Individualism and categories

“What need has God for categories? Why sort and catalog a collection when you know and can describe every individual item? What meaning do your base labels have for a higher mind?” (Real Live Preacher)
“Individualism is a term used to describe a moral, political, or social outlook that stresses human independence and the importance of individual self-reliance and liberty…Individualism is therefore opposed to holism, collectivism…and communitarianism, which stress that communal, community, group, societal, or national goals should take priority over individual goals. Individualism is also opposed to the view that tradition, religion, or any other form of external moral standard should be used to limit an individual’s choice of actions.” (Wikipedia)

A lot of us generally agree that we live in an individualistic and therapeutic culture. I don’t want to take the time to prove this here, except to say that a lot of the blogs and books I read from all corners tend to agree that it’s true, and it’s a problem.

I have a hunch that even though we’ve identified this as a problem, we are part of that problem in ways we aren’t even aware of. For instance, isn’t our resistance to being categorized as part of a larger group a form of individualism, in which we assert that we are utterly unique and can’t be lumped in with anyone else? It’s not a surprise that we believe this, since many of us have been taught this from birth. But it’s not true, and it’s also a little arrogant. If we are going to move away from individualism, we also need to recognize that we are not utterly unique. Like it or not, we’re part of larger groups, and we’re a lot alike than we like to think.

I sometimes imagine what my dog, a black lab, would be like if he thought that he was unique and unlike any other dog. In some ways, he is. There’s only one Buddy. But when I take him to the leash-free park, I have to be honest: he is a lot more like the other dogs than he is unlike them. He likes to sniff the same things and act in the same ways as the other dogs, especially the ones that belong to similar breeds. To call my dog a mammal, a canine, and a lab-hound mix is not to negate his individuality; it’s to recognize the obvious. Same with us.

That’s why I’m puzzled when people who speak against individualism also speak against categories and labeling. One example of this: I heard someone say recently that we should not do demographic research. Instead, we should get to know individuals. This seems to me to be a false dichotomy. Can’t we do both? 49% of people who live near the church I pastor don’t speak English as a first language. This is a category, and a real one. It tells me something I need to know, and doesn’t demean anyone. It also doesn’t preclude getting to know the individuals who belong to this larger group.

If we think individualism has gone too far, we need to get used to appropriately using categories.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada