How does Emerson's "Self-Reliance" impact the world today?

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Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays contain many ideas that are still relevant some 180 years after he wrote them. "Self-Reliance " is fundamentally about integrity and each person’s need to evaluate evidence about a given situation and make decisions based on their own values. Emerson speaks of the “sacred”...

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Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays contain many ideas that are still relevant some 180 years after he wrote them. "Self-Reliance" is fundamentally about integrity and each person’s need to evaluate evidence about a given situation and make decisions based on their own values. Emerson speaks of the “sacred” character of “the integrity of your own mind.” He strongly cautions the reader to resist conformity and not to blindly imitate others.

There are many realms of society in which the influence of others’ behavior can be damaging. Peer pressure can lead children to engage in hostile and even violent behavior toward others. Suspicion and intolerance of those perceived as different from oneself can lead to bullying through words, such as cyberbullying, and deeds, such as physical attacks. Hate crimes are extreme versions of actions that can result from unthinking imitation and the intolerance it engenders. In the United States, attacks on transgender people substantially increased in the 2010s.

"Self-Reliance" also recommends that we educate ourselves about subjects that we consider important. Today, critical thinking about such things as viral "news" stories can uncover whether they are based in fact. Emerson recommends taking a skeptical attitude toward anything that seems too simple or that exhibits “foolish consistency.” Evaluating each difficult decision on its own merits will not guarantee that one takes a principled stance, but it will improve the chances of behaving ethically.

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Although many readers continue to draw inspiration from Emerson's "Self-Reliance," it may not be as impactful on the modern world as Emerson would have wished. Conformity is still an issue in any society, since human beings are social animals by nature and therefore tend to be eager to please others in their groups. Emerson saw conformity as soul-killing, which is what he meant when he argues in this essay that "imitation is suicide." However, to say that this essay has left no impact at all would not be accurate. Its being anthologized in textbooks and essay collections on a regular basis alone would be proof of that, but a casual examination of western culture shows that Emerson's emphasis on the individual over conformity to the collective bore fruit.

There is a strain of sympathy to what Emerson is saying in theory, at least in most western cultures. American culture in particular tends to champion the rebel and nonconformist, though the vindication of such people usually comes after the rest of society catches up with them, so to speak. American culture tends to emphasize the importance of individual expression and the right to worship, act, and think as one desires (within the boundaries of the law, of course).

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It is arguable that Emerson's admonition that we all need to trust ourselves is as relevant than ever. In a society preoccupied with social media which makes many people desire "likes" and "re-tweets" as validation, many people may need a reminder that

there is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion.

Emerson's main argument in "Self-Reliance" is that conformity is a self-abnegating condition that must be avoided. Our uniqueness and inconsistency are among our most valuable qualities. To judge ourselves by our popularity in others' eyes and to strive to emulate the values of others, such as by engaging in group-think instead of thinking for ourselves, is to waste one's gifts; in a sense, it is to waste one's very life.

Emerson's essay reminds us not to simply succumb to predictable patterns of thoughts and behaviors because they are easy, requiring no energy and creativity to forge our own paths.

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The driving force or primary motivation of Emerson's belief is that individuals think for themselves and not seek to follow a conformist social setting.  This is expressed in many points in his writing:  "Trust thyself:  every heart vibrates to that iron string."  This is something that we teach children from the earliest of ages in our schooling. We no longer teach kids that we come from a "melting pot" where everyone is homogenized and is the same.  Rather, we instruct students as to their unique differences and we teach in curricular settings that are meant to laud and praise such level of difference:  "Nothing is last scared by the integrity of your own mind."  The essence of modern character education and development in our public schooling is to drive home the idea of difference and diversity, the main idea of Emerson's writing.

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It is hard to say for sure than anyone in today's world has been influenced by Emerson, but you can clearly see things today that look like they might be influenced by the sort of ideas he put forth in "Self-Reliance."

To me, the United States today is a society where so many people think that it is okay to march to their own drummer.  In the old days, people seemed much more concerned with how society would see them.  They did not dye their hair funny colors or get piercings in "weird" places.  They did not get tattoos or engage in the kind of "look at me" celebrations that you see athletes doing from the pros down to high school.

You can argue that our society is so permissive today because of ideas like Emerson's.  You can argue that his ideas make us all think we should do what we want to do without paying attention to what others think of us.  To some extent, this is good, but I think we have gone a little too far and could use some more attention to common values and a little less emphasis on each person being their own person.

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