Unhelpful individualism

Some problems are individual, some are systemic, and solutions usually have to be tailored to this in order to be effective. In the US however, the myth of Individualism has led to a virtual disappearance (or failure to appear; I’m pleading historical ignorance) of systemic solutions. Virtually everything is now framed as an individualistic problem, to be solved by individuals in an individualistic manner.

Obesity pandemic? Prod and shame people into gym memberships and weight-watcher programs, rather than promote walkable/bikable infrastructure and eliminate food deserts.

High infant mortality rate? Show PSA’s about the effects on skipping your folate pills and not quitting smoking, rather than create outreach services that create a culture of caring about preventive health in the affected parts of the population.

Homelessness? Volunteer at/donate to the temporary homeless shelter. Don’t worry about creating systems that get people off the streets permanently, and prevent them from landing there in the first place.

Poor education? Take your kids out of school and homeschool them, or send them to private schools, rather than clamoring to get the public system fixed.

I think the most blatant example of this was the movie for which Sandra Bullock just won an Oscar: The Blind Side. Basically, it’s a movie about an individual black ghetto kid’s learning problems, poverty problems, etc. being solved by being adopted by a filthy rich white family. There were SO many problems with that movie, especially the racist tropes (right at the beginning you have the attributes of the ideal dude for a particular position in American Football described in a way I’ve previously heard people use to describe the ideally built race horse :-/), but the focus on the “feel good”, personalized solution to the problems of African American ghettos just felt like obscuring the problem rather than highlighting it; especially when at the end of the movie, they highlight another kid, who gets shot, and they basically imply that if only someone had adopted THAT kid, he’d wouldn’t have to die. So what? should all middle-class and rich whites volunteer to take away poor black kids from their families to raise them in a more “civilised” environment?

yeah, didn’t think so.

and not once in that entire movie were there any hints about helping kids from ghettos as a group, rather than in such a silly, individual matter. And that thing won Oscars, FFS!

Anyway, it’s not just America’s own problems that America is trying to solve in such an idiotic manner. All those Christian organizations that urge you to “adopt” a child somewhere in the Undeveloped World? Actual, physical adoption-runs on poor countries (The Haiti adoption-scandal, for example)? These are examples of individualistic attempts at solving systemic problems, and in this case they also result in rich-guilt being assuaged to the point where calls for real, developmental and structural, help are ignored, because you’ve already helped; and you helped a real human being with a name and everything, whereas the structural help is for faceless masses, and doesn’t come with a personal thank-you letter written in crayon.

I’ve actually once gotten into a pretty big argument with a woman who adopted a child from Peru. I was commenting on something else, and saying that foreign adoptions are iffy because they’re too likely to be scams of some sort, at which point this woman entered the conversation, and wrote a long starfart about how mean I was to accuse her (even though she wasn’t even in the conversation up till the starfart) of stealing her daughter, when in reality her family voluntarily gave her up to her because she could have a much better life in America!!

Um.

Yeah. Just how shitty does your situation have to be to willingly sell your child to some rich Americans, never to see her again? And wouldn’t it be actually better for everyone involved if help would allow the child to grow up with her family and still allow her to have a good life?

But of course these were questions that the woman took as personal attacks against her, and her own image of herself as a Good Samaritan. No talk about systemic problems, and about the pain it must have caused the Peruvian family were permitted, because they would tarnish the woman’s self-image.

*sigh*


Individualism, Take Two, a second look at this issue.

14 comments on “Unhelpful individualism

  1. Walton says:

    I agree with some of this, but I think you’re being too categorical.

    Where I think individualism is harmful is where it’s used to place the blame on individuals for all their own problems. Obesity is a good example: while lifestyle choices may play a part in the “obesity epidemic”, it’s also heavily affected by socio-economic factors, working life, geography and culture, genetics, and various mental and physical disorders which are outside the individual’s control. Hence why levels of obesity are very different between different countries and regions, depending on cultural, lifestyle and economic factors. So we should recognise that while choices play a part, these things are not solely up to the individual: factors outside the individual’s control play a big part, and it annoys me when people talk and act as though obese people are to blame, or somehow “deserve to suffer”, for their own condition.

