Thursday, March 21, 2013

Destroying Individuality: Making Everyone Mediocre

    Like Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) understood the importance of new modes of communication and technologies in the development of modernity. “The press, the machine, the railway, and the telegraph are premises whose thousand year conclusion no one has yet dared to draw.” Moreover, like Kierkegaard, he saw the press and mass culture as engendering a leveling process that was destroying individuality and community while producing a homogenized, herd conformity.  Nietzsche believed that modern society had become so chaotic, fragmented, and devoid of “creative force” that it had lost the resources to create a vital culture and that ultimately, modern society greatly advanced the decline of the human species that had already begun early in Western history. 
    In Nietzsche’s view two trends were evident that were producing contradictory processes of massification and fragmentation---whose extreme consequences would be the central theme of postmodern theory.  On the one hand, modern society was fragmenting into warring groups, factions, and individuals without any overriding purpose or shared goals. On the other hand, modern society is leveling individuals into a herd, bereft of individuality, spontaneity, passion, or creativity.  Both trends were harmful to the development of the sort of free, creative, strong individuality championed by Nietzsche and he sharply criticized each.1

      The insights offered by Nietzsche were shared by many others as well.  Hannah Arendt (1904-1975), a German-American political theorist, also expressed concerns regarding the destruction of individuality because of the impact it would have on the future of the nation.
   In her novel, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt wrote that after the murder of a moral person and the annihilation of a judicial person, the destruction of individuality is almost always successful…For to destroy individuality is to destroy spontaneity, man’s power to begin something new out of his own resources, something which cannot be explained on the basis of reactions and environment.  Nothing then remains but ghastly marionettes with human faces, which all behave like the dogs in Pavlov’s experiments, which all react with perfect reliability even when going to their own death, and which do nothing but react.  This is the real triumph of the system. 2

   To make human beings superfluous is to eradicate the very conditions that make humanity possible---to destroy human plurality, spontaneity, and individuality. Arendt sums this up in the paragraph which immediate precedes her brief discussion about absolute or radical evil.3
   What totalitarian ideologies therefore aim at is not the transformation of society, but the transformation of human nature itself.  The concentration camps are the laboratories where changes in human nature are tested and their shamefulness, therefore, is not just the business of their inmates and those who run them according to strictly “scientific” standards; it is the concern of all men. Suffering, of which there has always been too much on earth, is not the issue, nor is the number of victims. Human nature is at stake, and even though it seems that these experiments succeed not in changing man, but only in destroying him, by creating a society in which the nihilistic banality of homo homini lupus (man unto man a wolf) is consistently realized, one should bear in mind the necessary limitations to an experiment which requires global control in order to show conclusive results.4  

   Parents play a major role in either inspiring or destroying their children individuality.  This is often done under the guise that either the parents know what is best for their child or the parents “meant well”, but the reality is that in many cases the children of these parents are living the lives that their parents wanted them to live with often very unhappy results. 
    Parents often insist that their children conform and not go against the prevailing societal code. Many parents staunchly believe in blind and mindless conformity. They believe that there is safety in following the prevailing and/or majority opinion. They contend that following the majority consensus offers a sense of belonging and security. They stress to their children that it is safer and more feasible to conform to the prevailing groupthink philosophy. They strongly discourage their children's strong individualism and nonconformity because it is believed that if their children refuse to conform to the prevailing groupthink, they would be considered oddballs or worse, being ostracized and alone. A worse scenario according to the parents, these children would be ostracized and denigrated by their neighbors and associates. So if their child/children dare to have a unique, creative, and innovative thought and idea, it is squashed and oftentimes considered outlandish and weird because nobody else thought of it! These parents are killing the dreams of a potential Picasso, Einstein, Mozart, Pushkin, or Tchaikovsky. 5

     Schools do the same thing.  Standardized tests, which are very popular in the US, actually serve to “pigeonhole” potential in students and are design to reward averageness.  After taking these tests, the school system often makes determinations about the mental abilities or potential of particular students and those students who are outside of the norm are negatively labeled for the rest of their time in the education system.
     Another problem is that the school system is designed to meet the needs of those who fall within the center of the “bell curve”.6   It is highly unlikely that if they had such standardized tests in earlier centuries that people like Mozart, Beethoven, van Gogh, Mussorgsky, Einstein, Pushkin, or Tchaikovsky would have had test scores in the middle range of the bell curve.  Many of these people had difficulty in school and would have perhaps been considered people who would never amount to anything because they could not do well on a standardized test. These people were geniuses and such tests are not designed to encourage genius.

