Individualism vs. Conformity

Americans are eager to report that their country was settled, cultivated, and advanced by "rugged individuals." The "individual," in the American conception, is an independent and inventive agent, relatively autonomous and morally responsible to himself. A proliferation of specific propositions concerning "human nature" was derived from this ethnocentric premise. For example, a man was ideally allowed to voice his disagreement with the decisions and practices of the authorities, he was expected to choose the occupation of his preference and be self-supporting, and he was encouraged to follow his own convictions and beliefs. While these cultural propositions are still maintained, at least on the ideal level, in reality a considerable degree of dependency and conformity has developed. A number of regulations have been introduced, presumably guaranteeing security and consistency of economic well-being for all Americans; these include, for example, such institutions as Social Security, Medicare, obligatory retirement funds, and other similar measures. Critics call these measures "welfare state" practices and claim that freedom is no longer clearly tied to a social system of private property and passive government. In the opinion of many Americans, this trend threatens standards of individualism by unduly restricting personal determination, decisions, and choices.

In the industrial realm, modern technology and its efficiency have resulted in establishing norms and standards for production as well as consumption. The American emphasis on efficiency and expediency has always been of fascination to outside observers. The Germans coined the term Fordismus to describe the standardization, mass production, and "streamlined" efficiency of the American industry and business world, assuming that Ford represented the protoype of American productivity. In the course of this growing industrial efficiency and expediency, individualistic and creative participation in the production process has become greatly reduced for the vast majority of employees. There is even a question whether the product itself meets standards of individuality and uniqueness, since it has been mass-produced and is designed to suit the tastes of thousands of people.

American youth, on one hand, are brought up in the knowledge of American history, which includes many well-known and glorified examples of "rugged individualism," and are encouraged to emulate this "truly American" trait. On the other hand, however, American youth are constantly challenged to conform to national and patriotic standards requiring high degrees of conformity to majority opinion. Although these conflicting values have of course been a natural part of any era, they appear to have been unusually intense during the late 1960's when dissent and counterdissent concerning the war in South Vietnam ran high. Some of the basic questions that emerged for the sociological observer concerned the surprisingly widespread public opinion which perceived dissent not as an expression of independent individual thinking and believing but as subversive and "un-American" conduct. If one studies, in addition, reliable national survey data that captures the mood of contemporary American teen-agers, one is inclined to conclude that the original "rugged individualism" is now juxtaposed with a strong emphasis on conformity. This emphasis stood out in survey data published by the Purdue University opinion research center, showing that "more than 50 per cent [of the teen-agers] think the large mass of us in the United States simply aren't capable of deciding for ourselves what's right and what's wrong."

It appears then that there is a serious discrepancy between the American ideal of "rugged individualism" and its actual implementation. A teen-ager has to learn carefully that this blueprint for American individualism is not generalizable and that there are definite areas of limitations and prohibitions. The fact of non-generalizability destroys the simplicity and predictability of always responding to the same cue in identical or similar ways, thereby complicating the learning process and rendering the behavioral blueprint ambiguous and situational.

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