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Individual responsibility and society

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

In the mornings I like to feed the birds and sit and watch them. Usually 20 - 40 house sparrows will come and gorge themselves on the bird food we put out. There's safety in the group. Hawks are nearby and hunting them. In the group, some will eat while others watch. They take turns -- some perched on the railing looking out for the eager talons of a raptor while some feast on the seeds and nuts. If one sparrow gets spooked they all suddenly flee. During the feeding, some will bully others away from the food. Fights regularly break out where two birds peck at each other. But the conflict quickly dies down and they get back to eating and watching for threats. While each bird is acting individually, they survive because of the group behavior.

Flock of birds
Flock of birds

What does this have to do with us?

Like the sparrows, we exist as individuals within a society that must coordinate to survive and thrive. Just like the sparrows, conflict breaks out when individuals compete over resources. Some sparrows are clearly more well-fed than others - an indication that greed isn't exclusive to just humans. Our society, rather than becoming more tolerant and virtuous, is becoming more polarized and hateful. We see some gorging themselves and various injustices and we get angry. People blame each other, different groups, systems, and the sins of those who've long been dead on our problems. It's seemingly rare that anyone takes personal responsibility. If Twitter tells us to hate someone or some group of people, many people will hate them. If Reddit says that we should esteem some view then many will esteem it. Most media outlets have agendas and are less concerned with journalism than with shaping public opinion.

It's rare to find discussions that involve analyzing personal character. It's common to reduce situations down to demographics and political ideology. To this extent, the popular culture has eliminated the individual except when it comes time to vilify or scapegoat someone. These have been the aims of some political groups for a long time. It appears to be working.

Content of character matters in a society where the individual matters. Racial and political identity is all that matters when individuals no longer account for anything other than determining if someone is in an in-group or an out-group. While this approach might make us feel like we belong to a group which may make us feel more secure, deep inside we also can't avoid the fact that we know that as an individual, we have no value to this group. We sense inside that our value is only on the surface and comes from a binary litmus test, "do I parrot the values of the group I identify with or not?" Unconsciously we know this to be true and so true security and self-worth evade us.

Psychological Health

Psychological health occurs within an individual. We have a nervous system and that nervous system is where an organism experiences well-being or lack thereof. Twitter, Facebook and Reddit don't have nervous systems. They are merely parts of the environment. Aligning on social media with a group and becoming a host for political ideas that are propagated like viruses doesn't lead to psychological well-being. Blaming other groups for our personal problems tends to make matters worse. It instills learned helplessness and victimhood. In our powerlessness as an individual we double-down on our commitment to our political tribe believing that it will save us from our suffering.

However, it's our own character, virtues, and actions that in actuality lead us to psychological well-being. When Viktor Frankl was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, he discovered that it was his personal responsibility to create meaning in order to survive. It was clear what group he belonged to-a truly oppressed, powerless group that were being worked to death. Had he merely ceded his mind and spirit to group identification, he would have died like he saw so many others die.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way. - Viktor Frankl, "Man's Search For Meaning"

Notice that he determines that he must choose his own way. He doesn't say that freedom and meaning came by identifying with a political group or being fixated on the constant injustice. In the worst of circumstances, he experienced that freedom came by choosing his own way and his own attitude.

Each of us knows what's deeply meaningful for us. Propaganda seeks to hijack our need for purpose and co-opt our energies for political purposes. Sadly, some psychologists have sold out to corporate and political organizations to manipulate our human need to belong so that we form behavioral addictions to only serve others' interests. When we engage in addictive doom-scrolling, online political arguments, spreading hate toward perceived out-groups, and so on, our mental health degrades. We do this because we have a need to belong and feel safe, but the end result is feeling drained, angry, powerless and disconnected from our own sense of purpose. If we are consciously choosing our actions to bring us into contact with what is meaningful for us individually, our psychological health will improve.

Character and Virtue

We each are individually responsible for our character and virtue. One of my most important teachers, who happens to be Black, shared with me his secret for navigating an unjust society. It centers on living with impeccable character. Don't give them anything to paint you how they want to paint you. This doesn't mean that we don't speak up about injustice, but we accept and take responsibility for the fact that our own character and committed actions are what we can control and what will give us meaning and purpose.

Living with character and virtue is our "why" that lets us live with grace. If we give up control of our spirits, our minds, our individual freedom and responsibility, we have allowed ourselves to merely be useful idiots for those whose purpose comes from trying to manipulate the political system to work the way they want it to. They don't care about you as a person. They care only about extracting the value you have as an unwitting political agent in their cause. To free yourself, you have to decenter the political and recenter the spiritual. To be spiritual is to have character and live with virtue. To have character and live with virtue is to create meaning. To live with meaning is to have psychological well-being. To have psychological well-being is to improve society.

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