Individualism: The complete answer

July 10, 2024 | By ETHAN BLEVINS

Individual rights are the answer to a just society. But individualism—the belief in the inherent worth and dignity of each person—is more than a policy solution. It’s a way of life. We who advocate for individual liberty in the political arena will become better advocates for freedom when we embrace individualism, not only in white papers, legal briefs, and speeches, but also in the way we treat each other—especially our opponents.

For all our sophistication and progress, we all still drift toward tribalism. We love our labels. They’re quick, easy, and instinctive. But there are instincts worth resisting. When we see others as faceless members of a group rather than individuals, we lose a fundamental pillar of human connection. We forget the common humanity we all share—that Republicans and Democrats, Hufflepuffs and Slytherins, Starks and Lannisters, are all “fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

My father loved to repeat a story that has stuck with me about the power of connecting across these walls we build. He was an author of historical fiction and a historian of the American West and the Plains Indians. He wrote many books on these subjects, including a dramatized biography of Crazy Horse called Stone Song, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. My dad was also white (although he was adopted into the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe). Like many authors, he traveled to book events and read passages from his works. At one of these, he read an excerpt from Stone Song about Crazy Horse’s grief over the death of his daughter. Someone in the audience challenged him afterward. How could he, a white man, understand how a Lakota Sioux man like Crazy Horse would feel?

My dad had faced down this criticism his whole career. He could have explained that he was likely the most knowledgeable historian about the life of Crazy Horse at the time and that he’d dedicated his career—and much of his personal life—to understanding Native American peoples. Instead, he began: “First, let’s remember that he’s a human being.” He was about to launch into a defense of his credentials as a historian, but he stopped himself. “Actually,” he said, “I think that’s a complete answer.”

The individual is the complete answer. My father could understand Crazy Horse because he was a father, too. He saw and understood Crazy Horse as both a complex individual and someone with whom he shared a common humanity. That is individualism—the conscious  effort to burrow under the labels and categories to the humanity at the core of each person. Individualism is the answer to a just, prosperous society. And it is the answer to empathy, connection, and communication. It celebrates the unique quirks about each individual, as well as the common humanity we all share.

When we embrace individualism both as a policy fix and as a guide to living in a diverse society, we become better ambassadors for liberty. Consider the astonishing story of Daryl Davis. Daryl is a blues musician. After he played at a bar one night, a white man approached him and said he was impressed to hear a black man play as well as Jerry Lee Lewis. The two got to talking, and Daryl found out his new acquaintance was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Rather than rejecting the man, Daryl befriended him and eventually persuaded him to abandon the Klan. He then arranged a meeting with the local Klan leader, despite warnings that the Klan leader may well kill him. The Klan leader showed up to the meeting with an armed bodyguard. Over many meetings, Daryl persuaded him to abandon the Klan as well. Daryl began attending Klan rallies. He invited Klansmen to his home. Over the years, he helped to persuade over 200 Klansmen to abandon their robes.

Daryl achieved this remarkable feat by treating Klansmen as individuals, not faceless members of a hate group. He got to know them. They got to know him. When the barriers tumbled down and the labels wore off, they saw each other as they were—unique individuals who shared a common humanity. By embracing individualism, not only as a lofty ideal, but as a way of life, Daryl became a powerful ambassador for liberty.

If we embrace individualism, we must resist the urge to demonize and pigeonhole our opponents. We must choose to see them as individuals rather than as members of an enemy tribe. As we do so, our power to persuade will grow, and we will become mighty ambassadors for liberty. Individualism is the answer to our political problems, but it is also the answer to understanding, empathy, and connection. Truly, it is the complete answer.