The Paradox of Mass Individualism

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“Be true to yourself.”

“Honor who you truly are.”

“Don’t be afraid to stand out.”

And so on, and so on, and so on: the trite clichés of popular me-centric culture.

Shortly after moving to California in 1991 I went to a party. Everyone (and I mean everyone) was talking in clichés which I later learned were catch-phrases from TV shows and well-known lines from movies. An earnest young man (and I was young too, back in those far-off days…) sat down next to me and proceeded to ask my opinion about some TV show. I explained I never watched TV.

He said, “Sure, I get that, but you must have seen XXX, right? So what did you think when Mary said YYY to Jane?”

In his mind (and in the minds of everyone else at the party, as I later discovered) the phrase “I don’t watch TV” meant “I only watch two or three hours per night.”

It was simply incomprehensible that a person would not watch television, and indeed would not even own a television. That would be akin to trying to imagine someone doing something utterly bizarre like reading a book for the pure pleasure of it.

As I embedded myself into the cultural life of the San Francisco Bay Area I saw how everyone around me seemed to absorb whatever was transiently fashionable and completely forget whatever it was they’d thought the previous week. It was as if they were all corks bobbing about on the surface of a lake, buoyed up for a moment by the latest wave but having no awareness of their situation. It was a bit disturbing.

I came to call this phenomenon “the Reality Bites effect” after a Hollywood production of the same name that came out in 1994 and which led to everyone I knew saying “reality bites” at least once a minute for a week or two after having seeing the movie. Two months later everyone was onto a different catch-phrase, a different news scandal, untouched by any recollection of their former obsessions.

The great irony of American Individualism is that everyone must be individual in precisely the same way. There are the stock characters from which to choose (hipster dude, nerdy girl, muscle guy, plump wallflower intellectual, gay friend, capitalist shark, feisty girl in body-hugging outfit, etc.) but you can’t create your own persona. Just as was the case with choosing a name for your child in France for so many years, you can only pick something from the approved list. Deviation is strictly verboten.

That’s why the USA is so full of walking clichés. Want to imagine you’re more interesting that you really are? Get a tattoo! Get ten!

Want to imagine you’re “woke” (whatever that nonsense expression is supposed to mean)? Parrot the appropriate noises about pronouns and male privilege.

Want to feel modern and sexy? Download a few dozen must-have apps before they become yesterday’s stale memory-hogs.

Want to abjure empty consumerism? Purchase an experience!

Perhaps a huge country like the USA needs social glue of this kind. After all, a nation of 330 million individuals might be rather disconcerting, especially if many people began to think for themselves. Far easier for all concerned to dress up just another aspect of consumerism in the guise of self-expression. That way the corporations can keep making money, people can feel that they’re fitting into society (even when they prefer to think they’re rebelling), and everyone knows who everyone else is without needing recourse to name tags.

The only problem is, we’ve seen that show. It was called The Walking Dead.

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Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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