A Google search for “Shelby Buster” produces pages of indignant headlines. Numerous news sites, both American and foreign, report the story of a 14-year-old who set out on a birthday shopping expedition and came home with an experience in discrimination.
Shelby said she was browsing at Rue 21 when an employee told her that she was “too big to be in this store” and needed to leave. Although Shelby received an apology from another employee, she took her complaint to Facebook, where the firm also apologized. Yet her mother was so indignant that she contacted the local news with their story.
The account went viral. Despite Rue 21’s apologies, large numbers of angry shoppers promised a boycott against Rue 21 and demanded that the discourteous clerk be fired. Online ire rained down on the firm for the cautious language used in a subsequent Facebook post:
“.… We are currently investigating the claims of Ms. Buster, including conducting interviews with store associates and other witnesses who were present at the time of alleged incident. The alleged behavior, if true, would be absolutely unacceptable and contrary to company policy. We deeply regret any misunderstanding that may have occurred.”
However, one lone headline among the Google search results for “Shelby Buster” is less indignant. A follow-up article from KEZI 9, Shelby’s local news station, reported that Shelby and the accused employee issued a joint statement explaining that the brouhaha was a mistake and that the person who had spoken to Shelby was not a store employee.
The Buster family expressed both deep regret for causing the uproar and gratitude for the gracious forgiveness of the accused employee. Shelby’s father remarked that such things should never be taken to Facebook because they quickly spiral out of control. The incident seems a small and silly one, now resolved and best forgotten. Yet, the internet response to Shelby’s original story is important. It illustrates a startling change in the way our culture understands individuality.
Do We Really Value Individuality?
Despite our claims of valuing diversity, freedom, and choice, we have become a nation of indignant crusaders who are quick to lambast opinions or manners of which we disapprove. We respond so vehemently that it becomes clear we view our opponents as symbols of pervasive societal injustice instead of flawed individuals. To many online commenters, the clerk at Rue 21 became an effigy of bullying. The crusaders wanted to smash the effigy. Why do we forget that the people we attack online are merely people, and why do we care so deeply that they are wrong even when they cannot directly affect our lives? Why do Facebook posts “spiral out of control?”
This aggressive attitude has become increasingly common. In September, Guido Barilla (chair of the Barilla brand of pasta) was asked if he would ever portray a gay couple in one of his family-centered commercials. Despite actually supporting the legalization of gay marriage, the unwary Barilla said that he would not use such a family in his advertisements. “We don’t agree with them. Ours is a classical family where the woman plays a fundamental role,” he said.
Barilla has since apologized for causing offense. However, a vocal group of his fellow-Italians were soon using social media to call for a massive boycott of Barilla’s bigoted pasta. Back during the 15th century, the authorities offered to spare religious heretic Jan Hus from burning if he recanted, but today an apology is not enough. Today a man like Barilla is a symbol of oppression if he happens to express the wrong opinion on a hot topic, or even the right opinion, too late. He is attacked as a symbol, instead of being ignored or forgiven like a flawed individual.
When our opponents become symbols instead of people, it becomes much harder to accept any sincere attempts to make amends or live in peace. Instead we rally the public to boycott entire firms because of an alleged insult from one employee, or we attack a businessman for answering interview questions in a way that does not fit our definition of a prejudice-free world. We use that employee or that businessman as fodder for our crusades.
Going To War
The technique of publicizing upsetting incidents in order to rally public opinion is not new. It worked quite well in the 1700’s when would-be American rebels inflamed public sentiment with tales of the Boston massacre. It was highly effective after Pearl Harbor. The British and the Japanese become symbols of all that was wrong with the world, in order to further justify waging war against them to make the world a better place. War requires that we think of our enemies less as a group of individuals and more as monolithic entity. How else could we shoot at them?
