Rethinking Individualism with David Brooks

It’s almost too common to read op-ed columns or hear sermons about how individualistic Americans […]

Todd Brewer / 4.27.11

It’s almost too common to read op-ed columns or hear sermons about how individualistic Americans are. Yet a brief remark in David Brooks’ recent book, “The Social Animal”, has implied to me the real absurdity of these diatribes. He said:

The United States is a collective society that thinks it is an individualistic one. If you ask American to describe their values, they will give you the most individualistic answers of any nation on the planet. Yet if you actually watch how Americans behave, you see that they trust one another instinctively and form groups with alacrity.

Brooks implies a fundamental difference between Americans’ perceptions and reality. We, as Americans, perceive that we are individualistic – we believe in personal destiny, the autonomy and freedom of the individual, and value self-fulfillment – and it seems that we are increasingly buying songs that reinforce these beliefs. Yet the unspoken reality is that we do not live isolated or independent lives, but our lives are strongly interconnected with various cultures, communities and histories. This suggests to me that while we may believe in personal destiny, we often ignore that our lives are the product of countless influences and choices of other people. We may esteem personal autonomy yet most pop songs are about love.


Taking Brooks’ thought a little further, if there has been a turn toward individualism at all this has simultaneously heightened the awareness of our interconnectedness, i.e. the appearance of individualism is largely based upon interpersonal bonds. What would a well-crafted Facebook (or blog!) post be if one did not have any friends to read it? As Brandi Carlile has said: “these stories don’t mean anything when you’ve got no one to tell them to.” What seems to be individualism is actually a dependence upon the influences of a larger community.


So perhaps it’s not the whole truth to say that we think too highly (or lowly) of ourselves, but that we have internalized as true the false judgments others have made of us. And while self-reliance may be part of the issue, it’s more true to also say that our socially constructed identity is too often defined by all the wrong things. Understood in this way, then the basic human problem is that one’s life is constituted by its many relationships to anything and everyone but the one God who gives life to the dead.