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Momma told me when I was young,
Something I can’t quite recall,
But I know by the ways she cared
Nothing need be said at all.
Can you put in words your wide world,
Leaving no memory obscured?
Could you surmise your love for boy or girl,
And consider your insatiability cured?
Momma told me many stories;
She sang me the songs she was sung,
And so the melody lives within me,
Though, for now, the words escape my tongue
I can’t spell out the past,
My youth being lived, not read,
But just like an unsung memory
Our pasts live in every moment unsaid.
For the world is an unbroken thing,
Flowing through each to each
Persons, moments, and places unspoken
A visceral knowledge we cannot speak.
I have heard many a libertarian proclaim with gusto, “I only see people as individuals.”
Now, I have no issue with the basic concept, but I must be honest; when parroting this phrase myself, I have not really known what it fully implies, what sorts of actions it suggests, or considered how other people hear these words.
So, let me ask the question, what does it mean to see and respect others only as individuals?
How we each answer this question is the crux of how we will build a culture based in individual liberty.
While most folks in this world are marked by homophily, i.e. “birds of a feather flock together,” I’ve always been one marked by heterophily. I venture this has something to do with the fact that I’ve always been a bit of an outlier, a keep-it-to-myself skeptic in a city of nearly a thousand churches. I am used to being of a different opinion than the majority, and I have found I am better off when I engage with people who honestly challenge me rather than when I break bread with a cadre of yes-men repeating worn out nostrums.
I once thought this posture meshed swimmingly with “I only see others as individuals,” but I now find this phrase has become a bit of a libertarian banality, and when bandied about in a matter of fact manner, it often proves counterproductive to the cause of fostering a larger culture base in individual liberty.
But my porpoise here is not merely to provide a petite critique of cliché. My point is to say the liberty movement must move beyond its current cultural boundaries. Some libertarians are right to point out that spreading liberty requires creating a larger culture, i.e. a shared interpretive knowledge, that bolsters liberty for all. This entails not only creating culture anew but also engaging prevailing cultures, which means first and foremost admitting their existence.
Mr. Libertarian himself, Murray Rothbard, understood individuals do not exist in a vacuum:
Contemporary libertarians often assume, mistakenly, that individuals are bound to each other only by the nexus of market exchange. They forget that everyone is necessarily born into a family, a language, and a culture. Every person is born into one or several overlapping communities, usually including an ethnic group, with specific values, cultures, religious beliefs, and traditions. He is generally born into a ‘country.’ He is always born into a specific historical context of time and place, meaning neighborhood and land area.
When liberty lovers try to fit people into the brutalist blank slate framework of “the individual,” doing so often leads people to forget the diverse factors that mold each of us into unique individuals. The refusal to see such cultural forces retards our ability to discover a larger culture based in individual liberty.
For most of my life, I was a brutal individualist (I still am in many ways.) For example, I can recall an awkward exchange back in my college days. It all happened in an identity politics class where our whimsical, polka-dot socked progressive feminist of a professor was making the point that everyone makes snap judgments of others based upon race and gender. I found her point to be false. I had made it a conscious point in my life to not judge others based upon appearances and conventional social norms, i.e. judge people by their shown character and give them the benefit of the doubt for the sake of understanding why they do what they do.
Lacking eloquence, I piped up in the group discussion and claimed I try not to see others through group identities, that I don’t “see race or gender” only individuals. Judging from the reaction of the folks in the class, I immediately knew I had uttered an idiotic statement. Maybe what I was trying to say wasn’t stupid, but what I had actually said was indeed boorish. I had played the part of the boob once again.
Of course race and gender exist! And guess who possesses the such qualities?
So, I tried a different route. I remarked I try not to presume anything. I strive to see others only as individuals because what really matters in this world is each person’s own self-defined identity, i.e. how they think of the themselves in the larger world.
Who gives a shit what others think, right?
Wrong. I was on the right track, but I clearly did and do give a shit. Many shits in fact. Why else would I have been talking to the people in that class if I didn’t care what they thought? Why would I speak for a living or write these very words if I did not care about other people’s thoughts?
At the time, I didn’t understand the intense push back I received. People didn’t think I was telling the truth. Fair enough. They accused me of trying to downplay the role of gender and race in society. That wasn’t my intention. They claimed we all, including you Joey, presume and make judgments along lines of physical appearance and group identity. They claimed I was only able to think of myself as an individual first and foremost because I was a privileged white male. I was baffled by their comments and felt attacked on the basis of my race and gender. They did not understand me, and I did understand them. I wish I could go back to the folks in that class and speak to them now.
I’m sure some of us would still disagree on the issues. For instance, I disdain the brutalist approach when it comes to identity politics just as much as I do when it comes to individualism. Boxing people into static, inherently antagonistic hierarchies along the lines of race, gender, economic class, nationality, etc. is just as bad as trying to stuff people into the blank slate framework of “the individual.” Both approaches deny the nuance needed to investigate the contingent, ever-changing nature of human identity and agency.
Such disagreements aside, there seemed to be something lost in our exchange. Something valuable that could have elevated our discourse and sense of community. Though we were all speaking English, it felt as though we were speaking different languages: that the words we wished to speak fell silent in the wake of what we actually said.
