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Do you know the difference between individuality and individualism?
Many people confuse them. The two words are very similar. The first eleven letters are the same, and only the last two are distinct. But the -ity and the -ism on the ends take the words in completely different directions.
Individuality refers to all the characteristics that make a person unique—and refers to only one person. Individualism, on the other hand, is a set of beliefs, ideas, practices, and assumptions that emphasize the liberty and autonomy of individuals. It isn’t something that just belongs to one person. It’s a collective condition. Individualism is a pattern of living practiced by entire groups of people.
Everybody has individuality. It’s a natural condition. The human species is very unusual compared to other life on Earth because of the wide diversity between its individual members. Some are fast but weak. Others are slow but strong. Some are good talkers. Others are good meditators. We can’t all be good at everything. But from the perspective of the community, there are always at least a few people who are talented at any given thing. This kind of difference between individuals is what Abdu’l-Baha, the son of the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, called “the essence of perfection.” He wrote:
“… differences are of two kinds. One is the cause of annihilation and is like the antipathy existing among warring nations and conflicting tribes who seek each other’s destruction, uprooting one another’s families, depriving one another of rest and comfort and unleashing carnage. The other kind which is a token of diversity is the essence of perfection and the cause of the appearance of the bestowals of the Most Glorious Lord.”
Everybody has individuality, but not everybody participates in a culture of individualism. In many societies, the needs of the group shape the lives of individuals in more immediate and intensive ways. Individualism isn’t necessarily better or worse than anything else. It’s just one approach among many to the immortal question of how to form coherent and prosperous social groups out of a collection of unique individuals.
I live in the United States, where our individualism is well-known. If we Americans are fish, then individualism is the water we easily forget we’re swimming in. I’ve grown up seeing the advantage of community members expending so much energy figuring out what sets each person apart from everyone else, and trying to treat them in a way that realizes their singular potential. That’s been good. But plenty of times I’ve also seen individualism crash up against its own limits.
Individualism is ordinarily thought of in terms of what it allows rather than what it forbids. But just as it opens one hand, it closes another. Individualistic cultures tend to throw up numerous obstacles to working together as groups. The overwhelming preference is for each person to follow their own course and focus on what they know and love best.
For this reason, individualism can lead to a narrowing of social vision. As a sense of community declines, we tend to associate more with people who are similar to us in some way. Instead of a broad, inclusive understanding of society and its needs, members of an individualistic society may tend to see the world predominantly through the lens of their own individual characteristics, the knowledge they have, and the ways they apply it in the world.
For example, with regard to socio-economic questions, those who possess mechanical skills tend to think that the problems of the world can be solved by more people with mechanical skills. Intellectuals emphasize the need for other people to give more thought to certain ideas and bodies of knowledge. Professionals lament that more people do not pursue the education and work experience needed to enter a high-paying career the way that they did. This makes it hard for different segments of society to cooperate in addressing complex social questions. As the psychologist Abraham Maslow once observed, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
All of those pursuits are necessary to the right degree and in the right balance with each other. But getting there requires a general perspective that includes the great variety of human experience within a broader community.
Down through the ages, religion has been the primary field of knowledge and practice to foster such a framework. In the Baha’i Faith the principle of unity in diversity is a reference point for inspiring in individuals a vision of the whole that goes beyond their personal experience.
“Thus when that unifying force, the penetrating influence of the Word of God, taketh effect, the difference of customs, manners, habits, ideas, opinions and dispositions embellisheth the world of humanity. This diversity, this difference is like the naturally created dissimilarity and variety of the limbs and organs of the human body, for each one contributeth to the beauty, efficiency and perfection of the whole. When these different limbs and organs come under the influence of man’s sovereign soul, and the soul’s power pervadeth the limbs and members, veins and arteries of the body, then difference reinforceth harmony, diversity strengtheneth love, and multiplicity is the greatest factor for coordination.”
The Baha’i teachings do not elevate the society over the individual, or the individual over society. It equalizes and unifies the two approaches, understanding that each is key to unlocking the power and value of the other.