Too often I hear the false assertions that progressivism stifles individualism or that progressives are really closeted totalitarians. As the objectivist philosopher and author Ayn Rand put it, “the smallest minority on earth is the individual.” Like most arguments that gain traction, there is at least some type of truth somewhere in this argument; the truth being progressivism acknowledges the flaws of individualism and is thus not the same as individualism.
The flaw within this argument is the difference between a human and an individual. A human has a strict biological definition; an individual does not. In fact, individuals are often determined and shaped by those in power. Progressivism points out that there is no true individualism if only some are afforded the luxury of being able to become an individual. Individualism ignores this and in that ignorance enables this inequality to persist.
Rand’s argument is mathematically correct, but all individuals are afforded much more freedom than all humans. Thus individual rights, which are generally viewed as the rights of individuals, are less important than the right to be an individual. Individuals and humans are often seen as the same due to both intentional and unintentional rhetoric. The rights of humans and individuals are often seen as identical, even though at times they are vehemently opposed.
Take, for example, slavery. Many in the United States considered slaves property; not humans and certainly not individuals. When the 13th Amendment passed, black Americans were generally viewed as humans, a purely biologically defined term, but were not viewed as individuals. This was because those with the power were able to suppress disenfranchised humans from becoming individuals.
When the “right” of individuals to deny others their individualism is under attack, individuals generally will fight back, often arguing that their rights as individuals allows them to do so. This argument was prevalent with much of the backlash to the Civil Rights Movement.
Progressives argue that unfettered individualism is as bad as no individualism. Progressives believe that many abuse their power as individuals in order to deny others the right to be an individual. Many argue America was built on individualism. While it was built by individualistic values, the United States never supported individualism for every human within its borders. Progressivism shifts the tone of individualism from empowering to some and imposing to others, to imposing to none and empowering to all.
There are many ways to achieve this empowerment. One is to fight for the right to be an individual for those who do not have it through activism and civil disobedience, among other things. This requires having those who are currently in power on board and often incorporate those with power among its ranks. This method takes longer and is much more strenuous.
The other method is completely ridding society of individualism. This method generally requires force by somebody with power. This is because people inherently want to become an individual. Progressivism acknowledges the wrongs suppressing all forms of individualism and thus is very supportive of the former method. It is because of this choice that some equate progressivism and totalitarianism.
An example of this at Knox is the example of taking exams outside of the classroom as stated in the Knox College Honor Code. This aspect of the Honor Code promotes individualism by giving students the freedom to take an examination outside of the classroom, but at the same time doesn’t allow it to go abused due to the severe repercussions if one uses notes in a non-open note exam or takes the exam in more secluded areas of the campus, among other things. While the policy is certainly not oppressive, the policy does not allow for certain things that would be detrimental to the learning process.
Progressivism and individualism are not anywhere near opposites. Progressivism just puts a check on individualism where it is needed. While like in any society there are regulations that are unnecessary, progressivism ideally allows for everyone to challenge these regulations. There is certainly room for individualism in progressivism as long as it is reasonable and does not stomp on other people’s individual rights.