Back in the early 1960’s, when psychologists could get away with a whole load of weird stuff, a now-infamous experiment took place at Yale University. Subjects were sat down by a man in a lab coat and were told to play a memory game with a learner. Each time the learner made a mistake, the subject was informed to administer an electric shock for every wrong answer, with the severity increasing from a light zap to a theoretically dangerous dose of volts.
Of course, there was no real danger. The learner was merely an actor, and no real electricity would be delivered. Yet this test, known as the Milgram experiment, and found that 65% of all subjects obliged in administering 450 volts, a potentially lethal amount of electricity, when instructed to by an authoritative figure (the man in the lab coat). 100% continued up until 300 volts. The mere presence and spurring of an authority figure was enough to cause otherwise peaceful, moral humans to inflict severe pain on their fellow man.
Stanley Milgram, the designer of the experiment, concluded a decade later that: ‘Each individual possesses a conscience […] But when he merges his person into an organisational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of humane inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority.’
In removing individual free will, human morality becomes shaped by arbitrary notions of authority. We become rule-followers, rather than free thinkers.
It is for this reason that every tyranny in history has been built on the eradication of individuality. The imposition of collectivist authority turns the individual into a mere cog within a greater machine, by which personal free will and coexistence is destroyed. Where individuals think, groups merely follow.
And yet, individualism is consistently attacked as being selfish, unempathetic, and dehumanising. For instance, in a recent article for The Broad, the communitarian nature of Vietnamese society is lawded as being an example of close-knit and interconnected, where even the most distant strangers help one another as though they would their own family. Meanwhile, the view of Thatcherite notion of British society as being made up only of individuals is referred to as isolating, and even socially-Darwinistic.
But while Vietnamese society may, as the author says, represent a close knit society, it also demonstrates the dark side of collectivism. Those who dissent against the Vietnamese state and community are violently suppressed. There are no political parties, unions, or human rights organisations in Vietnam – the state banned them all. There is no freedom of speech, expression, or religion. Vietnamese society may be unified, but that’s only because anyone who disagrees is violently shut down.
Meanwhile, the poor isolated Brit is free to associate with whoever and whatever they wish. Men and women of any religion may peacefully inhabit the same street. Tories, socialists, and everyone in between can drink at the same pub. Rather than force them into submission, as individuals they are able to simply coexist. This isn’t social Darwinism; it’s plurality.
This is the main virtue of the individuality. We are free to choose with whom we associate, and may be as open or shut-off as we see fit, but no-one can be silenced. Where the collectivist represses and removes all opposition, the individual tolerates and coexists.
We’ve seen enough history to know that tribal divisions in the name of ‘community’ have lead to nothing but violence and division. Meanwhile, the coexistence of self-interested individuals has led to peace and prosperity, with everybody seeing the benefit.
As Adam Smith very famously said; ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.’
Don’t buy into the idea that individualism is simply selfish isolationism. In reality, to be an individual is to be autonomous and free, and to exist peacefully even alongside your worst enemy. We might not talk to each other on the tube, but that sounds like a pretty wonderful society to me.