Longstanding tensions between the most perfect freedom of the individual and restraints on him or her for the good of society are the subject of a long philosophical and political history. At some of the blogs I read, debates have sparked considerable participation, but the perspectives are not drawn from the sociological and political realms. Instead, perspectives draw strongly on technology, media forms, and to a lesser degree, aesthetics. So while strictly political debate rages in other fora (which typically churn the waters but settle nothing), those to which I attend appear to be interested in understanding ourselves, even if only provisionally.
A most interesting discussion occurred at Text Patterns where the blogger has written a series of posts examining Clay Shirky’s various assertions, the principal ones being about the Wiki effect, crowd sourcing, and the wisdom of crowds, all of which are techno-Utopian and collectivist in character. Neither the blogger nor the commentators have really settled the matter, but there are many interesting contributions.
In contrast, at Vulgar Morality, where I have been a frequent commentator, the blogger frames, reframes, then states and restates his central thesis that the sovereignty of the individual with respect to self-determination and free agency is the central feature of moral philosophy. He frequently paints the proverbial everyman in valiant struggle against elites of one stripe or another who seek to exploit and/or control everyone not already within the oligarchical class.
I stumbled across the issue in my nonfiction reading as well, such as in the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu and in The Age of Oprah by Janice Peck. Taoist philosophy is beautiful in its understatedness and balance, whereas postmodern individualism is crass and banal. For example, Ch. 19, para. 1 (and elsewhere) of the Tao Te Ching exhorts the follower of the Tao to eschew wisdom and learnedness to avoid causing others embarrassment by inadvertent comparison. This mindfulness of one’s influence on others and the social good derived from downplaying one’s own erudition stands in start contrast to the very modern notion of creating a personal brand and networking the hell out of everyone in ongoing, brazen self-promotion. Seeing how Taoism is borne of a peasant society and naturalist worldview that no longer exist, we are all stuck (for now) with postmodern individualism.
In The Age of Oprah, Peck’s historical synopsis of the therapeutic enterprise in Ch. 2 offers that ever since the development of psychology in the late 1800s, various forms of therapy for supposed mental dysfunction have arisen and been replaced with newer forms as culture and scientific research update and refine notions of mental health. The importance of changing cultural influence might surprise some. According to the author, Oprah coopted a wave of New Age, self-help gurus from the 1980s and early 90s when she changed the emphasis of her talk show from being one of the so-called Trash Pack to being one of neofeminist therapy, self-help, and uplift.
Although Peck does not say this, the really interesting thing to me is that while the therapeutic enterprise from its beginnings promised various types of self-actualization, freedom, and individualism, the underlying impulse was always normative, which is to say, collectivist. What passes for effective individualism is to be subsumed into the dominant culture, mostly as an effective unit of productivity and consumption (a worker and consumer, no longer a citizen). Certain outliers who achieve success through adept manipulations and a large dose of luck are granted true freedom by virtue of their iconoclasm, financial power, and celebrity, but the rest of us succeed only insofar as we avoid attracting too much attention to ourselves and our uniqueness. After all, everyone knows that the powers that be can turn our lives into a world of hurt through arbitrary, baseless accusations and disinformation campaigns, or if we’re really unlucky, being reclassified as domestic terrorists for our temerarious thought-crimes.