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Society and the Individual, Part One: An American Story

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Nine times out of ten, when I hear someone talk about society, it’s mentioned as if it were something abstract and disconnected from each of us as individuals.

Considering that any given society is essentially a defined group of people who collaborate with one another over an extended period of time, I believe that by focusing on the ideas and actions of humans, much can be discovered about society as a whole. Monitoring society, though, and expecting to learn about the key aspects of humanity is a guaranteed waste of time. Just imagine trying to gain insight into constructing a house by watching a subdivision being built. You are sure to see the houses go up, but without carefully examining a single one from the laying of its foundation to the painting of its shutters, one acquires no real knowledge.

The pivotal relationship between the individual and the society of which they are a member has formulated most of history’s greatest questions. These range from the proper role of the state, to the legality of same-sex marriage. In order to find reasonable answers, from my perspective, we must go back to the individual and attempt to understand thought processes, motivations, and cultural norms on that level. One might call this laying the foundation for the perpetually expanded, diminished, and renovated mansion that is society.

In America we have the most individualistic sociopolitical structure found on the face of the earth. The fact that the Mountie is deemed a popular icon of sorts across the Canadian border, yet here we extol the legacies of Wild West outlaws such as Jesse James, is a testament to our nation’s overarching mentality. Even Americans describing themselves as collectivists often use individualistic arguments to defend their stances. An excellent example is the mandate to purchase insurance in a massive health care reform package pushed by President Barack Obama during the early years of his first term. It was promoted as a means of receiving superior care for less cost, thereby inducing the profit motive. In other countries, it might very well have been marketed as a macro-level social good and that would have been that.

Drawing on the uniquely American individual-societal complex takes far more space than one article allows. Over most of this week, I will be detailing my views on the subject, and hopefully learning a bit along the way. With today’s article as its beginning, I would say that my prolonged essay is off to a rather good start. I hope the reader will share the sentiment. It would be a shame to begin a series on a rocky road.

If you remember my article about pets and partisan affiliation a few days ago, be glad that I am resisting the urge to write an ice cream joke.

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About Joseph F. Cotto