May 2013

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by Jonathan Wallace

We are raised to think of the things we perceive as if they were unique. For example, I am looking at the wireless mouse I have used with this computer for the last five or seven years. It is the only one I have ever had, and all I ever have to do is replace a battery every few years. I find it very convenient, because using mice (mouses?) that needed cables, I have become tangled, wrapped them around the keyboard, accidentally swept pens and papers off the desk with their cords. My faithful wireless mouse is a unique object in my life.

But looked at in terms of the historical arc it took to get to my right hand, it hardly stands alone or is unique. Like every thing and every person, it results from a widespread network of collaboration and interaction. Someone imagined it, someone else designed it, somewhere in a factory in the United States or Asia hands assembled it. It left a factory assembly line in the company of some thousands or millions of its fellows, and then followed an arc—the only unique part of its timeline—to land on my desk.

The same way of thinking may be applied to a college graduate enthusiastically throwing her mortarboard in the air. Perhaps she is wearing a pink ribbon or a torn scarlet one, a symbol that I know to express a political statement, and which differentiates her from the hundreds of identically uniformed people around her. Or perhaps she has added something quirky to her gown, a small stuffed animal clipped to her sleeve instead of a carnation. I look at her and know that behind her stand people who designed the land in which she grew up and aspired to college, people who conceived her, and (possibly the same people, maybe not) fed and taught her. People I cannot see who worked to create the cradle of her individuality.

You cannot pick up and examine a thing, a person or indeed an idea, without pulling up a whole series of others with it. All things and people, and ideas, are part of a fabric. But this “figure/ground” distinction was not always evident. There was a time when we were all commodities. There was a time when we had, for the first time in history, the opportunity to become “figures” against a “ground”, a dancer distinguished from the dance. There may be a time, and we seem to be close to it, when in our minds we are all figures and there is no (common) ground.

The tension between “figure” and “ground” is one of the repetitive conflicts, encountered in every age, in free speech disputes. Without individuality, freedom of speech could not exist. As we pull up the idea of freedom of speech to examine it, the ideas that come up with it include “trust”, “progress”, "toleration", "liberty", “competition”, but also “individuality” as a very fundamental one.

Archaeology, as well as the clean up process after modern wars and Holocausts, involves digging up a lot of bodies in pits. There tends to be an anonymous and dreary sameness to them: they vary in age and gender, but share their nakedness and arrow or bullet wounds, blunt trauma or symptoms of being gassed. To imagine the future, Orwell said, you would have to visualize a boot stamping on a human face, forever.

When I read of the discovery of the “Ice Man” of the Alps, I was fascinated. With his possessions, his broken bow and his little bag of plants, he was an individual who had gone up into the mountains and frozen to death, alone, five thousand years ago. He was a “figure” standing out against the anonymous “ground” of huddled bodies. It was possible, using the available evidence, to construct a narrative about his life, one that made him unique among the masses of people who had ever lived. He was the only person in the history of the world to freeze to death at that particular time and place. Scientists speculated he had broken his bow on the other side of the mountain, and was traveling to a forest to replace it when he died. I, who believe uncritically that I am unique, felt a sense of kinship to him, one individual to another.

Then they exposed his remains to more sensitive tests, and discovered an arrowhead in his ribs under one armpit, and he receded most of the way from “figure” to “ground”, rejoining the masses of anonymous murder victims, humans shot, stabbed and clubbed by humans through-out history.

Jacob Burkhardt, in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy Vol I (1958) Tr. S.G.C. Middlemore, postulates that the development of human individuality was a product of the Renaissance:

Man was conscious of himself only as member of a race, people, party, family or corporation—only through some general category. In Italy, this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all the things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such. P. 143

Burkhardt notes that despotism does not prevent individuality: “political impotence does not hinder the different tendencies and manifestations of private life from thriving in the fullest vigor and variety.” P. 144

Maurice Keen, in Chivalry (1984), observes a similar phenomenon among medieval knights, a sort of cultural flowering where knights differentiated themselves from one another, became impressive and unique figures based on differences in their prowess, oaths, morality, deeds and blazons. Eccentric Ulrich von Liechtenstein, riding around Europe in the 1200’s dressed as the Goddess of Love, offering to break a lance with anyone he met, was a product of the unique individuality fostered by chivalry.

