their dissonant beliefs would intuitively breed greater dissonance? If one believes that both contradictory beliefs are equally true and valid, if they are their dissonance, then will this not increase anguish?
Take a morbid example of two irreconcilable opposing beliefs. Let us say that you are incredibly sad. You question why you are sad, and realize you believe both: “I should die because life is not worth living”, and “I don’t want to die, because it is a bad thing to kill oneself”. This belief will cause anguish. If both statements are equally true, arguably the contradiction will continue to tear the individual apart. Reason dictates that you choose. Either/or, not both.
A Freedom that Destroys Meaning
In Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety, it is individual freedom — the ability to quite literally be or do anything — that leads to that paralyzing fear which our society tells us is so unnatural. If this is the case, then there being no truth seems predisposed towards the production of anxiety. If individual identity can literally be a contradiction, then one free to be both a thing and not a thing at the same time. The possibilities are endless.
In a world with no reason, where the truth is dismissed, the individual must face the terrifying realities of total freedom — one can be anything, even if it what one claims was once regarded as being incoherent. It does not matter what one is. If there is no actual value in one being true to oneself, and one can be a true and false thing, then there is no meaning in any identity.
With no truth, self discovery is meaningless. If all identity is meaningless, and all individuals are secluded in their meaningless individuality, then we are all nothing. If nothing is true, there is nothing to know. An identity is a statement about what you know yourself to be. All people are different, and there are no true identities; therefore there are only subjective, temporal, meaningless labels. They are meaningless words, attempting to fill meaning in empty, meaningless individuals.
In the case where you are alone — isolated in your individuality — and you cannot reconcile the parts of you that contradict themselves, your unique identity is equally unknowable like everything else — truly a conceptual void.
One must hold to a truth that unifies, rather than divides. What is your truth?