I have seen many instances of such “lost in translation” on a daily basis. Whether it be conservative talk radio land, social media comment sections, libertarian “in-fighting clubs,” or the good ole’ dinner table with family members; I have too often witnessed people talking past one another when there is plenty of room for understanding and growth.
There are many reasons for why this occurs, e.g. sometimes the truth is people want to start a fight for the sake of defending their tribe or pride, but I would like to focus in on the notion that people often do not search for multi-faceted answers; they do not strive to incorporate multiple types of knowledge and lived experiences, especially those alien to their own. In doing so, they diminish their capacity to see and respect others as individuals.
The physicist corrects the philosopher. The philosopher corrects the psychologist. The psychologist corrects the economist. The economist corrects the statistician. The statistician corrects the artist. And they all correct the talk radio jock; he is the lowest of the low; for if you ever find yourself at the pinnacle of the radio stardom, you will soon realize you are still at sea level.
These specialists and many more each have something valuable to provide to the process of creating the larger tapestry of a free society. We all share a common but human interest in seeking happiness. Unfortunately, we frequently sacrifice the common interest of our converging diversity of knowledge on the altar of our particular knowledge and narrow interests.
So allow me now to pose an tentative answer to my initial question, what does it mean to see and respect others as individuals?
It means a process of creation, discovery, and outreach in which we seek out how our unique individual interests mesh with one another. It is a game of give and take, an intricate dance where we strive to discover how our diverse individual interests harmonize. Through such a process what we find along the way is that our individuality becomes more vivid. Our localized knowledge becomes more pronounced and fruitful. Our individual interests serve as sparks, igniting the passionate fire of a community based in human liberty and peaceful cooperation.
Accordingly, the fight against the nation-state’s predation requires a need for accepting all forms of knowledge: empirical, practical, and emancipatory. This suggests not only specialization but also tolerance, i.e. a scientific humility towards those fields of study that are not one’s expertise and a peaceful posture towards those cultures alien to one’s own. Thus, where many libertarians have specialize in political philosophy, free market economics, and a plethora of other particular trades, I find it wise that some libertarians are now emphasizing specialization in cultural interpretation, creation, and outreach.
I would like to expand on another form of knowledge, the emancipatory, that goes beyond the practical interpretations of the cultural critic or the perspicacious methods of the empirical scientist. It is the type knowledge found when science and culture are applied to the individual subject in search of freedom and has historically been found in praxis by liberation projects such as abolitionism, feminism, and various other civil rights movements.
Using the language of Jürgen Habermas (who I have criticized from an individualist perspective here,) this form of knowledge is the “emancipatory cognitive interest” where knowledge and interest become one through self-reflection, or as Habermas puts it:
The human interest in autonomy and responsibility is not mere fancy, for it can be apprehended a priori…Reason also means the will to reason. In self-reflection knowledge for the sake of knowledge attains congruence with the interest in autonomy and responsibility. The emancipatory cognitive interest aims at the pursuit of reflection as such. My fourth thesis is thus that in the power of self-reflection knowledge and interest are one.
In more simple terms, people long to be free. We wish to flourish. We want happiness! This desire for freedom and flourishing is innate; it goads us as babes to take our first steps; it precedes our words and motivates us to create language in the first place; it is found deep down in the marrow: in the miraculous yet sloppy nature of our bodies, emotions, and experiences.
Thus, guided by a mind intimate with the heart’s desire, we find emancipation through (1) critical self-reflection upon our own individual existence and (2) engagement with the community that surrounds us, discovering the depths of our unique individuality in tandem with our search for what we hold in common.
Being that there are many diverse individuals living in a variety of cultures out there in this weird wacky world of ours, such insights as to how to liberated people are bound to be just as diverse. Though they share much in common, the non-violent resistance of Gandhi was not the same as that of MLK and Abernathy. Though similar, the market ingenuity of Carnegie was not the same as Ford’s which was not the same as Nakamoto’s. We each have our own unique insights, passion, experiences, shapes, sizes, laws, and cultures we must face in our given time here on earth.
At the end of the day, we’re all fools. There is much we don’t know, and what we do know was only fostered through trial and error, scientific study, open discourse, humble reflection, and intrepid emancipatory action as we venture into the beautiful unknown that is the search for human freedom.
Through this looking-glass when I hear people say libertarians should be more attune to culture, I do not hear them necessarily attacking others. I think most of the time they are trying to provide another piece of the puzzle. I hear them advocating the need to respect the vast diversity embodied by us all as individual people. I hear them saying we need to listen to the distributed, visceral knowledge each person possesses. I hear them preaching we need to do the hard work of revealing the confluence of our individual interests that create our culture, and that we need to call out cultures of coercive oppression as we praise cultures that foster love and human flourishing.
Culture is the interpretation of our actions. It is the meaning of our history. It is the bumfuzzling kiss of our beautiful fallibility. We cannot put our heads in the sand to this fact. We cannot be passive. Furthermore, emancipatory action is not inevitable. We must engage and help create a free society by searching the humble horizons of our hearts and minds. Freedom truly is a do-it-yourself project.
There is an old saying that every person you meet is your teacher. We would be wise to learn this lesson. And when we do, I am hopeful we can offer avoid the lost in translations of our yesteryear by building a positive peace that actually sees and respects individuals rather than just saying we do.
Joey Clark is a freelance writer and political commentator. He is currently a radio producer and talk show host in Montgomery, AL. Read his blog. Send him mail.