[ By Kyle Iman }
Oscar Wilde, one of the greatest playwrights of all time, said, “My great mistake, the fault for which I can’t forgive myself, is that one day I ceased my obstinate pursuit of my own individuality”. When you understand the circumstances of his life, especially later in his adulthood, this sentiment makes even more sense. Oscar Wilde was the penultimate hipster of the late 19th century, more than a century before the term was even coined. Everything he did was so divergent from societal norms that he was constantly in the spotlight of Industrial Age aristocratic social life. From his over-the-top dressing, to his open homosexuality (note that homosexuality was illegal in Britain at the time) and even his inclusion of taboo themes like incest and necrophilia in his plays such as ‘A Woman of No Importance’ and ‘Salome ‘, Oscar Wilde was bold in expression and colourful in execution.
I use Oscar Wilde as an example here because he was one of the first people of note to aggressively champion alternative individualistic thought in a continent that was very much founded upon collectivism. For centuries, Europe had been engulfed in much turmoil and bloodshed. With the sparking of revolutionist doctrines and principles by the Enlightenment, the people of Europe started to completely reshape their idea of what it meant to be part of a collective unit – a nation. Revolution after bloody revolution ensued all across Europe with the end result of a very distinct ‘us-and-them’ mentality among its people. Events such as the ‘levée en masse’ of the French Revolution and the execution of the Russian Tsar and his family became proof that the right to maintain one’s collective identity, one’s nationality, was something that people were willing to kill and die for.
In other words, people were giving their lives to protect their right to be the same nationality as everyone else born in their country; the idea of being part of something bigger, rather than being content with their lot. Belonging to a country was something to be proud of, and something worth dying for.
Fast forward to the present, and we are looking at a totally different world. The power of the individual dominates every aspect of human life, and while we still cling to our notions of being part of a nation, the tidal wave of modernisation has swept us into an individualistic frenzy in a world where the product of the individual is often more valued than that of an entire nation. Nationalism is not as prominent an ideology as it was, say, half a century ago, and while it still exists in copious amounts in the Slav region of Eastern Europe, society is starting to look more and more inward – to the benefit of self.
Is this a good thing? Yes, and no. We have seen instances throughout history where the suppression of individual rights and freedom have resulted in nasty consequences for those who erected those regressive laws. Humans just have a natural tendency to express their individual self; for instance, we dress to portray our style, and to a degree, the way we see and perceive the world. Individualism has given birth to the greatest technology mankind has ever witnessed, but conversely, as we acquire more and more knowledge, we seem keen on creating more technology that isolates us further from the rest of society. Individualism breeds more individualism, and consequently, apathy. We start to ignore the troubles of our neighbours, turn a blind eye to injustice happening right on our doorstep, and just sit there feeling content in our ability to keep ourselves alive.
Thankfully, we are now seeing an increased merging between individualism and collectivism. It is worth noting that the concepts of individualism and collectivism are becoming more and more dependent on each other, to the point that today, neither can exist without the other. No matter how you want to stand out as an individual, humans are social animals by nature, and we need interaction with others in order to ensure the survival of our species.
To stress the importance of this need, lets allude to a form of psychological torture called ‘white torture’, which involves placing a prisoner in solitary confinement in a totally white environment. It was found that prolonged exposure to this ‘blank’ environment caused victims’ minds to start ‘filling in the blanks’ on their own by creating hallucinations to cope with the isolation. This, of course, is an extreme example, but it shows that even when deprived of the presence of other members of society, the brain finds the need to create a reality for us that does give us the feeling of just being around someone. Such is our dependence on human interaction.
In the context of our current state of society, we can see this feature prominently on the Internet, where netizens incessantly post pictures and videos sharing their life with the rest of the world. It is not as irrational as some make it out to be. William James, an American philospher and psychologist, has said: “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated”. Not a ‘desire’, mind you, but a craving, as in, one cannot function normally without it. We as humans are desperate to be significant, to matter in the grand scheme of things. It is why we groom our hair in the mornings, or take the time to pick out our outfit for the day: we need people to look at us and say, ‘Wow, you look good’.
People can literally go insane trying to achieve this feeling of importance. Dale Carnegie, in one of his books, quotes the head physician of one of the most important psychiatric hospitals at the time as saying that he did not know the exact cause of insanity, but found that ‘many who go insane find in insanity a feeling of importance that they were unable to achieve in the world of reality’. By this, he meant that though they had lost their minds, they seemed extremely content with their state of being. One of his patients, in her own insane mind, divorced her abusive husband, married an imaginary English aristocrat, and reported giving birth to a new baby every time he called on her. Most importantly, she was happy. As a result, he did not see her condition to be a tragic affliction, but rather, the ultimate gift of self-actualisation.
In the case of our social networks, we are using our individualism to achieve a greater, collectivist gratification. Suddenly we have come full circle and there is once again no longer a distinction between the two. When collective gratification is achieved, society can function normally, and when society functions normally, we have greater freedom to express ourselves as individuals, and thus expedite our pursuit of the aforementioned feeling of importance.
In any case, no matter how much we aspire to be an Oscar Wilde and fully embrace our individual traits and nuances, we must always bear in mind that we have the power to use our individuality to not only make ourselves feel important, but also to inspire improvements in the mindset and productivity of contemporary society.