Yet, now we apply the methods of war to our campaigns for social change. We don’t just make symbols of organized groups such as the Redcoats or the Japs: We make symbols of random ideological and cultural sects in our midst. The American colonials wanted basic legal rights. We want rather extensive social rights. We demand that our citizens not only have the right to shop in any store, but that they are able to go about their shopping day without encountering anyone who criticizes or demeans them.
It is traditional to write etiquette books that bemoan societal rudeness (Miss Manners has been doing it for years), but now we attempt to force individuals to conform to our definition of non-judgmental acceptance. Why? Much of this drive comes from a genuine desire to improve society. Unhealthy external pressures deluge modern individuals. Anyone who has engaged in online mommy wars, compared her body to pop-up Victoria Secret ads, or clicked on a headline like, “The Top Ten Ways You Are Ruining Your Life” knows all about these pressures. Faced with such an onslaught, it is only natural that we would try to stop the world from telling anyone that they are wrong or ugly. By claiming that each person should be himself, liberated from condemnation, we seem to be fighting for everyone’s individuality.
Yet we are not. Our status updates, sad emoticons, and fiercely-worded blog comments actually belittle the power of the individual. By acting as if we are helpless to reject hostile opinions, we teach our children that their power to define themselves is fragile indeed. By moaning over the mere fact that others disagree with us — recently I saw a blogger complaining about how he was “hated on” for years because he grew his hair long, and how this situation illustrates that it is almost impossible to be an individual in the modern world — we declare that our ability to be comfortable in our own skin depends on others’ acceptance of us.
It wasn’t that long ago, when children complained of verbal cruelty from peers, parents used to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Now the cruelty of the human tongue is often breathtaking, so the phrase not entirely true. Still, it communicates an empowering idea. It says that the opinions of others need not matter because the individual is stronger than anyone else’s words. Such sentiments communicate a completely different message about the individual’s strength than did Shelby Buster’s pro-bono online defense team. Nowadays, instead of shrugging our independent shoulders and moving on when people hurt us, we claim that they threaten our very individuality. This notion, that individuality cannot survive hostile opinion, is a sharp break with history.
The Rise Of The Principled Individual
Individualism’s modern rise is visible among the Protestant reformers who claimed the right to read Scripture for themselves and were willing to die for their interpretations. It is seen also in the Enlightenment and the idea that through study and observation, anyone could independently find the truth about our world. Soon after, political revolutions proclaimed that individuals not only had the power to study science and theology, but also to form their own political entities and to overthrow the monarchical tradition of past generations.
Individuals claimed certain inalienable rights. They believed in them so strongly that they were willing to languish in prison, or to seize muskets and march against the Redcoats. The value of the new individual was independent of his place in society. Because he conducted himself by principles (whether theological, scientific, or political), he could choose “right” for himself. It was these chosen principles that made him an individual no matter what names others called him.
A good illustration of this is Charlotte Brontë’s character Jane Eyre. Jane is a waif of ill-fortune who has been oppressed throughout childhood and now works as a lowly governess. Yet one day, it appears that her patience under suffering is about to be rewarded by an exciting romance and marriage to the wealthy Mr. Rochester. Alas, a dramatic wedding day interruption destroys Jane’s dream by revealing that Mr. Rochester’s first wife is not only alive, but insane and locked up in his house. Rochester urges Jane to become his mistress despite the impossibility of a legal marriage. After all, they love each other, and only a silly rule stands in their way. Modern individualism would urge Jane to put herself first and accept the proposition. Even her own feelings “clamor” and ask her, “Who in the world cares for you? Or who will be injured by what you do?’” She decides:
“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation.”
To Jane, respecting and caring for herself requires following principles which appear to destroy all chance of earthly happiness. It is only by living up to her beliefs that she can maintain her individuality. A great deal of suffering is in store for Jane before she can say, near the close of her novel, “Reader, I married him,” and live happily with both beloved husband and intact principles. Note that Jane does not follow moralism blindly. She is able to reject others’ moral demands when she believes them to be untrue — for instance, she does not marry her imperious cousin St. John Rivers despite his belief that God wants her to. She is led by truth, and her truth is defined by principles. She is not shaken just because she must defy everyone around her.
