These days, many people confuse discussions about society with criticisms of themselves and their lifestyles. They get offended and bring their personal choices into a debate about structures. While structures are made up of many choices, it is important to remove the self from discussions of systemic power as a whole.
The leaders who make legislation have no problem doing this because the ones who are in power recognize class, rather than individuals.
For example, laws could not exist if they were about individuals; laws apply to communities of people, ie, societies. Similarly, culture does not rely on an individual’s behavior. It is considered broadly and spoken of, researched, and analyzed in broad terms.
I would guess one reason for the debates centering on indivi
duals as opposed to culture & systems is:
1) media is controlled by those who have accumulated power;
2) media has direct access to our minds, on a scale we’ve never seen before; 3) men, particularly those with the most power, have the most to profit from erasing and undermining discussions of class — they’d prefer to be treated as individuals exactly because they are the ruling class, and they have all the tools at their disposal to redirect public discourse.
Much has been said recently about the impact of neoliberalism on politics and public discourse, but here is a recent Noam Chomsky interview in case you’ve missed out. The basic premise of the impact neoliberalism has had on social movements for change is a shift from collectivism, which emphasizes group interests, to individualism, which prioritizes personal choices.
This can feel like an academic and alienating concept, but I guarantee that most of us have experienced the effects of neoliberalism in an everyday conversation. Have you ever been in a dialogue and felt ashamed of the personal choices you make in your day-to-day life? Or, have you ever tried to have a conversation about society, only to have it turn into a discussion over what someone does individually?
Individual choice has become the new tyranny of social justice movements. Or, to be more accurate — so no one thinks I’m shaming them for their choices — neoliberalism has effectively cornered human rights movements by promoting the idea that the onus for systemic inequality falls on the choices we all make.
There are many reasons why convincing the public that all the ailments of a society rest on their shoulders, but foremost, it removes responsibility from governments and corporations. Instead of looking up, we begin to look within. We are encouraged to feel shame about ourselves and our choices. But the truth of it is: there isn’t a person alive who can always make the best choices, whether for the planet, or for society. We are all bound by a system which does not allow us to choose ethically; a system which is itself unethical, and projects blame onto the public to maintain itself.
In order to address the root of the problem, we need to question the difference between a choice and a change, and to analyze the messages sent to us by those in power for what they are: prescriptions for behavior. These directives specifically target us in an effort to keep the public from organizing as classes, and, significantly, to keep us complicit within the system writ large—to maintain a harmful way of finding ourselves through a series of fashion and consumerist methods; to keep us seeking outward validation rather than feeling at ease within. It is not enough for individuals to feel personally empowered by choices that they make under an unequal system and it is very telling that this rhetoric is born out of Western economic privilege.
The premise of this ideology suggests that all of us are able to make our own choices, which is demonstrably untrue. Nor do our choices actually empower us; something that may feel good to an individual is not necessarily beneficial to society. It is up to us to decide if we will opt for the comfort and safety of personal choice empowerment rhetoric, or if we will challenge the system of capitalist, white male supremacy to create a more equitable world for those with less power, as well as for future generations. And we are rapidly running out of time.