In contemplating the ‘crisis’ in youth voting and the abject failure of Canada’s political system to engage with young people, I’ve been drawn back to political philosophy and the ‘big questions’ of political life, freedom, and rights. Remembering my own university days, I recall with fondness and even excitement the mass mobilization of workers, young people, and politicos against BC’s program of Restraint (we’d call it austerity today) in the 1980s. The Solidarity movement in the province took its cue from Polish workers’ unions’ resistance against communist domination, and the coalition formed in opposition to right-wing restructuring in BC culminated in a series of strikes and actions that potentially would have affected all sectors of the province.
It’s hard to imagine such a movement today. The causes that appeal to young people today, including diversity and identity acceptance, marijuana, GMOs, and a free and open internet, are not trivial or unimportant, but they don’t lend themselves to mass action, and maybe that’s on purpose.
In Western liberal culture, people tend to be predisposed to individualism. Individualism is an idea or approach to political life in which each person is deemed to be rational and free to make their own choices. In taking on board issues like marriage equality and GMO labeling, young people are following this individualistic script.
The idea of the rational and free ‘masterless man’ (and to the extent that rationality was associated with masculinity, a man it most likely was) emerged as an icon during the European Enlightenment, where it was a revolutionary idea. Medieval thinking drew upon an organic and hierarchical vision of social life, in which the focus was on individual responsibilities to the social order. Identities and consummate freedoms, both of nobility and commoners, were always circumscribed by the demands of prescribed social roles.
Since the Enlightenment, almost all political debate in Western countries has been set up as an individual vs. group battle, with ‘freedom’ almost always associated with individual choices, and restrictions on freedom seen to emanate most centrally from the state.
The arguments of those on the side of the common or social good almost always had to concede that some (individual) freedoms had to be curtailed to be able to fulfill the larger social goals. Rather than being able to make a positive case for the social good,claims for group rights had the onus of proving the necessity of deviating from the default of individualism.
Even worse has been the tendency to associate rationality with individuals, and irrationality, or emotion, with the mass and the group (or the mob). People who follow groups, by extension, are irrational or driven by emotion. Our tendency is to re-imagine all social relationships in terms of the individual vs. group battle which shaped Western perceptions since the Enlightenment. But what if the individual vs. group tension is less of a battle of opposites and more of a continuum?
Today, young people emerge into Western culture with an elemental awareness of the importance of individualism in their lives. Parents prepare their children to be rational, self-governing individuals, conscious of their power and freedoms and willing to take on the group in the name of justice and individual freedom. It is necessary to equip young people with the words and ideas of individualism not just to protect them in an individualistic culture, but also to protect individualism as a value in and of itself. Without the inculcation of individualism into young people, the fear is that freedom will be lost to future generations, and the oppression and irrationality of the group will win out. In Western culture, we believe that young people need individualism to understand themselves as free people.
But individualism fails to deliver the freedom it promises. By understanding only the individual as the free unit, and not the group, we fail to protect and preserve freedoms for everyone. Having been told all of their lives that their fates are their own, that responsible and committed people will be able to succeed, and that protecting one’s own freedom of choice is paramount, young people eventually discover that their lives are largely determined by hierarchies, that responsibility and commitment do not necessarily create success and may even be punished, and that exercising their own freedom of choice individually is a limited and essentially hollow way to find fulfillment.
Psychologically isolating and materially disempowering, individualism as a social norm and as a model for communities is empty. It impoverishes democracy by discouraging social action, it reduces political life by disparaging the community, and it enables and empowers the abuses by the powerful by attributing success to individual rather than social factors. In addition to doing all of this, individualism also leaves young people vulnerable to attacks by the state. The Harper government’s efforts to impose stricter penalties on young offenders, to impose mandatory minimums in criminal law, and provincial governments’ efforts to defund education have been met with almost no active resistance by the youth demographic.
The point is not to return to an organic and stable view of social order as the highest value, as it was practiced in the Medieval era, but to reject the false dichotomy of individuals vs. groups, and to recognize that communities are the source of both individual freedom and the pursuit of the common good. To advance a notion of free societies, it is sometimes necessary to question the idea that individual choices are the only way in which freedom can be exercised. Freedom is also exercised when communities choose together, deliberately, to pursue common goals and purposes. Indeed, similiar things have been said by many ancient philosophers to be the truest expression of freedom.