    I would even say the same about crime, which is traditionally conceived as purely a matter of individual moral responsibility. Criminologists’ studies consistently show that a high proportion of those in prison, especially for petty crimes, suffer from a range of problems such as mental health disorders, substance abuse, socio-economic and emotional deprivation in childhood, unemployment, low education, and financial insecurity. These are all systemic factors which are outside the individual’s control, and can only be fixed at the social level. So it isn’t fair to act as though criminal offenders have sole responsibility for their acts; crime is also a product of social conditions and psychological issues. This is the whole problem with the “tough on crime” approach, and the failed (but still very popular) policy of imprisoning as many people as possible for as long as possible. (IIRC, in California, there are now more people in prison than in higher education.)

    But at the same time, I think your comments about education are much too harsh to private-schooling and homeschooling parents. In the end, the number one responsibility of a parent or guardian is to the interests of his or her children. These have to take priority over opinions about the needs of wider society as a whole. Even if I were an absolutely passionate believer in the importance of universal public education, I would still homeschool my child, or send him or her to private school, if it was the best way to get him or her the best education. It’s all very well to talk about campaigning to improve public education, but that doesn’t necessarily work in the short term. In the end, the child’s interests are always the number one priority, and if I had a child, I would never compromise my child’s interests in order to pursue some high-minded socio-political goal.

    Part of this post can count as revision for my exams in criminology and in legal philosophy, so I don’t count it as time wasted on the internet. :-)

  2. Jadehawk says:

    Walton, if you only start trying to fix the educational system by the time your kid is of school-age, you’re doing it wrong.

    keep in mind that the individualistic approaches do exactly what you describe as parental responsibility: Michael Oher benefited hugely from being adopted, moreso than if the woman who adopted him instead focused on helping kids in the ghetto in general.

    But that still doesn’t make it a viable solution or even particularly good solution for the plight of ghetto kids. Such individualistic solutions are “easy” and they appeal to emotions, but they don’t actually solve any (systemic) problems.

  3. Jadehawk says:

    also, you’re still cheating ;-)

  4. Walton says:

    Walton, if you only start trying to fix the educational system by the time your kid is of school-age, you’re doing it wrong.

    Well, since I don’t plan on having kids, that part is largely academic.

    And I don’t really have the means to “start trying to fix the educational system”, nor do I really know what you mean by that. I don’t consider myself wise enough to know what works, and what doesn’t, when it comes to educating children. There’s a huge amount of disagreement in this area among teachers, parents and psychologists as to how children and young people learn best, and what kind of environment is best for their mental and emotional development. And it’s a field in which I have no experience or expertise. It’s not that I’m too lazy to be an activist: it’s that I wouldn’t know what to be an activist for. Even if I were granted absolute power to change the education system however I wanted, I still don’t know what I would do.

  5. MrFire says:

    Hello Jadehawk, I am just dropping in via Pharyngula to say that I immensely enjoyed this post.

    Best

    Mr. Fire

  6. David Marjanović says:

    Systemic solutions to systemic problems would be…

    …soooocializzzmmmm…

    Indeed, at the first sign of rising obesity, France immediately pretty much banned automats that distribute overly sugary beverages from schools, for example. Fat people are remarkably hard to find in the crowded streets and even more crowded subways of Paris.

    Walton, if you only start trying to fix the educational system by the time your kid is of school-age, you’re doing it wrong.

    Obviously! I started when I was of school age. :^) (However much participating in a demonstration or two might count.)

    also, you’re still cheating ;-)

    He does want to be a lawyer. :-)

    Well, since I don’t plan on having kids, that part is largely academic.

    Not so fast, young padawan. I think that, in 10 years or a bit less, you’ll be capable of being a pretty impressive father, precisely because you’re so thoughtful instead of rushing in, precisely because you understand the current limitations of your knowledge (the other side of the Dunning-Kruger effect).

    Education policy is a difficult subject indeed. Ideologies are constantly coming in from not 2 and not 3 but 5 or 10 sides; data are difficult to find and hardly ever come with a control group; and “the closer you get to humans, the worse the science gets”. But that’s not a reason to despair.