   Researchers of creative geniuses claim, as a rule, these geniuses were poor students. Perhaps some of them did well in school, but they often found that many of them were bad students.
1. Voltaire's father told Voltaire and his brother: "I raised two fools. One fool in verse and another one in prose.”  

2. Isaac Newton was the worst student in the class until he beat up a fellow student. After that, Newton decided to beat him in knowledge. In a few months he became the best in the class.

Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor of the German Empire, was very bad with his studies and his work was even worse.  He could only find a job through patronage.  He would either be fired from every job, leave on his own, or be unable to carry out his assignment.

Napoleon was bad in all subjects, except mathematics.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s writing was very bad and he was unable to master either division or multiplication.

6. Albert Einstein - the creator of the theory of relativity and Nobel Prize laureate was a very average student.
His parents had no illusions about him and hoped that he will at least be able to get a simple job.

7. Pushkin was very poorly managed at the Lyceum, and wept while studying arithmetic.
After certification, the presentation of diplomas, he was second from the last.

Sergei Korolev, under whose leadership were created geophysical ballistic missiles, the first satellites, and the spacecrafts "Vostok" and "Voskhod", was considered to be a very poor student.

9. Chekhov held back in school twice.  He later went on to become both a medical doctor and highly successful author.

10.  Alexander Dumas, author of The Three Muskateers, was a very poor student in mathematics. 

     In fact, this may be one reason why geniuses very often end up living rather tragic lives.  After examining the biographies of many geniuses I noticed that many of them died at a rather young age from either alcoholism or suicide.  In some cases, excessive use of alcohol could also be seen as a form of suicide.

    Why did the lives of these geniuses often end so tragically? Very often these people were not understood by the society in which they lived and were considered odd as a result.  Some of these people were able to hear music where no one else heard it or have insights into things which others either did not have or could not express.  This makes someone odd?  In a culture which promotes conformity as a virtue, the answer is “yes”. 
    Another challenge facing our society is bullying.  Many children are routinely either physically or emotionally abused by other children simply because they are different.  In some cases, these children are physically and emotionally abused.  It is often true that the person who acting as the bully has many personal problems, but that does not offer encouragement or support to someone who is being beaten everyday by someone simply for being different.

    Bullying would not be as much of an issue if our society was not so intent on producing uniformity and destroying individuality.  It is easy for someone to become a bully and even receive the help of other students simply by declaring a particular student to be “strange”.  Bullying is not an innate behavior.  We are not born with a desire to hate people simply for being different.  This is a learned behavior.  This is something which parents either tell their children or their children absorb based upon their parents’ actions.
     In the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, South Pacific, the issue of racial prejudice is addressed in the song, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”.  This song deals with the fact that prejudice is a learned behavior. The fact is that this is true. There would be no prejudice and no bullying if people simply accepted others as being different instead of attempting to force everyone to be the same.  If everyone was “the same” we would have none of the inventions that we take for granted every day because no one would have ever thought of them.  

     I do not see being average as something to strive for.  In fact, it is something to settle for because a person lacks either the talent or intelligence to be better than average.   Hopefully future generations will be able to produce someone of the caliber of Tchaikovsky, Mozart, or Einstein, but this will never happen if we choose to settle for “average” as the social standard and continue to destroy individuality.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was right when he wrote “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; but talent instantly recognizes genius."

                                                                  End Notes

1)  Best, Steven The Postmodern Turn (NY: Guilford Press, 1997), p. 57

2)   Arendt, Hannah The Origins of Totalitarianism (NY: Schocken Books,  1951) p. 455

3)   May, Larry and Jerome Kohn (eds.) Hannah Arendt: 20 Years Later (MA: MIT Press, 1997), p. 135

4)  Arendt, pp. 458-459

5)  “10 Ways Parents Destroy Their Children’s Self-Esteem”

6)  “The Bell Curve”








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