Walter Bagehot, in The English Constitution (1898) in the late nineteenth century, still thinks there are British citizens of the working class who are functionally not individuals, not capable of holding opinions or making decisions necessary for participation in a democracy; he calls them “the coarse, dull, contracted multitude”.

With due respect to talented historians, Burckhardt and Bagehot both are wrong. (Keen simply describes individuality, makes no sweeping claims for its origins in his era.) In anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon’s classic work Yanomamo: The Fierce People (1983), Kaobawa, the headman of the tribe, and Rerebawa, its guest warrior, are two distinctly different individuals. Kaobawa is agnostic, thoughtful, cautious, a consensus-builder, has a John Adams quality; Rerebawa is angrier, more emotional, more devout, yet sarcastic and prone to teasing Chagnon. Both Burkhardt and Bagehot have fallen into a fallacy which probably already has a name, but which I will call the Recording Fallacy, that something cannot possibly have existed unless we can find a historical record of it. Since the Yanomamo have no writing, the distinct individuals who make up its 200-person groupings would be unknown to us, if Chagnon had not spent years living with them and writing about them.

If evolutionary biologists had fallen into the Recording Fallacy, they would believe that no life form could possibly have existed if we haven’t found it in the fossil record. Instead, they are constantly postulating, and sometimes finding, forms intermediate to those with which they already are familiar. In their cooperation with the geologists, paleontologists are aware that the vagaries of external forces play a great role in determining which life forms are preserved in the fossil record; we know about the Pre-Cambrian “explosion” of sea life because dead specimens were buried in a particular silt which turned to rock and preserved their remains.

Because the acts of the rich and politically powerful are more likely to be recorded than those of the “little people”, Burckhardt, Bagehot and Keen all (without particular insight into this reality) are cataloging “lifestyles of the rich and famous” of their eras. For Burckhardt, the apotheosis of individuality in his period is the remarkable Leon Battista Alberti, one of the lesser known Renaissance geniuses, who composed music, studied canon law, was a physicist and mathematician, built a camera obscura, wrote novels and treatises, and “could spring over a man’s head”. Burckhardt, p. 149.

Some historians, fascinated by the deeds of the Plantagenets, Borgias or De Coucy’s, give us powerful evidence of the individuality of common people along the way. Barbara Tuchman, in A Distant Mirror, reveals the unknown nun at Auxerre who wrote a poem beginning, “All Abbesses deserve to die” . Her words were recorded because someone archived the honorary scroll on which she scrawled them. Other unique individuals turn up in the records of the Inquisition in all nations, the carpenters, millers, tinkers and farmers overheard saying that there is no God, or that God is in all of us. It is a common sense matter that in a local bar where three people are drinking, among them they will have five opinions, and possibly some very strange and quirky ones.

To establish that humans must be individuals even where there is no recorder, I really only needed to cite the Yanomamo, because Rerebawa and Keobawa could not possibly be individuals only because Chagnon was there to observe; there must have been other groups without an anthropologist, which also contained strong and unusual personalities.

There is no reason to believe that individuality begins with humans. Anyone who has lived in proximity to mammals of any kind recognizes personality in them, and though we are prone to sentimentalize this and to anthropomorphize them, when you clear away the exaggerations (the cat that knew it was the anniversary of a death, and cuddled with you), you still are left with facts that are hard to explain without taking some individuality into account. For example, I once lived with two cats who had been raised together from kittenhood, one of which would bite humans without provocation (it ended every petting session by biting) and another who would not bite a human under any circumstances. You really can’t explain this kind of thing by any purely mechanical or chemical means, without taking the personal development of the animal into account, and its reactions and accommodations to external forces. The pacifist cat was also the beta animal, but was much larger than the other, so its peacefulness could not really be attributed solely to its submissive status; you could say, just as easily, that it chose to submit to the other’s aggression because of its more pacifist personality.

