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Can individuals be agents of cultural change?

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An argument can be made that individuals must be the agents of cultural change, since groups or organizations are made up of individuals. But it is also true that individuals that do not belong to any group have also been powerful agents of change. Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa are three examples of individual people changing the world without having the backing of a state or private society.

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An individual is always responsible for enacting cultural changes, since a private organization or government does not have agency until an individual puts an idea in motion and then obtains support for it. In the United States, for example, the vision of the country was conceived and performed by individuals. Although the entire process was revolutionary and huge cultural changes occurred—such as the shift from a monarchy to a representative republic—nothing would have happened had it not been individual people pushing for the changes.

Perhaps the prototypical example of an individual being an agent of cultural change is Mahatma Gandhi, who used nonviolent resistance against the British to establish independence for India. Other people similar to Gandhi include Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela.

Of course an individual can serve as an agent of cultural change in a destructive capacity as well. The writings of Karl Marx, for example, inspired the Russian Revolution, and while what followed in Russia bore little resemblance to what Marx espoused, he bears responsibility for much of it.

In a similar but worse vein, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, through their cult of personality, were agents of cultural change as well. Their atrocities are beyond the pale, and there is much blame to go around, but it must be remembered that Hitler and Stalin were, after all, individuals, before they had the power of a state apparatus from which to draw.

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