The powerful #MeToo movement, beyond its success in holding influential men accountable, has brought to light the issue of toxic masculinity. That is, the idea that real men are not emotional, rely on violence to solve problems or cannot stay at home to care for children among many other limitations. However, a similar deeply-rooted issue that has yet to be fully discussed and addressed is that of “toxic individualism,” which refers to the responsibility individuals have for themselves taken to the extreme. This is best exemplified in the now commonplace saying, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” which masks how complicated and difficult the road to find opportunities and success is today.
Initially, the term was used pejoratively in 19th century France, associated with laissez-faire economics and the selfish interests of aristocrats. Alexis de Tocqueville’s understanding of the principle is noted in his 1856 book, “L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution,” in which Tocqueville writes how individualism was “not a word used by our ancestors, for no one could rely solely on themselves to survive and prosper.”
Later on, German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies wrote on the dichotomy of life, split between personal goals, or gesellschaft, and those of society, or gemeinschaft. When the latter diminishes, the sentiment of providing for the community is lost, corrupt behaviour runs rampant and individuals suffer from the loss of emotional connections and relationships.
In a modern context, individualism, as a social, political and economic philosophy, accentuates the worth and freedom of an individual, purporting strict self-reliance. In a low dose, individualism is good and healthy, it teaches decision-making and stimulates personal development. It suggests that, as Americans, we can do anything or get anywhere as long as we work hard enough. Thus, failures are entirely our own fault. This pushes failures of society onto the individual as well, blaming citizens for larger systemic injustices like poverty or prejudice. Behold, toxic individualism.
This is not to belittle the accomplishments of some individuals who are able to succeed through hard work despite facing challenging circumstances. There are many hurdles on the path to success and we must recognize that some obstacles—predominantly those related to race, gender and socioeconomic status—are more difficult to overcome than others. We must not be blinded by the consequences of individualism, especially toxic individualism, when it comes at such a cost. In some sense, it is failing to reach our true potential as a nation, but for some, it costs them their life.
Historian Barry Strauss suggests that individualism, even “rampant” individualism, is a good thing because it is a psychological force that has allowed the United States to become an “economic powerhouse.” Yet, much as we need to ask how one measures success, we must also ask what data suggests the U.S. is an economic superstar. While we are one of the richest and most developed nations in the world, we have over $1.5 trillion in student debt, 45 million Americans with no health insurance and roughly 20 million more underinsured. All of these issues are emblematic of our disastrous toxic individualism complex.
What is perhaps worse about these examples is that they represent issues that are considered internationally to be fundamental human rights: Education and healthcare. If we are to promote the American Dream, why do we assert this goal must be achieved alone?
Toxic individualism encourages a greedy capitalist society where everyone for themselves is the norm. It creates unjust and unresponsive structures in healthcare in which we would rather allow people to die than modify the system and restricts the ability to access the higher educational system in an attempt to keep control of the population.
The 20th century “pulling up by the bootstraps” rhetoric seems to be the senseless anthem to which toxic individualism marches. It sustains a particular lifestyle for a few, including multimillion dollar homes, concierge physicians and personal firefighters. While many strive for this type of society, we must remember that we are no different than those described by de Tocqueville: We all need help in different ways, and providing such help or promoting a society that eases the burden of living with health conditions or pursuing higher education is not something we ought to consider shameful.
Reorganization of our society and rethinking this powerful ideology might promote opportunities, not for the few who draw the right cards or meet the right people, but for the many. Optimistic and plausible alternatives exist and are displayed in systems across other parts of the world, especially in social democratic Europe: Free public education, free public healthcare and functionally operating rapid transit systems. All of these things are possible, and may even be in sight with the right Democratic presidential candidate, but we must first recognize the powerful hold toxic individualism has on us.
Jordan Reif is a second-year student studying political science on the pre-med track.