Any observer of the group behavior of higher animals, no matter the rigorous scientific training, soon regards the subjects as individuals, rather than highly programmed automatons. In an oft-cited study of Japanese macaques on Koshima Island in the 1950’s, a young female the researchers named Imo invented two new ways of preparing food: she washed yams in ocean water and then also threw loose wheat in the water to clean off the dirt. These innovations (which also added salt as seasoning) spread through the macaque population of the island, and were passed down to future generations.

A certain degree of individuality seems a by-product of a larger brain in any species in which decision-making supplements instinctive behavior and members of a group may react differently to the same stimulus.

Why would anyone deny that common people, or animals, for that matter, have individuality? The answers to that question, posed separately for animals and humans, have a common thread: acknowledging the individuality of another promotes treating it as an end, not a means, and is an obstacle to exploiting or consuming it. It is a queasy thought (and one which has caused many people to become philosophical vegetarians) that we routinely eat animals such as cows, lambs and pigs which are capable of recognizing and trusting individual humans, seeking their attention, coming to the hand to be petted, etc. The reaction to this dangerous empathy is the trend in science and daily life, even among those who really know better, to insist that all animals are programmed automatons. So are our human adversaries; the main drive to see others as not having individuality is, of course, so that we can treat them like animals, and not with respect.

I think Burckhardt and Bagehot both, who were very intelligent and perceptive men, were unwittingly falling into a prejudice they had inhaled since childhood. I could just as easily argue that the individuality they detected, is a superficial differentiation of the rich who have excess capital for decoration, that all the differences in blazons and oaths did not give us one truly innovative knight remembered by name for any expression of unusual opinions, that there was even a dull sameness in Renaissance geniuses, who mainly believed the same things about man and God. Possibly Imo is more individual than Leon Battista Alberti.

If I am right in thinking that individuality is a spandrel, a necessary and predictable by-product of a larger brain in humans, apes, cats and dogs, then it takes its place as an incidental fellow-traveler in the world of freedom of speech. When we talk of individuality, we are likely talking of freedom of speech in the same sense in which, when we see excited terns feeding just offshore on the North Atlantic coast, they are probably following bluefish which are invisible to us. This is because speech—self expression—is a very important way that people let us know they are different than us (though dress, ornament, and body language also play a role—all of which can however be construed as “symbolic speech”).

It is also likely that individuality and freedom of speech are traits which promote and encourage each other—through my speech I encourage your individuality; your individuality encourages me to speak out. Thus environments conducive to speech are also protective of individuality, and vice versa.

If follows from this that the most effective censorship is that which restricts individuality. George Orwell in the epilog to 1984 asked whether language could be modified to eliminate dissent. Could human social engineering eliminate personality, turn us into mere ants? It seems that quite radical and violent despotisms, such as that which obtained during most of the eighty year life of Soviet Communism, succeed in enforcing silence but not sameness, leaving people ready to complain, to utter dissenting speech, in any environment they thought was safe. Environments in which a truly dreary identity of the masses actually exists are frequently imagined, but, given the roughness, confusion and ornery individuality of humans, don’t seem to exist in the world that frequently.

The real world initiatives which have eliminated individuality most effectively are not propaganda, but simple deprivation and starvation, as it is nearly impossible to pursue the pathway of individuality in an environment in which you don’t have enough to eat or a shelter to sleep in, or are vulnerable to appalling violence at any moment. Auschwitz was a place in which a philosopher who had previously written a treatise on the evolution of altruism might seize a crust of bread from the hand of a dying construction worker, and in which, watching them, you wouldn’t even be able to tell which was which, because they were both emaciated and dressed in rags.