  7. Jadehawk says:

    eh, even if Walton’s really not ever going to be a parent, he’ll still be stuck in a society full of the results of public education (or lack thereof), so unless he’s planning on becoming a hermit, public education matters.

    At the very least, he could try to change the part that he seems to hate about it most, i.e. the extremely authoritarian approach he keeps on talking about.

    And in any case, public education isn’t in nearly as bad a shape in Britain as it is in the USA. In all of New Orleans, there’s something like 4 public schools left, and Detroit is about to be gutted, too. The opportunist assholes are going after weakened communities, and there’s more and more of those in the USA. And not enough people are fighting it, because the private/charter schools will improve schooling for those lucky few who can get a spot and not get kicked out because of their unrealistic/arbitrary rules.

    it’s the lottery approach to public welfare :-(

  8. David Marjanović says:

    In all of New Orleans, there’s something like 4 public schools left, and Detroit is about to be gutted, too.

    That’s… like… horrible.

    it’s the lottery approach to public welfare :-(

    Well said. :-(

  9. Walton says:

    keep in mind that the individualistic approaches do exactly what you describe as parental responsibility: Michael Oher benefited hugely from being adopted, moreso than if the woman who adopted him instead focused on helping kids in the ghetto in general.

    But that still doesn’t make it a viable solution or even particularly good solution for the plight of ghetto kids. Such individualistic solutions are “easy” and they appeal to emotions, but they don’t actually solve any (systemic) problems.

    I agree, but that doesn’t answer the point I was making. Fundamentally, if I had a school-age child, I would always do what was best for the child, not what might be best for society as a whole. I do believe that parenting is an endeavour which ultimately has to be individualist: to a parent, the child’s interests should always come first, and should be more important than the parent’s political or moral views. This doesn’t preclude a person who happens to be a parent also trying to fix public education as best as he or she can, or trying to help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds on a systemic level (which I absolutely agree with you that we should be doing, both through government and non-profit endeavours). But fundamentally, if the local school was not good enough, I would not send my child there, regardless of what effect it might have on the rest of the community.

  10. Jadehawk says:

    and my point was that except in very rare cases, it’s not actually necessary to compromise either one’s parenting or one’s political stance, but rather combine them. And if people fought for education before it became their own personal problem, this dilemma wouldn’t even present itself.

    This belief that oneself and community are in some way competing and opposing interests is another one of those insidious ideas that has spread from the specific to the general, and in doing so is doing a lot of damage to both individuals and communities.

  11. Jadehawk says:

    meh… my last response was a bit too generic, so let’s try with a specific example:

    like I mentioned earlier, the Detroit Public School system is being dismantled. Detroit is a city that has been slowly dying for 30 years now, and pretty much everyone who could move away already has. This dismantling of the public schools is part of a neocon revitalization project, and there isn’t enough of a popular effort to stop this. This is exactly because too many people are taking the “parenting is individualist, fuck community” approach and focus their energies on getting their kids into the newly created charter and private schools. Many will fail in this; but the ones that succeed, will be pretty well off for it.

    On the other hand, some groups in Detroit have decided to take the “parenting is communal” approach. They pool their meager resources, and with the help of a teaching non-profits are working on establishing “neighborhood schools” like the Boggs Educational Center (and btw, I fucking love the quote on their frontpage!), the point of which is education integrated into the community, rather than “success rates” like in private and charter schools, which therefore exclude “difficult” students*. The children in these neighborhood schools will benefit significantly more as a group, but also as individuals because there won’t be a risk of not getting accepted, or getting expelled for minor infractions. And all because their parents/their neighborhoods refused to buy into the false dichotomy of “my child’s welfare” vs. “the community’s welfare”. If the same had happened city-wide, there wouldn’t be a dismantling of the public school system to begin with.

    And because of that Detroit makes a good case-study of the dangers of glorifying the individual and individualism as “healthy competition” and as the heroic, American thing to do, while disappearing the communal from the minds of Americans, or when that’s not possible, painting it as something bad, lazy, unAmerican, and downright socialist; and as a “sacrifice” of one’s own good for the benefit of others, rather than as a cooperative effort to make things better for everyone..

