I had to write an essay earlier this year about the topic of individuality, and it was supposed to portray it in a positive light. I did do it in the end, but I didn't believe in a single point I made, I mean- Is it really a good thing? I don't think it's something that should be celebrated, just something that sort of...happens. Individuality in the 21st century (for me) is a pretty excuse for being selfish and getting away with it. Simply focusing on yourself, what's great about you to the point of excluding everyone else, even if its not the case entirely, it will occur to some extent. It also seems to create great consumers.
At school people have gone and lost individuality because it's become their sole quest- trying to be different. If everyone is trying to be different isn't everyone the same? Also, why do they focus on it so much at school? Why is it teachers keep on telling everyone it's okay to be different, and even go as far as celebrating it, at my school they put it and boosting self esteem before education. In my opinion an Egotistic + Uneducated teenager= An ignorant and opinionated individual. I'm not condemning individuality, just, it shouldn't be the highlight of one's character. And I don't think character is all about being different. What do you think?
The quality of individuality depends upon the motivation of the individual. If the individual shows individuality as a means of being true to self values and standards, it is a good thing. However, sometimes individuality as a means of expressing an unwillingness to conform becomes a means of conformity. Consider all the people who dress a certain way, say "goth" for example, this desire to prove a difference is in fact conformity.
Interesting timing in your post. My dad (81 years old) and I (40 something) were watching one of my favorite shows together tonight (GLEE). As a fine arts/English teacher I love the show because it celebrates the fact that what is the most different about an individual is what makes them the most interesting. Having been teased most of my life for being overweight, the show spoke to me about the value of accepting and respecting people for who they are, and not making them change who the are to be "popular".
My dad saw the show quite differently. Having come out of the 30s and 40s, and having gone to a military college and been an officer in the Army, he was dismayed that so much emphasis was being placed on the kid's feeling good about themselves and so little attention was given to the kids needing to study hard and do well in school to get ahead in life (conform to the American work ethic).
There is value to both points of view, but I think both messages can be given together without diminishing either one. Yes, one should study and work hard to get ahead, but why not do it with individual flair? :)
I think there may be a generalization in your argument--it's assumed here that celebrating individuality inevitably leads to narcissism and disregard for the wisdom of the past. I'm not so sure the two (individuality and responsibility) are mutually exclusive. For me, celebrating the unique features and quirks of human beings is something that makes life worth living. That doesn't mean that it's never recommended to conform; it means that each of us is a distinct human being with distinct gifts and needs. As a teacher, I'm certainly not going to give a student an "A" no matter what--if the student doesn't meet the requirements of the class, he or she is not following through and therefore must be held accountable, no matter how "unique" he or she may be. But there's a difference in valuing a student's performance and valuing the student as a person. In that case, at our most basic levels of interaction, I think it's crucial to view individuality as one of the great human mysteries. Tolerance, compassion, and understanding flow from that recognition of the unique human being. Besides, it takes a free-thinking individual to blaze a new path and invite others in. The path of empty self-obsession you refer to is so hollow; someone who truly owns their originality would not, I would hope, allow their existence to be so meaningless. Perhaps individuality is not doing something completely different, but rather doing the same things we all do, just with a unique perspective.
Yes, I agree with others in that individuality is important, but at the same time, if it is taken to excess, it can be incredibly dangerous. Likewise you only have to look at cultures where community is more important than indivduality to see how harshly repressive they can be. Balance is what is necessary.
My students and I recently had a discussion about your topic. We were reading Emerson's "Self-Reliance" which, of course, celebrates being a non-conformist. For my students who are more critical thinkers, they made the point that you make--if everyone is trying to be a non-conformist (whether that means dressing a certain way to stand out or being opposed to what is traditional), doesn't "non-conformity" become a form of conforming to others' standards of what makes someone a non-conformist?
While I would much rather see a stress on individuality than on following the masses, I agree that the 21st-century definition of individuality often seems to lead to selfishness. Your description of your school fits a description of mine--we place more emphasis on "making the school stand out" and people feeling good about themselves than we do on academics. So, if a student misses 40 days in a semester, has numerous zeroes for not completing assignments, but has an situation that is "unique" to him, we're instructed to pass him. Meanwhile, the true individual--the "unique" student who actually completes his assignments, possesses intellectual curiosity, and maintains integrity receives little attention if he or she is not gregarious or self-serving.
As Post 2 notes, like most things in life, one has to find a balance. I'm certainly glad that many Americans went against what was considered the norm during their day, but I think that they would be demoralized by some of the modern figures whom our society would lump with them as individualists.
I agree with you that individuality, taken to extremes, is a bad thing. But I would also argue that communalism or conformity, taken to extremes, is just as bad.
I have lived in cultures where being different was severely frowned upon. This can feel very oppressive because you are forced to behave in ways that other people want, not that you want. It is important to note that the ideas that those other people have are not always better than the ones you have.
Just to look at an example from the world today, would you rather live in the US, where individuality is done in excess, or under the Taliban, where conformity is harshly enforced?
I have no doubt that excessive individuality is bad and I try to teach my children not to be little narcissists. However, I do not think that conformity is all that great either. There has to be some sort of happy medium.
Character is not at all about being different, in fact i do agree with you, that in some ways now days individuality has been taken too far: i.e. "i'm not like other girls", we have to be not like other girls to be different or individual,. many don't understand that we CAN be like other girls and still have individuality. however i also agree with the first response, because i have also grown up in a culture where doing your own thing was frowned upon. i think, in my opinion, individuality is choosing the right blend of difference and similarity that fits your taste. its not all about being different. some people will go through great lengths to be different just for the sake of being different even if they don't like it. and its not about always going with the flow. its just the blend of each, taking the amount that you are comfortable with from both sides.