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Individualism Is a Social Justice Issue
Real justice is impossible without taking the individual life into account
In many social justice circles, especially ones dedicated to racial justice, individualism is considered a negative quality. Those who embrace this idea typically understand individualism as diversity, equity and inclusion consultant Tema Okun does: “a toxic denial of our essential interdependence and the reality that we are all in this, literally, together.”
Those who deem race a person’s primary characteristic may, either implicitly or explicitly, embrace and promote race essentialism: the belief that racial groups are monolithic, comprised of people who share the exact same values, beliefs, outlooks, fears and hopes. One’s status as an individual is secondary, tertiary or simply not taken seriously at all.
But Okun’s take on individualism is erroneous. Group identification devoid of true individualism is one of the main obstacles to real social justice because it suggests a dogma that, by definition, does not take into consideration the details and distinctions of an individual life. By extension, such group consciousness hampers our ability, as a society, to have generative conversations across ideological differences.
Fortunately, Okun’s take on this topic is not the only one. Classical liberals also have ideas about individualism. For example, what F.A. Hayek calls “true individualism” also includes the concept of interdependence, or the idea that each individual needs other individuals to some degree. No one can do it all on his or her own. Even a hermit living a reclusive life needs the surrounding ecosystem to survive. However, the fact that one can choose hermetic living over other lifestyles in the first place is a result of individual freedom.
In truth, Okun’s interpretation is the opposite of true individualism. The hyper-individualism she inveighs against is a strawman and not possible, even if people believe, contrary to their lived experience, that it is. Civil society would not work without acknowledging our interdependence.
Importantly, true individualism is not a rejection of group affiliation. It is a rejection of the idea that groups, especially racial groups, are necessarily monolithic and all-encompassing.
The main issue is “group consciousness,” but this concept should not be confused with an all-out dismissal of groups. As Duke University political scientists Paula McClain and her co-authors have written in a 2009 paper, group consciousness “is in-group identification politicized by a set of ideological beliefs about one’s group’s social standing, as well as a view that collective action is the best means by which the group can improve its status and realize interests.”
Most certainly, this is what Nikole Hannah-Jones meant when she tweeted there is a “difference between being politically black and racially black.” Although group consciousness applied to race is often called race consciousness, this is not what is meant by “racially Black.” Specifically, those who are race conscious abide by a particular ideology that involves in-group preference, out-group culpability for the in-group’s problems, and a disapproval of narratives and ideas that do not align with the group’s ideology.
What’s more, group consciousness is so ingrained that anything that happens to an individual in a group has, in effect, also happened to everyone in the group. Slogans like “I am Michael Brown,” for instance, exemplify this.
This is not to say that empathy is a bad thing, but existential identification with someone based on a trait like race is misguided and stifling, leading to what may be the most detrimental and erroneous aspect of group consciousness: linked fate. As McClain et al. explain, linked fate denotes the use of the social standing of a group as a proxy for one’s individual identity, i.e., an individual’s fate is inevitably and intricately linked to that of the group. Any individual that seems to escape this fate is considered an exception.
Sen. Tim Scott recently made headlines when he countered the idea of linked fate during his appearance on the daytime talk show “The View.” When confronted with the idea that successful Black people from downtrodden upbringings are an exception, he stated, “I believe America could do for anyone what she's done for me: restoring hope, creating opportunities, and defending and protecting the America that we love. It's such an important combination.” He concluded that the “exception” of Black fulfillment can be made into the norm through education.
“One of the ways that we can restore hope in this country is to focus on our education system. We have too many kids in poor zip codes trapped in failing schools. I want parents to have a choice so kids have a bigger chance.” Scott’s point is that one’s zip code is not one’s life sentence; fates are not existentially linked to such things. Sadly, for having such optimism about the power of individual gumption, he was sardonically labeled “Professor Positive” and someone who “doesn’t get it” by one of the show’s hosts, a well-to-do white woman.
In addition to politicians, like Sen. Scott, who denounce the idea of linked fate, the concept also has been debunked by behavioral science mainly because it relies on the idea that individuals who have the same skin color experience the world in the same ways. Scott’s insistence that Black achievement can be normalized regardless of background, combined with the critique from the behavioral sciences, illuminate the fallacious reasoning behind linked fate and group consciousness in general.
A salient difference between those who do and do not embrace group consciousness is a matter of what psychologists Dolores Albarracin and Amy Mitchell call “defensive confidence.” Individuals who feel they can confidently defend their ideas are less likely to embrace group consciousness strongly, if at all.
Those who do not feel confidence in defending their ideas may see group consciousness as a ready-made shortcut to thinking; the answer to critical inquiry or refutation is always already in some or all of the group’s ideological tenets, maxims and talking points. Those who embrace group consciousness do not have to think of ways to defend their ideas; the group does it for them.
Perhaps most importantly, people with defensive confidence seem more likely to entertain opposing ideas and, therefore, are more likely to understand and even potentially align with those ideas. Perhaps counterintuitively, individuals with the most defensive confidence are more likely to have their minds changed by opposing views simply because they are willing to engage them.
Not surprisingly, individuals who embrace group consciousness and enjoy a kind of group confidence are less likely to entertain opposing viewpoints. This suggests defensive confidence better ensures communication across differences than does group consciousness.
So individualism is not a symptom of a divided society but one of its remedies. It is more conducive to self-actualization (as opposed to group actualization), and it actually fosters communication across differences.
Defensive confidence—aligned with self-efficacy, agency, positive self-regard—is a kind of empowered individualism that, when not beholden to race or some other form of group identity, is more open to exploring possibilities ignored by those who fear scrutiny of their group-oriented outlook.
Such individualism is liberating and empowering, whereas group consciousness—even if it staves off fear and anxiety—is an ideological prison.