Professor Adam Johns
The Threat of Individuality
Individuality distinguishes one existence from another. The phenomena of individuality allows for a desire within each person to create and persevere due to unique passion and intelligence. Distinctiveness and a loud identity, much different from the social norm, is more prone to a few disapproving stares, but it will be the reason for change and advancement. As Steve Jobs so famously said, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
A dramatic transition in values can be linked back to the early 20th century, to the era famously known as The Roaring Twenties. During this time, trends became a prevalent part of society; people who strived to prevent exclusion reached out to conformity in attempt to stay relevant. “Before World War I, the country remained culturally and psychologically rooted in the nineteenth century, but in the 1920s America seemed to break its wistful attachments to the recent past and usher in a more modern era” (Zeitz). After a wartime recession caused by severe hyperinflation around the world, the economy boomed in the decade following WWI. A Progressive Era accompanied by advances in technology, growth in big business and a thriving banking system, created an economic boom, leaving Americans with much disposable income to spend on luxuries. During this time, the credit card was invented, which provoked spoiled Americans to participate in unnecessary extravagant spending in order impress their neighbors. The 1920’s will forever be defined as, “…flappers and dance halls, movie palaces and radio empires, and Prohibition and speakeasies” (Zeitz). During this time, dresses became shorter, brighter and lighter. New fabrics were experimented with and designer brands became a desire and indicator of worth and wealth. In this decade, the risk takers of society were born. “Flappers prized style over substance, novelty over tradition, and pleasure over virtue’ (Ferentinos). They cut their hair and shortened their dresses above the knee. They flirtatiously danced with men and participated in illegal drug use. These women were rebels against the expectations to settle down and to stay obedient housewives, and they used fashion and popular trends to get this message across. Since this time, how a woman or man presents him or herself externally, sends a strong message about wealth, worth, values and morals. Each individual is immediately tagged and labeled as being a certain kind of person solely based on what he or she has draped over his or her body. If a man is not participating in the latest blazer trend or sporting his Oakley sunglasses, he is considered irrelevant, and he is disregarded.
What is the point of rebellion if conforming is easier? In the 1950s, following America’s victory in World War II, a wave of comfort swept across our country. The returning veterans presumed their home jobs, which allowed their wives to escape the factories and return to their household duties. Following the conclusion of the war, there was a major shift in production from war materials to consumer goods. Due to this victory, the United States was considered a super power, promoting a time of peace and prosperity. The values of capitalism were rekindled, and this was made possible by the revolutionary invention of the television. Serving as the perfect median, television commercials provided the people with an insight into the idea life. This ideal life, promoted by advertisements, included a cute house in the suburbs, a white picket fence and a carload of children. In hopes of being socially accepted, many people gave into this advertised conformity.
Along with the promoted idea of conformity, there existed a group of rebels who initiated The Beat Generation. This movement was lead by a group of disgruntled poets and writers whom were disgusted with the newfound modern social structure and widespread consumer attitude. “The Beat Generation was never a large movement in terms of sheer numbers, but in influence and cultural status they were more visible than any other competing aesthetic” (Rahn). Allen Ginsberg, a prominent author of The Beat Generation, published his work Howl in 1956. Howl targeted the average Americans who were unaware of the constant corruption and hardships surrounding them. This poem shown light on the parts of the country that weren’t all safe smiles and sheltered bliss but instead the parts that were struggling to stay alive. Ginsberg explicitly gets his point across, stating, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix” (Ginsberg). This poem by Ginsberg strives to draw attention to the social issues of drug use, starvation, pornography, poverty and racism. It emphasizes that ignorance and escaping to the suburbs are not acceptable remedies for these debilitating problems. Although The Beat Generation was scolded and continuously insulted for being non-intellectual, “time has proven that the cultural impact of the Beat writers was far from short-lived, as the influence of their work continues to be widespread” (Rahn). The Beat Generation was responsible for decreasing censorship in literature and highly increasing attention on environmentalism.
In Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, a foreign society is clashed with a group of earthlings. When Lilith, an American human, first comes into contact with Jdahya, disgust, nerves and fright automatically overcome her. “The unknown frightened her… She did not want to be any closer to him. She had not known what held her back before. Now she was certain it was his alienness, his difference, his literal unearthliness” (Butler, 13). The American way has taught people to become nervous and entirely closed off when it comes to the presence of the unknown. Americans have been brought up egotistically and arrogantly in a way that discourages the acceptance and study of new culture. When Jdahya introduces his people’s motives to Lilith he states, “We’re bot hierarchical, you see. We never were. But we are powerfully acquisitive. We acquire new life- seek it, investigate it, manipulate it, sort it, use it” (Butler, 41). The Oanklali people have a deep desire to constantly and consistently renew themselves, enabling them to evolve and survive as a species. They choose to change rather than to fall into, “extinction or stagnation” (Butler, 40). Jdahya strives to explain to Lilith the obvious flaws of mankind explaining that, “If they had been able to perceive and solve their problems, they might have been able to avoid destruction” (Butler, 38). The mere existence of war as a concept, where humans kill and destroy life to somehow enhance other life, is an absurd assumption that only a highly flawed species could ever believe is sufficient. The Oankali species blame humankind’s downfall on, “two incompatible characteristics.” Jdahya says, “You are intelligent… You are hierarchical. When human intelligence served [hierarchy] instead of guiding it, when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as a problem, but took pride in it or did not notice it at all…”(Butler, 39), that’s when it became obvious that the two were in conflict with each other.
In Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit, Leslie Marmon Silko describes the lifestyle of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico. The Pueblo people value the individual, focusing their judgments on behavior rather than physical beauty. Silko says, “Younger people, people my parents’ age, seemed to look at the world in a more modern way. The modern way includes racism (Silko, 10).” The Pueblo people, “looked at the world very differently; a person’s appearance and possessions did not matter nearly as much as a person’s behavior. For them, a person’s value lies in how the person interacts with other people, how that person behaves toward the animals and the earth (Silko, 10).” According to them, a common maker relates all things, all people and all animals upon creation. There is no proper and improper, favored or disfavored, because everything in this universe is created for an intended balance that is necessary to create harmony and peaceful flow. Silko, as a young child, was taught by her grandmother to be proud of her confidence and strength because such qualities made her beautiful and valuable. “To the Pueblo way of thinking, the act of comparing one living being with another was silly, because each being or thing is unique and therefore incomparability valuable because it is the only one of its kind (Silko, 11).” Among their culture, there was no social ladder that could be influenced by choice of clothing. The Pueblo people value physical differences that would be pitied in our culture. What we ostracize, they celebrate. “Persons born with exceptional physical or sexual differences were highly respected and honored because their physical differences gave them special positions as mediators between this world and the spirit world (Silko, 12).” Silko tells a story about the hunchbacked medicine man who was seen as a universal healer and of much importance in their culture; he was not labeled as disabled and less capable as he would have been in modern American culture. One should not feel worthy of formulating another’s full life story based on his or her physical attributes. Accepting individuality, as seen within the Pueblo culture, allows for confidence, which stimulates action.
Some critics may argue that individuality allows for chaos and too much room for feuding interpretations and strong disapproval. The coddlers of this world will say that paying attention to the differences among a group creates an environment of unfairness and discourages the shy minded of the world. These are the same people that support the mandate of uniforms so their school is recognized as a conformed group rather than a dense area of uniquely specialized individuals. A sea of gray pants and sweaters roaming a hallway in unison makes it almost impossible for the brilliant stylist and the obscure minds to express their passions and desires on the blank canvas of their bodies. When humans are unable to express their essence externally, they are less likely to express themselves verbally. Further, the figureheads of a capitalistic society such as our own are easily spooked by the idea that an uncontrolled, non-manipulated mind can change the world in a favorable way. People are scared of individuality because there is a possibility of unexpected brilliance in a non-typical member of society.
When the topic of celebrating the individual is brought up in a friendly environment, many people will claim to agree with this. These are the same people who will shoot dirty looks at the female with a buzz cut, or will be reluctant to join in on a fight for a cause that they believe in. These people hold back in fear of rocking the boat. Such people are entirely hypocritical and completely unaware of the meaning. When individuals religiously practice conformity and uniformity out of worry that they will stand out in a negative light, yet still preach individuality, they are once again falling into a trend. Conformists are scared to feel discomfort. They practice uniformity so that no child is left behind. While this keeps every child up to date, it also works to prevent the star pupils from shining. The exact reason for a bell curve in an academic system is to condense the test takers into an average. For decades, this nation has catered toward the average Joe. We condemn the overachievers and pity the underachievers, celebrating the masses that don’t draw too much attention their way. We do this because we’re petrified of being left behind.
Ferentinos, Susan. "Flapper." The Ultimate History Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2014.
Zeitz, Joshua. "The Roaring Twenties." The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. "Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit: Essays on Native American Life Today." The Antioch Review 54.3 (1996): 364. Web.
Butler, Octavia E. Lilith's Brood. New York: Aspect/Warner, 2000. Print.
Rahn, Josh. "The Beat Generation." - Literature Periods & Movements. Jalic Inc., n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.
Ginsberg, Alen. "Howl." Poetry Foundation. Ed. Ruth Graham. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.