    - – - – - –

    *which incidentally reminds me of health-care insurers who only insure those least likely to ever need insurance

  12. David Marjanović says:

    And if people fought for education before it became their own personal problem, this dilemma wouldn’t even present itself.

    “First win, then go to battle.”
    – Sunzi

  13. darwinsdog says:

    The model of compulsory public schooling is carefully crafted. It is designed to socialize, not educate. In fact, the independent thinking that is the product of a good education actively gets in the way of socialization. The well socialized is schooled to not think independently. If students were capable of independent thought what would happen to sports team loyalty, brand loyalty, susceptibility to marketing ploys & propaganda, nationalism, political partisanship? Capitalism can’t afford to have a good education be the outcome of schooling. A well educated citizenry would be inimical to the bottom line. Well socialized consumers incapable of thinking for themselves are what the powers that be require of those who have served their sentence in public schools. I say this as a product of public education, and as a former teacher and school administrator.

    The only thing I ever learned in school was how to read. Everything else I taught myself by reading about it, often in lieu of doing my imposed assignment. Two of my three children didn’t even learn this much in school, as they already could read before starting school. As a biologist, much of the nonsense I was ‘taught’ in school about living organisms I had to later unlearn. The time served was more than a waste, it was downright misleading. It’s the duty of the student capable of thinking & learning for him- or herself to subvert the socialization system they are subjected to, which has the interests of corporations rather than the students’ own interests at heart. Likewise it is the responsibility of the individual to educate him- or herself since not only is public schooling not going to provide one with an education but instead actively seeks to preclude the possibility of education happening. If this responsibility takes the form of declining to participate in public schooling then so be it. The home schooled or even unschooled person is better off than the well socialized product of public schooling.

    If the individual has the responsibility for his or her own education, even more so does he or she have responsibility for avoiding obesity. Being overweight isn’t a social problem, it’s a problem that rests squarely on the individual person. Obesity results when caloric intake exceeds metabolic energy requirements. If excess weight is a problem the person needs to eat less and/or exercise more. Plain and simple. It has nothing to do with more sidewalks or less high fructose corn syrup in school vending machines. If a person decides to eat too much and/or be lazy, then they will be fat and it will be their own fault. In that case the person needs to either embrace his or her own fatness along with its consequences or else do what it takes to lose weight.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    The only thing I ever learned in school was how to read. Everything else I taught myself by reading about it, often in lieu of doing my imposed assignment.

    Wow. Not even math? That’s a really extreme case.

    As a biologist, much of the nonsense I was ‘taught’ in school about living organisms I had to later unlearn.

    I had some of that… or, rather, I had already read up about it on my own before it was taught, so I recognized what was taught as false. But it wasn’t a lot.

    It’s the duty of the student capable of thinking & learning for him- or herself to subvert the socialization system they are subjected to, which has the interests of corporations rather than the students’ own interests at heart.

    Public schools are older than most of capitalism. They have, at worst, the interests of an enlightened absolutist state at heart.

    Likewise it is the responsibility of the individual to educate him- or herself since not only is public schooling not going to provide one with an education but instead actively seeks to preclude the possibility of education happening. If this responsibility takes the form of declining to participate in public schooling then so be it.

    No.

    Fuck no.

    Not only did I get a good education (not in the USA, granted, where the public school system is gut-wrenchingly underfunded, but nonetheless in public schools), I have a vested interest in everyone having or getting a good education. For instance, a democracy only works if most of the voters know what the fuck they’re doing when they vote for someone. When that’s not the case, we get people voting against their own (and my) interests; examples from recent history are plentiful.

    The home schooled or even unschooled person is better off than the well socialized product of public schooling.

    Evidence, please.

    Doesn’t the opposite come out when you include the American fundamentalists who homeschool their children to isolate them from reality?

    If the individual has the responsibility for his or her own education, even more so does he or she have responsibility for avoiding obesity.

    This is seriously short-sighted. Has it ever occurred to you to think about why obesity is such an American problem? Why are there so much fewer obese people in Europe than in the USA? Have you ever walked along the streets of Paris?

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