Mallika Kavadi, Staff Writer
Popular culture and social media today reflect an obsession with being different, standing out from the crowd whether you are nerd, jock, emo or goth.
On Facebook, every user tries to make their profile stand out as much as possible, and being “like everyone else” has turned into a stigma.
This is really ironic considering the origin of individualism.
Individualism emerged at a time when being a brick in a wall was the only socially accepted norm. Being different and thinking differently was abnormal, undesirable.
But during the Enlightenment, the individual started being empowered. The resulting culture gave us new heroes, whether they were revolutionary scientists like Galileo and Newton or philosophers like Voltaire or the Romantics that followed.
This group challenged the way people thought and brought a breath of fresh air into the world stagnated by religious and social dogmas.
But this cult of individualism has not flourished without distortions in contemporary society. It has not only given rise to an individual-centred and selfish work ethic but has also led to undue expectations.
But my purpose here is not to talk about the selfish tendencies individualism harbours, in the context of the current economic system. Even though it is true, I need not talk about it since there are many who would gladly criticise it.
My concern is the loss of the essence of individualism, which is reflected through two commonly prevalent misconceptions in society.
First, that being more cooperative and thinking about others essentially robs a person of his rights because then he has to compromise.
Second, that everyone has to be exceptional and unique to be special and valuable to the society. This is a cause of worry because it sets unrealistically high expectations to stand out in a crowd. Not that those who do are obnoxious, but those who do not are not any less either.
An article I read recently named “Why Einstein became famous in America” shows that Albert Einstein’s popularity in the mass culture of the twentieth century had more to do with the social context of the early twentieth century than the ingenuity of his theory.
Not that he wasn’t a genius or that his theory wasn’t as ground breaking as it sounds. It was in every respect. But that is not why he was named “Person of the Century” by Time magazine.
Most of the people who knew him during his lifetime were not even familiar with the concept of relativity. It was the aura that media publicity, accompanied with awe of him as a person who knows more than most other people do, that led to his glorified image.
The extreme approach in defining our fellow human beings either by glorifying their achievements or labelling them by their mistakes has resulted in undue pressure for everyone to fit into a specific mold, the exact thing that individualism was set out to replace.
Individualism is not inherently being selfish or proud. Individualism is supposed to be about respect and equality for every type of individual for being who you are, whether it is different from others or the same as others, this essence has long been left behind.