The Democratization of Selfishness

I’m no anthropologist, but I like to think that the genesis of should and s’pose’da in many cases is accumulated wisdom passed along through generations like an oral tradition.  Unfortunately, this is not without its pitfalls, even if it were to account for all of the shoulds and s’pose’das out there.

But humor me for a moment and take a completely unsubstantiated trip down memory lane with me. Back in the day, when human social groups were smaller family groups or tribes, I imagine that any human group followed a fairly strict set of survival rules. Individuality for tribe members never really entered the equation since individuals on their own would simply die without the support and protection afforded by the social group. As a result, while you might have power struggles over who would be the leader, I don’t imagine there was a ton of fighting over what the survival rules (i.e., stick together) were. Even as a mere guess, I think this is probably right since humans are described as “the social animal” (I’m sure the phrase has been used somewhere, but I’m too lazy to cite it, much less research it).

Consider the structure of these pre-modern groups or tribes in more detail.  An elite person or group of people probably made the rules.  Perhaps they were bound by certain historical rules, which seemed to have worked fine for generations, or perhaps new societies and new rules were created out of whole cloth.  In either case, the group making the rules is the leaders. Probably some rulers were “good” and some were not so good, but I think it’s fair to say that each of these were “selfish” in the sense that they made the ultimate determination as to not only the rules, but what considerations were important or definitive in making those rules. In short, they determined what was “right”. As noted above, survival dictated that differences of opinion were sharply limited – your choices were to leave the group and probably die, to hew the party line even if it chaffed, or to lead a probably bloody revolution. Consider the prototypical ancient government (other than Athens for a brief period) being that of a monarchy or oligarchy.

In contrast, in modern times, in the developed world, increased freedom from government and economic forces has broken these traditional bands. We are no longer limited to the family, community or nation in which we were born. If we feel different and want to find a new tribe, with the proper motivation, there’s not much problem in moving to a new place (either physically or socially) to try. As a result, traditional definitional lines have become much more amorphous than in the past. No longer is last name or race or nationality or ethnicity enough to fully define a group of like-minded people.

New-age groups are defined by commonality of thought, belief and value – things that we control and that can change.  What this means is that you no longer have to conform your opinions, thoughts, beliefs and values to remain part of a group. Instead, you have the freedom to leave a group that chaffs or ostracizes and to find a group suitable for you. In this day and age, there seems to be a lid for every pot.

Some bemoan this new ability to cut ties as a “waning of belonging”, as described in this passage:

“But in these days of the liberation movements, some voices say that we are not really free until we break loose from all binding relationships and commitments. Belonging seems to them enslaving rather than enriching. Yet those who break loose from the bonds of commitment are likely to replace their previous sense of belonging only with a sense of longing. Then this age of apparent liberation also becomes an age of isolation and loneliness. Ours is the age of the waning of belonging.”

Such attitudes fail to take account of the distinction between who gets to decide what it means to belong. In the old days, leaders were able to impose their own (selfish) definition of what the rules were and everyone was more or less forced to abide by those rules; therefore everyone forever “belonged” to the group they started in. Today, followers can choose which leader to follow. It’s not that people wish to belong to nothing; it’s that they want to choose to whom and to what they belong. Existing leaders have lost power over those born into their systems. Mobility among competing philosophical and familial systems has increased; selfishness has become democratized.

The irony, of course, is that even thought-groups are not free from the assumption that if you belong to the group you have the same group of thoughts and beliefs as the leader has defined for the group. It is as if you have freedom of choice, but only the first time – once you choose to join the group on the basis of commonality over certain beliefs, then you’re locked in to the nuance that hadn’t previously been explored by or explained to you. In essence, you’ve given up your freedom to choose the interpretation or the implementation of your choice. In that sense it is true that the cost of democratized selfishness may include increased isolation and loneliness, but that may be an appropriate price to pay to be true to yourself. Of course, maybe it was a feeling of isolation and loneliness, not belonging, that caused you to want to leave a group in the first place.

As a final note, this is not to say that it is wise, or kind, to abandon the newly selfish (particularly teenagers) to their choices or their freedom to choose. But what it does mean is that we provide our children the tools to make good choices without providing the answers of what we think the right answers are.

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2 thoughts on “The Democratization of Selfishness

  1. Pingback: Responsibility vs Blame | noonethinksthat

  2. Pingback: Thou mayest | noonethinksthat

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