The ideal of a person, defined only by his or her own principles and accountable only to his or her own conscience, led to radical individualism and radical liberty in the United States and other countries. It was no longer necessary for nations to be religiously or politically homogenous, and individuals could choose both their own clergy and their own political candidates. Suffrage was given to men of property, then to all white men, then to all men, and to women as well. Children were freed to abandon the beliefs or careers of their fathers and follow their own talents, and as they did so, economic prosperity and technical innovation leaped forward. In the United States, stories of the common man—the ordinary shopkeeper, pioneer, and entrepreneur—were written for the boys of America as models to be imitated. These stories featured men who solved problems through personal ingenuity, and who ignored mockery until they had silenced it, whether by material success or a long-provoked blow to the jaw. Over the years, the idealized individual became a figure of principle, a Mr.-Smith-Goes-To-Washington, a person who stood fearlessly against the masses and rode back into the sunset alone. As a nation we idealized individualism.
Who Needs Moral Absolutes?
More recently, we tried to liberate the individual even farther. The last impediment to complete independence was moral absolutes— those pesky principles that demand certain actions and behaviors. Not realizing that we were eliminating the factor that had thus far defined individuality, we blasted away the absolutes. Now, each adult is free to decide for him or herself on the proper role and meaning of sex, the commitment required by marriage, the value of an unborn child’s life, the generosity due to family or neighbors, and the circumstantial ethics of protecting our financial interests. We are liberated to ride into as many sunsets and moonrises as we choose. We can run off to the tropics with our own Mr. Rochester instead of nearly starving on the moors as Jane did.
Yet people are not very good at forming their own sense of self and self-worth, no matter how much “me-time” they achieve. If we were, there would be no “mommy wars” and no internet trolls. There would be no lonely self-doubt in darkened rooms when we lay awake at night. We simply wouldn’t care what other people thought of us. A fundamental truth about the individual seems to be that we need validation that comes from something or someone outside ourselves. Once the principles of absolute truth are gone, we are left to turn to each other, and none of us now has any dependable standard by which to evaluate each other’s opinions. That is why we are left at the mercy of mass consensus. That is why we cannot endure it when others condemn our choices or refuse to put us into pasta ads.
Human beings have always been affected by peer pressure and public opinion, but now we have no counter-balance. Instead we have the internet and it is not helping. Online, where anyone can go viral and be excoriated or beatified by the masses, we are less of an individual than ever. Others blast us as if we were not human — just look up the comments on any YouTube documentary about anorexia, and see how many people urge the mentally-ill subjects to kill themselves. In return, we behave as badly as we wish because we are only a screen name and a number — look at California’s new laws against “revenge porn”.
Online behavior has dampened our collective belief in the goodness of humanity and damaged our trust that American citizens are smart enough to run the country. Lost in the crowd, we have become intolerant in the name of tolerance. We attempt to eliminate store clerks who make bone-headed and insulting comments. We try to punish anyone who expresses disapproval of another person’s life choices. We do all this in a mob of online activists and commentators.
This shows us two things: One, we have lost respect for the individuality of those who disagree with us. Two, we have lost respect for our own individuality as a force that can exist without the support of our community. Right now, someone on an Internet message board is trying to rise above a heated argument by reeling off that hoary quote attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” But in a world increasingly devoid of moral absolutes, it is hard to say that and really mean it.
Now, more than ever, we need principles to liberate us from the tyranny of opinion. The first step is to recognize that not every slight is an outrage requiring us to round up an online posse, as more often than not mob justice is an oxymoron. Once we collectively learn to take criticism in stride, we’re well on our way to cultivating the first principle necessary for an individualistic society such as ours to live in harmony. Historian Jacques Barzun put it this way: “Self-control at least develops a self.”