It’s easy to confuse individuality with individualism—but if you’ve got a minute and you don’t mind, I’d like to strongly insist on the difference.
Individuality, last month’s theme on Wit & Delight, is a gift: it’s all about the unique presence and perspective each person brings to the world. Your capacities and curiosities, your skills and interests; the shape of your soul, the sound of your sigh, the signature slant of your handwriting. It’s a celebration of the utterly unrepeatable expression of your specific existence. And frankly, it matters little whether you believe that the expression is reincarnated or brand new; discovered or created; nurtured or natured (or both)—because the point stands: you are a singular instance of being-in-the-world, and that’s extremely rad.
Individualism, on the other hand, is a social theory that emphasizes the importance of independence over dependence or even interdependence. There are many strains of individualism, and many effects and outcomes that stem from this social theory—more than I can unpack here. The fact of the matter is, many people in modern, Western cultures (and elsewhere, of course), have internalized a consequence of individualism that sees, even subconsciously, dependence on others as weakness. Intentionally or not, we seem to believe that freedom is freedom from, rather than freedom for. Freedom from the needs of others, rather than freedom for meeting the needs of others (and having our needs met). But we’re most free when we’re free to give and receive: I have something unique to benefit and serve you, and you have something unique to benefit and serve others. If this sounds like love, that’s because it is. And it’s also the basis of community.
As we consider the final days of this strange and trying year, I just keep coming back to the term solidarity. It’s a term from the social sciences to describe how groups of individuals are held together in ways that are both visible and invisible. If, as Kate writes, “Humanity is collective—a quilt made up of experiences and cultures in varying patterns and colors,” then solidarity is the thread that holds all those experiences, patterns, cultures, and colors together.
As we consider the final days of this strange and trying year, I just keep coming back to the term solidarity. It’s a term from the social sciences to describe how groups of individuals are held together in ways that are both visible and invisible. . . . We’re bound to people precisely because of what we have in common, and what we don’t.
The sociologist Émile Durkheim first proposed this term, noting two specific types: mechanical and organic. In my own work at a sociological research institute, we often talk about these two modes of solidarity as solidarity of difference and solidarity of sameness. We’re bound to people precisely because of what we have in common, and what we don’t. I can offer my copywriting skills for the electrician’s website; the electrician can make sure the hospital has access to power so the nurse can offer critical care to the patient, and the patient can go home sooner and care for his children while his partner runs the restaurant. Thank goodness we’re not all writers!
Because solidarity is about the ways we’re connected, you can start to see why individuality matters. Imagine the way a farmers’ market depends on the unique bounty each stand offers—cabbage from one, honey from another, and you contribute carrots while another contributes cash. These individual exchanges nourish the community and sustain the endeavor. Transactions (or the exchange of goods, money, labor, or wisdom) are just one way of thinking about the stitching that holds us together. You’re bound to your family by blood and/or commitment, your neighbors by proximity, and your ethnicity by traditions. You’re bound to your friends by shared experience, your colleagues by common interests, and strangers on the Internet that you’ve never met because you both stan Kate Baer and Issa Rae.
Even when we tell ourselves a story of independence, the events of this year make it hard to miss how interconnected we truly are. I may drive myself to the doctor in my car, but realistically I am connected, not only to my son’s pediatrician but also to her patients and their parents who come in the days before and after us. I am connected because we take up the same space, share concerns, have toddler-aged kids, and live in the area. Because we drive cars that depend on gas that depends on workers who depend on the Earth. And in the most simple and significant way, we breathe the same air, and if I bring a virus into that room, that restaurant, that store—others will bear the effects.
My way of being in the world, my individuality and identity, impact others, for better or for worse. And even though I haven’t left my house in goodness-knows-how-long, the individual choices, actions, and ideas of others have a direct impact on my world—on my loved ones, on our country.
It seems that 2020 has solidarity in the spotlight. Our interconnection, our dependence on each other, has never been clearer. For many of us, never before have the questions solidarity asks felt more urgent: What do we owe to each other? How are we bound to each other?
But it’s not just the happy realization of our interconnection with each other that has made solidarity front and center this year. The ways we’ve failed to live in solidarity with our fellow humans has been front and center, too: how white allies have failed our BIPOC neighbors, and how we’re just beginning to learn what real partners in solidarity means. How we’ve been required to wear masks or adjust our lifestyles, often for the sake of those we don’t know and won’t meet, based on a belief that we have a responsibility to and with and for them. How, despite those requirements, we’ve failed to act in solidarity with the most vulnerable as our country continues to have rising infection and death rates. Individualism insists that no one can make you wear a mask. Individuality picks a mask that best suits your mood and wears it proudly. Individuality in solidarity finds out who still needs a mask (a ride, an errand, a little help with rent, or a hot meal) and coordinates to help everyone in the community thrive.
Individuality and solidarity aren’t mutually exclusive. How we answer the question of what we owe to each other or how we are bound to each other relates to our unique way of being in the world.
If you’ve felt the unraveling of coping mechanisms in your life this year—if therapy, meditation, and an elaborate nightly skin-care ritual just don’t seem to be keeping you buoyant like they once did—it might just be because more self-care can’t replace the work we need to do to foster greater community care.
If you’ve felt the unraveling of coping mechanisms in your life this year—if therapy, meditation, and an elaborate nightly skin-care ritual just don’t seem to be keeping you buoyant like they once did—it might just be because more self-care can’t replace the work we need to do to foster greater community care. We need to care for our collective selves—for the whole quilt, not just the pieces that make it up—to survive and thrive, because “our survival and thriving are always contingent on others.”
Perhaps this year has forced reflection on these themes for you, too—the ways we’re connected in big and small ways. How have you experienced dependence and interconnection in new ways this year? How are you, in your own unique way, practicing solidarity? How will you continue to recognize and honor the ways we are stitched together—all of us as individuals comprising a whole, magnificent quilt of experiences, patterns, cultures, and colors?
Ellen likes reading and writing and thinks homebodiness is a virtue. She has her MA in religion from Yale and works as the head writer & editor at a research institute dedicated to understanding the inner and outer lives of young people. She has one plant, one tattoo, one baby, and an identical twin. Contrary to all conventional wisdom, she regularly brings up both religion and politics at the dinner table.
BY Ellen Koneck - December 29, 2020
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Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.
While I agree with the general definitions of the terms in this piece, I have to disagree with the writer’s overly-simplistic vilification of Individualism. Humans are innately born free (as Individualism suggests)—cultural traditions and constructs are what “tie us together in solidarity” and, as such, are malleable. One cannot and should not exist without the other: and yes, I mean inherent human freedom (not individuality.) But just as an Individualist is wrong to deny their connectedness to others, so too is a Solidarity-er to deny inherent human freedom. The writer portrays Individualism as selfishness, and freedom as apathy for others—which… Read more »
Hey, Maggie! Some good and fair points above. I concede that individualism is, no doubt, a vast social theory with much more to unpack than what I’ve done here. In fact, I make it clear early on I intend to respond to merely one consequence of individualism: the idea that dependence on others is often understood as a kind of weakness. That’s the single thing I am hoping to challenge, and I challenge it because I’d like, instead, to show that dependence is not only an asset to our individual and common thriving, but also a more accurate understanding of the interconnected… Read more »