What’s the other option to Individualism?

An interesting article going around Rationalist-Sphere this week is Sarah Constantin’s In Defense of Individuality. Constantin is a great writer and she makes a very thorough argument. I have a number of objections to it, but one in particular strikes a chord, since Scott Alexander also reiterated this concern.

4. It’s perfectly fine to have a generally individualistic society where people are allowed to voluntarily form communities that they like.
5. And realistically we should expect most people to eventually exit from them.
6. If those are good nice communities, people will exit peacefully.
7. If they’re bad communities, they’ll use a lot of abuse and shaming to keep people from exiting, but eventually people will still exit.

Constantin was more visceral in her criticism of how communities keep themselves alive.

The first antidote to flaking that most people think of — building people up into a frenzy of unanimous enthusiasm so that it doesn’t occur to them to quit — will probably result in short-lived and harmful projects.

Techniques designed to enhance group cohesion at the expense of rational deliberation — call-and-response, internal jargon and rituals, cults of personality, suppression of dissent  — will feel satisfying to many who feel the call of the premodern, but aren’t actually that effective at retaining people in the long term.  Remember, brainwashing isn’t that strong.

And we live in a complicated, unstable world.  When things break, as they will, you’d like the people in your project to avoid breaking.  That points in the direction of  valuing independence. If people need a leader’s charisma to function, what are they going to do if something happens to the leader?

It’s a defense of individualism that relies on “well the only other option is tribalism, and they just keep each other in with force and coercive dumbening, so why would we consider them?”

On the other side of Rationalist Tumblr, Skye at funereal-disease is describing the camp she just went to.

We’re basically siblings for one week a year. Which is the sweet spot for intimacy: we have over a decade of history, but we haven’t spent enough time together to really start resenting one another. Familiarity breeds contempt, right?

Instead of any external factors, it is sheer love for the camp that brings us together. The loyalty this institution inspires is like nothing I’ve ever seen.

Don’t get me wrong; there have been people here I wasn’t a huge personal fan of. We’re human. But like…you don’t ban your aunt from the family reunion because she’s kind of annoying. You are bound by more than that. We are here because it really does take all kinds to make something like this work. Everything we are is going to be meaningful to at least one of the kids here. There is space for all of it.

And because we’ve known each other so long, we’ve reached that rumored place of just…knowing one another’s weirdnesses, rolling our eyes, and making room. One of our number has a Master’s in critical theory and loves to discourse. In the outside world, being around people like that kind of scares me, but here it’s just “oh, this is how Chris is”.

Which is exactly what I am talking about here. Healthy communities aren’t kept together by “the charisma of the leader” or “brain-washing back and forth chants” but just by, everyone being really glad to be there and trusting each other, treating each other like human beings they care about instead of representations of the most annoying facets of society.

It’s just like, have these individualist partisans ever been in a group where people like each other?

Obviously there’s a problem if you’re trying to force everyone into these tribes. Some people won’t like that and you’ll get resentment and distrust. But as an option they are there, and they’re pretty good. People enjoy them, and they get stuff done. I’d put their value to society right up there with individualism.

When social scientists talk about anomie,  they’re talking about the loss of this. When people critical of a culture that exalts individualism as the only morality, they are trying to find the words that defend this. It’s not that this “tribal magic” needs to be enforced, but we have to at least have room for it. We should let people who are doing that keep doing it, instead of being hyper-critical because it follows a different morality than liberal individualism.

I’m not exactly full of concrete ideas here, but the original posts weren’t too concrete either. Just stop thinking of the face of communitarianism as Stalin in front of a chanting crowd, and think more about a summer camp in Vermont.


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