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  • The A to Z of isms... individualism.

  • If someone called you an individualist, would you be flattered or insulted?

  • An individualist might be a rugged John Wayne, a pioneer like Amy Johnson, a creative innovator like Kate Bush, or an entrepreneur like Richard Branson.

  • People we admire for refusing to follow the crowd, for being true to themselves.

  • But individualism is also often said to be the source of Western civilization's degeneracy, accused of leading to selfishness, shallow consumerism, the breakdown of society.

  • Individualism is a double-edged sword.

  • Many believe its Western roots go right back to early Christianity.

  • Jesus taught that salvation did not depend on what tribe you belong to, but on how you chose to live your life.

  • God had a one-to-one relationship with people, not to groups.

  • The 16th Century Protestant Reformation took this further, taking away the need for priests to act as intermediaries between God and ordinary people.

  • This sowed the seeds for the flowering of the modern individual in the 18th Century Enlightenment.

  • The Prussian philosopher Kant summed up its key message in the Latin phrase "sapere aude"— dare to know, to think for yourself.

  • Personal autonomy became the central value of Western society.

  • We see this in the principles of one person, one vote; civil liberties; and equal rights for all.

  • But this in many ways welcome development has gone hand in hand with the decline of community.

  • The growth of independence and autonomy leads to a decline in interdependence and solidarity.

  • In other cultures these communal values have traditionally taken precedence.

  • Across East Asia, who you are cannot be separated from the groups you belong to.

  • That does not mean you lose your identity in the crowd, you find your identity in it: as a parent, a child, a ruler, a teacher, an apprentice.

  • When we can all be different and yet all come together, we have harmony, the highest value in Confucian philosophy.

  • Across the world individualism is lamented when it turns us into atomized units, cut off from each other, showing little or no interest in our fellow citizens.

  • But if you can be yourself, while also being part of society, contributing to it, your individualism will be praised and celebrated.

The A to Z of isms... individualism.

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