The individual in a society

There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then to look after our neighbour.

Margaret Thatcher, 1987

Since the 1980s in the UK and US (less so in other parts of the world), the idea of the individual as the preeminent unit on which all importance is placed has been the prevailing view in politics, business and the media. Of course the individual as an important concept is not an idea which was discovered in the 1980s, but it has certainly been pushed harder and harder as the ultimate goal for which we should all strive.

Under this doctrine, achieving whatever we can as an individual, be it educationally, financially, politically, is of prime importance, and if this is at the expense of other people’s health and happiness, so be it. We worship those who make more money than could be spent in a hundred lifetimes, we desire to become famous simply for the sake of fame, education is to see us to an important job so we can buy the latest phone, spending money we do not have on things we do not need is a virtue.

Individualism reigns supreme, society is dead.

There is only one problem with this idea (well there are lots of problems, but I want to focus on one). Individuals do not live in isolation. Individuals live together in groups, families, neighbourhoods, cities, countries, the planet. We might well be an individual, but we live in a society as well, and neglecting society entirely in favour of the individual unit is I think doomed to fail.

You will have no doubt noticed we are currently in the midst of a global pandemic. Coronavirus, and the disease it causes COVID19, is wreaking havoc around the world, with hundreds of thousands sick and sadly thousands having lost their lives so far. It is the number one problem to be solved globally at present, temporarily knocking climate change from the top spot.

Governments of all colours have reacted in a variety of ways to the crisis, and I am well aware the UK government is currently coming under pressure for seeming to not do enough to protect the public. This post is not directly about the government, although this government has a share of the blame as previous administrations do.

Rather, this post is about the response individuals have had to the crisis, and how this has highlighted in stark relief the flaw in the individualist mantra.

I have written before about panic buying and some of the, in part understandable, reasons people may find themselves stockpiling. I stand by what I have written there, but the deeper this crisis has gotten, the more I am realising it is bringing to the fore the individualistic nature which has been ingrained in a large section of the populace. For days now, people have been stockpiling pasta and tinned goods and toilet roll (?!). Photos on social media show empty shelves, and worse empty boxes and broken tins scattered across aisles with seemingly no regard for the people who come later or who work in the store and have to tidy the mess up. I have heard stories of fights over the basic essentials, and have seen videos of people racing each other with trolleys to gorge themselves on the latest delivery of toilet roll. In Tennessee a man has found himself the owner of nearly 18000 bottles of hand sanitiser he cannot sell and I have less than no sympathy for him (does that make me as bad as the people I am ranting about?)

I am certain for the most part these items will not all be used by the person buying them. No individual or family can go through the hundreds of toilet rolls being purchased by people. No one, short of the owner of an Italian restaurant, could have a use for 50kg of pasta. No one needs to own their body weight in beans.

Meanwhile, behind them, people with genuine needs, the elderly, disabled, vulnerable, people who often have little and who will likely be most badly hit by COVID19, are left to pick over the scraps in the stores, having to make do with whatever has been left by those who have seen to themselves first, while everyone else is to be damned.

I know in part this is because of fear; fear of the unknown, fear for our health, our loved ones, our lives. But I also think this crisis has shown us exactly the kind of a world we have been building over the last couple of decades, and suddenly people are shocked at the inhumanity. We have built a world where people believe only their wellbeing matters, a world where you must sparkle as an individual or be forever a failure as a human. I know this is not the case across the board, with many selfless people doing all they can in trying circumstances to help those in need, but those people are few in number, and it seems they are losing the race with those who see the individual as the pinnacle of humanity.

And yet, we live in a society no matter how much people with particular agendas try to convince us we do not, and as such that means we have to make certain sacrifices. We accept we are not going to be able to act in anyway we choose because this could have a detrimental effect on others. We must follow rules, even if sometimes we really dislike them. We pay taxes as our membership fee into society, and then elect people to decide how those taxes are spent. Yes we might not always agree with the decisions made, but as adults we must accept our losses, and at the same time double our efforts to convince others in the future our point of view is correct.

All the while we celebrate the differences between us, the likes and quirks which make us unique. We build systems which support people to achieve their potential, and we celebrate their wins, both for their personal triumph, and because of the good it does for society as a whole. If they fail or flounder, as so many of us will, society is there to pick them back up, carry their load in their time of need, and help them back onto the path to success again. Society is not the enemy of the individual, it is the essential partner and dare I say friend.

To focus solely on the individual is a dangerously shortsighted world view, and I am certain it has played its part in the unfolding breakdown in civility and good manners. While there is no need to replace individuality entirely with a conformity to societal norms, there must be an understanding that a balance between the individual and the society needs to be found. The world is not black and white, we need to find the grey middle which allows the individual and society to flourish. If we do I am certain both will be the better for it.

Oh, and if you have read this far;

  • Wash your hands
  • Isolate yourself if you are ill
  • Look out for each other, especially the elderly and vulnerable

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