There is still – and perhaps always will be – something of a tug-of-war in the way humans interact when they are in groups…
This is often seen as a battle of conformity vs. individuality.
But is it that simple? What does individuality mean? Is conforming with what society expects of us always a “bad” thing?
In this article, we’ll explore these exact themes:
What is individuality?
Individuality is a collection of qualities that distinguishes a person from other people. Or, more generally, a thing which is separate from other things of the same kind.
An individual is said to be someone with their own needs and desires – and usually their own rights and responsibilities too.
Theories of the individual
The word and concept of the “individual” once largely referred to various states in physics or values in statistics which were indivisible – a thing of one.
In the “west”, the idea that describes an individual as a unique person possessing certain qualities only gained widespread traction after the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries.
This concept of individuality – as it is understood in large swathes of the “western” world today – owes much to philosophers like John Locke, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Søren Kierkegaard and Ayn Rand who expounded, debated and debated each others’ thoughts about enlightenment for the decades and centuries which followed.
But there are in fact several different theories of the individual and individuality from different historical periods and parts of the world. Some of the most important include:
Although it is largely held to be the idea of John Locke and other thinkers today, what is known as Empiricism – the idea that a person is a blank slate (tabula rasa) at birth and is gradually molded into an individual by their experiences and the culture in which they grow up – was actually first postulated five centuries earlier by thinkers like Ibn Tufail in the parts of Spain governed by the Moors.
However, it was Locke and his contemporaries whose ideas eventually spawned the modern concept of individualism.
In Buddhism, there is not really said to be any such thing as an individual. A Buddhist might argue that what appears to be an individual is more of an impression given by a bundle of thoughts and processes which happen to act together.
This is a very simplified summary of the concept of anatman, meaning “no self.” This concept states that there is not really any separate individuals – just the appearance of individuals within a connected universe.
The principle thinker behind objectivism is usually said to be Ayn Rand. Rand suggests that only an individual man or woman can have rights. She also argues that cooperation between human groups is only possible by recognizing the individual rights of each of those groups’ members.
According to Rand, groups and societies cannot have rights. Only an individual has inalienable rights and, as a rational being, they have them from birth.
Individuality vs. individualism
The difference between individuality and individualism can be briefly summarized like this:
Individuality – a person’s individuality is all of the qualities which make them an individual, separate from other people. These are things like their beliefs, goals, desires and rights.
Individualism – is an ideology or political philosophy which supports the autonomy of individuals and the idea of a person’s individuality being important or desirable.
An easy way to think about the difference is that while every human has some degree of individuality, not every human exists in a society or culture which promotes individualism.
Conformity vs individuality
The opposite of individuality is usually said to be conformity.
Conformity involves identifying the norms or beliefs of a given group or society and seeking to match them, acting in concordance with the group’s attitudes and behaviors.
As opposed to individuality, conformity is sometimes held up as a negative. But there are certain situations in which conforming with society makes sense…
For example, conforming with local traffic norms is probably desirable. So is following the norms of your education system (to at least some degree!) so you can learn vital tools for later life.
Even in societies which pride themselves on their individualism, some degree of conformity is almost always present.
Why is individuality important?
While conformity is not necessarily a “bad” thing, a real or perceived loss of individuality can become challenging to functioning in society.
When an individual loses a sense of value in their own individuality it can have all kinds of outcomes:
- Low self-esteem
- Low desire to achieve their potential
- Few long-term or even short-term goals or dreams or passion to realize them
Some have argued that a person can feel as if their individuality is more under siege in a society which lauds the ideas of individualism, but which then actively persecutes individuals who stray from the norms disseminated from a central authority.
Others have argued that societies which prize conformity lack innovation and drive, though this doesn’t always seem to be born out by history.
These arguments are important to consider though:
Because conformity and individuality are not necessarily two points at either end of a spectrum. They are, perhaps, better thought of as two ideologies which can and do coexist in every society or group to a greater or lesser extent.
Neither of them is necessarily morally good or morally bad.
Coping with a loss of individuality
The hectic pace and bombardment of modern life can make it all too easy to feel like you are simply one cog in a huge machine which does not have much regard for your personal desires and needs.
For most people suffering individuality crises like this, a vacation is often the stop-gap solution. Regular breaks to get out into nature are also recommended.
Reassessing how they have chosen – consciously or unconsciously – to “fit” into society is also one of the reasons why people visit the Spirit Vine Center. That’s because an ayahuasca experience can be a great way to reconnect with what is really important in life.
The ayahuasca experience has led many people to make serious changes to the way they have chosen to act on their individuality – as well as the degree with which they choose to conform and to find healthier ways to participate within society.