One of the tricks and mind-games humans have played through-out history in war-time is to present one’s own side as being replete with endearing, quirky individuals, and the other as being alike, and dangerous, as a swarm of bees. Watch the propaganda movies made by Hollywood during World War II, and you will see a squad of Americans from all different regions, including one from Brooklyn, joking and smiling, impressing us with their humorous variety despite the sameness of the uniforms. But the Japanese are all drones and clones, surging up from a pile of corpses with evil contorted features, shouting “Banzai!” as they stab the Brooklyn kid.

Mitt Romney’s statement during the campaign about the 47% was a variation on this theme, denying almost half the American population any individuality or value: “And so my job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

The final thing I have in mind about the relationship between individuality and speech is that, like any human thing, individuality can be used in furtherance of good and evil; it is a “neutral technology”. In our society, we are trained, at least since the days of Dr. Spock, to promote the individuality of our children, allowing them to wear unmatched socks if they choose, and laughing fondly; we look eagerly for any sign of a predilection in them, and then encourage it with the purchase of toys, books, classes, and tutors.

The world-view of John Stuart Mill is that liberty involves the promotion of extreme individuality, that we all may grow into amazing hothouse flowers, beautiful or grotesque, so long as we harm no-one else. But in the view of democracy adopted by the Athenians, and promoted in the twentieth century by Alexander Meiklejohn, diversity of views was important, but individuality was not. In a Meiklejohnian council, the people can be rather alike, so long as they present a variety of suggestions or views upon which the polity may choose to act. Meiklejohn says that so long as all views are presented, it does not matter if someone is denied the right to speak, no matter how much she needs to be heard for her own Millian development and liberty.

A real life example of the tension between Mill and Meiklejohn could be found in almost any Occupy Wall Street General Assembly. With the lovely ideal of direct democracy which appealed to the young and inexperienced, and which exasperated all hardened activists with a well-thumbed copy of Rules for Radicals in their pockets, GA’s had no actual moderator entitled to shut someone up or refuse to recognize her. Thus, every GA was a Meiklejohnian nightmare, lasting for unnecessary hours while everyone in sight spoke, sometimes for a long time and quite irrelevantly. I was never consequently able to sit through an entire GA, but I vividly remember one in which the young woman who acted as facilitator clearly stated the ground rules she would then not enforce, asking everyone to be relatively brief and on topic. A man stood up and rambled on for an eternity about the details of his visits to various Occupy encampments, and finally asked everyone to give him money.

Another crippling feature of the GA was the obsessive need for “consensus”, so that any participant could block the action of the whole, if she needed to do so for her own Millian fulfillment. In an atmosphere of such disorder, it was rarely possible to get any actual work done, and I suspect that those who did (and there were many) retreated to more old fashioned means: small committees of old friends who knew how to work together.

Joel Schwartz in “Freud and Freedom of Speech”, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 80, No. 4, Dec. 1986, p. 1227, notes that the ultimate extension of Millian self-expression, with no regard whatever for any Meiklejohnian concern, is the primal scream. By a wild coincidence, I know of an instance of a woman who, made anxious by turbulence, relieved her own anxiety by primal screaming on a crowded plane, with no interest whatever in the well-being of the other passengers. (I was related to this individual by marriage.)

To run our joint enterprise together—a company, university, nonprofit, town, state or Occupy Wall Street—we have to balance Millian individuality with the ability to act in a community. I don’t think this puts any actual restraint on individuality, but simply requires us to keep a relatively small part of ourselves which can act as an interface to others (and which therefore remains aware, as my relative was not, of the needs and reactions of others). Science fiction provides many agreeable models of wild diversity acting in ensemble: in Heinlein’s Have Space Suit Will Travel, one of the first books I ever read, there is a sort of United Nations of aliens, collaborating to determine whether to destroy the Earth or tolerate it to mature to membership. The bridge of the ship on any of the Star Trek series provided another model, reduced to more manageable proportions by the small special effects budget and the alikeness of human actors with varying funny forehead prosthetics: you could be as bizarre as you wanted in your quarters or on the holodeck, so long as you could cooperate to fly the ship. Finally, in computer terms, I think of standard interfaces such as USB cables and ports, which allow quite strange and divergent pieces of hardware to talk to one another.