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The Promise of Individualism

Erec Smith

There is no such thing as a panacea; few things are actual cure‐​alls in themselves, especially when it pertains to social issues. However, the closest thing to a panacea for contemporary social injustice—both actual and perceived—is the concept of individualism. It is the closest foil to what is, arguably, the most dangerous aspect of critical social justice activism: race fatalism, i.e., the idea that especially minoritized groups have no locus of control and are at the mercy of their hegemonic oppressors.

Unfortunately, too many social justice activists embrace this fatalism and, both implicitly and explicitly, demonize individualism as an inherently oppressive, white supremacist concept.

Race fatalism cannot exist without the idea that all people from a given race experience the world similarly (race essentialism), and that we are forever defined by our home environments (linked fate), concepts that could not be more opposed to individualism. Thus, to embrace individualism is to relinquish faith in the fundamentals of critical social justice.

Fortunately, when individualism destroys these fundamentals steeped in powerlessness, it gives birth to agency and freedom conducive to an empowered and fulfilled life.

The most egregious aspects of critical social justice activism—now wryly and/​or disdainfully referred to as “woke” activism—can be considered footnotes of fatalism: skin‐​color and or gender determine if you are a perpetual oppressor or a perpetual victim; racism will never go away and can only be managed; black kids can’t learn math like other kids; all people who look the same or live in the same area are bound to a particular outlook and particular fate. All these suggest the “truth” of race essentialism, that racism is always already present, and that even words, if coming from an oppressor, are literal violence.

The power of this fatalism is weakened by the concept of methodological individualism, what can be understood as an embrace of free will with an acknowledgement that we live an interdependent existence, i.e., “no man is an island.”

In recent essays, I describe such individualism as an antidote to race essentialism and linked fate. In “Individualism is a Social Justice Issue,” I insist that the embrace of individualism can enhance racial justice through its implied refutation of linked fate and its conduciveness to defensive confidence.

Regarding linked fate, I write, “linked fate denotes the use of the social standing of a group as a proxy for one’s individual identity, i.e., an individual’s fate is inevitably and intricately linked to that of the group. Any individual that seems to escape this fate is considered an exception.” Linked fate depends on the debunked stimulus‐​response theory in behavioral science: the idea that people who share the same race or culture experience the world the same way. Senator Tim Scott’s passionate rebuttal of linked fate focuses on the idea that educational reform is the thing that can unlink fate most efficiently and instill a sense of agency in students, a sentiment elaborated upon by Ian Rowe.

Agency, or “agential fate,” a concept of individual efficacy I support in “Ditching Our Discourses of Doom” (excerpted here), “can be construed as a confluence of pre‐​established circumstances—one’s life experiences—combined with free will.” This concept necessitates the belief “that each individual in a particular context may react to stimulus in different ways; that they each may have a different desired future state; and that their decisions and choices matter in relation to achieving those future states, we enter into a place of agency, possibility, and hope.”

This agency, possibility, and hope imply the concept of defensive confidence I reference in a recent Discourse article. If people have defensive confidence—the confidence that one can successfully defend one’s ideas in given situations—they are more likely to engage the world more courageously as individuals unbeholden to a group and is, ironically, more likely to have one’s mind changed precisely because of this willingness to engage.

These concepts suggest the benefits individualism can have to a sense of social justice and, especially, in combatting the fatalism of social justice activism. Individuals can think independently, adapt to circumstances, and, therefore, more effectively exercise agential fate and defensive confidence, thus better ensuring an attempt to communicate across differences.

Sadly, the concept of individualism is almost anathema in critical social justice circles, in which group identity is favored and individualism is considered an oppressive concept. Race essentialism, which implies concepts like linked fate and group consciousness, is a foundational concept in critical social justice that is diametrically opposed to individualism.

Individualism is not only the best thing for curing the ills of social injustice; it is also, by nature, the downfall of critical social justice ideology. For this reason, maybe “panacea’s” more colloquial synonym, “magic bullet” would be more apropos.

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