One of the truisms of America life over the past 50-60 years has been the regular restatement of this same advice: Don’t worry about everyone else’s opinions. Our cultural celebrations of self have over the decades discounted the idea of communal norms and instead moved to the ironclad notion that any restriction of individual action or behavior is a cause for protest. “You shouldn’t do that” is now synonymous with “I am attempting to unfairly impose my bigoted and/or narrow minded thinking upon you in order to unjustly destroy your rights to happiness and high self-esteem.” This mode of thinking has become so ingrained in our daily dialogues regarding every conceivable issue that it now passes without comment or examination. Our new norm, as far as many are concerned, is to have no norms.
Many could argue that there has never been a better time to live your life in our nation. Given that all we do, say, or think is considered beyond judgment or reproach, everybody can exist in a cozy cocoon of self-satisfaction where we are welcome to simply ignore the viewpoints of “haters” and actively seek societal support or legal redress should we be compelled to hear or experience any negativity at all directed our way.
However, the flip side of unceasing egotism is an inability to tolerate reasonable criticism and the growth of an unbearable insularity of thought that can easily mutate into self-righteousness. If the only needs that matter are your own, the very idea that you might have responsibilities toward others just … doesn’t … compute. Seeing how many young adults are seemingly overwhelmed by parenthood—or abandoning the notion altogether—I cannot help but wonder if the individual sacrifice necessary to raise a child is beyond the ken of the “Me, me, me” generation. Changing diapers and carpooling your child’s soccer team are very likely to interfere with an individual journey of self-exploration and self-enlightenment, and having to prioritize a teenager’s orthodontics over a vacation trip to Bali is not a choice the completely self-involved are ready or willing to make.
The inward gaze for validation has also led to a moral/ethical trap that I call “the privileging of personal agency”, which is making most debates regarding the difficult issues today facing our nation close to impossible.
Here’s how it works: If we are each our own moral exemplar, we must in turn vociferously defend the rights of others to be the sole captains of their own existences as well. Hence, any policy or proposal that might even hint at restricting personal freedoms is an immediate target requiring a full nuclear (rhetorical) response, which leads to some unsurprising—and other frankly amazing—conclusions about the preferred direction our society and nation.
The absolutist positions many now adopt on matters such as abortion, illegal immigration, and gun control—that no restrictions whatsoever are allowable or justifiable—are a bit easier for the uninitiated to comprehend if seen as a defense of unfettered personal choice rather than logical arguments to be parsed and understood.
Any question of legalizing abortion up to the point of actual birth, efforts to slow down the road race across the southern border of the U.S., or proposals to stem the slaughter in our streets are considered to be an unconscionable restrictions of personal agency that are clearly the work of those less enlightened and less loving of the full range of humanity and human choice. Therefore, the question of the human rights of a fetus at nine months minus 1 day is nothing other than an unwarranted attack on a women’s agency over her own body—and unworthy of any further consideration. Likewise, any pesky worries about the lack of control America has over its own borders is simply an expression of fear and hatred that fails to respect the right of all people to go wherever they choose without interference. As for the question of whether any human being needs a 30 round ammunition clip for personal self-defense (apparently these are folks who either have really terrible aim or presume there actually are zombie hordes they might need to battle), a belief in the unfettered right to own whatever firearm one wishes obviously stymies rational conversation about the proper balance between the 2nd Amendment and our nation’s safety.
These discussions—and a great many others—are not about the merits of the arguments on either side of the issues at hand; it’s a question of frantically and furiously combatting any suggestion of limits on individual actions. Divorced from any questions of morality, responsibility, or fairness, radical individualism makes for an ethically unambiguous world view that has the charm of simplicity and is enormously attractive to those who have abandoned the irritating boundaries of tradition beliefs and common sense boundaries regarding human behavior.
The surprise to me is reading and hearing ringing endorsements of activities and ideas that we have historically regarded as . . . well, kind of wrong The pretzel logic that now defines prostitution as a righteous career choice or insists that religious faith be denigrated and suppressed sometimes befuddles those who fail to understand that traditional morality or a concern with communal norms is unimportant those who espouse these viewpoints.
The argument that selling your body for another’s pleasure is simply an economic transaction that must be permitted as a matter of individual rights and personal agency is seemingly persuasive enough—when prostitution is removed from any moral context—to have swerved into mainstream political and societal conversations. If we are to privilege personal agency and abandon norms that have existed for eons, there is really no rebuttal to those who wish to enable everyone to buy and sell human orifices should they wish. After all, so the thinking goes, to impose any restriction on individual choice is hateful.
By the same token, the critique of individual behavior—what used to be called moral guidance—that defines religious faith makes it an easy target for those who find even the merest whiff of disapproval to be intolerable intolerance. As a result, mainstream religions now find themselves in the cultural crosshairs of those who insist upon the need to live in a judgement-free zone. In order to avoid the possibility of giving even the mildest offense to anyone for anything they do in any circumstance whatsoever, we have even reached the point where lack of enthusiastic approval of behavior or belief due to one’s religious upbringing can now be tagged as a micro-aggression worthy of punishment. Having grown up believing that a lack of respect for the religious faith of others was a sign disrespect and intolerance, many who do not spend their days glued to CNN and MSNBC now find themselves confused by the daily celebrations of religious persecution in much of the mass media—unless they are aware of the underlying cause.
Choice is wonderful, and freedom is precious. However, when both become the ends rather than means, we live lives devoid of meaning and message, and we should perhaps be less surprised than we are by our often self-centered and selfish society. This is the painful outcome we all must today endure to avoid censure or sanction from those who claim to love individual freedom and celebrate human choice—but do not. People who enjoy irony can certainly smile at our current situation, but we are now the victims of our mainstream embrace of radical individualism and its destructive outcomes, and the way forward from here is not at all clear because we can apparently no longer find the true north on our nation’s moral compass.