All Commentary
Tuesday, May 1, 1984

Who Counts? You Do!

Dr. Noland is Professor Emeritus, University of North Carolina, and remains active with his writing and industrial and educational consulting work.

Have you ever had a good idea but lacked the courage to suggest it? Did you ever fail to brave the weather on a cold day to go to vote because you felt that your vote wouldn’t mean much? Or to write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper protesting a bad city council decision about to be made? Or dangerously exceed the speed limit on an interstate highway because your passengers were hilariously accusing you of being “chicken”? How often do you fail to be a setter of good examples where you are capable of doing so, e.g., with your children—listening, playing, encouraging? Do you always behave becomingly even with strangers you chance to meet? In short, how well are you succeeding in that central obligation to yourself to become self-actualized, that best product of human nature and environment you are capable of becoming?

Ours is an age of going along with the crowd, of adherence to group influence, of follow the leader. The expression “individual initiative” is still in our vocabularies, but we read books about the “organization man” and that Vince Lombardi told his Green Bay Packers that “football develops initiative, so get in there and do as I have taught you.” “Rugged individualism,” on which many claim America was built, has fallen by the wayside—and, of course, if it is too rugged, it is just as well, for we cannot afford to return to the posse mentality of the early West. But individualism still has a place—if it is the right kind.

Fifteen years ago, when our society was in the throes of the most rapid political and social change in its history, when student rioting on college campuses was the order of the day, “doing one’s thing” was the ubiquitous slogan for the way to behave. It persists in some quarters of American life today, but a major resurgence of the belief in responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions is taking place. Familiar now is the recognition that “doing one’s thing” can be either good or bad. If it is an expression of originality or inventiveness, that promotes proper personality development and one’s right to be unique, without at the same time trampling on the rights of others, it is good. If, on the other hand, it is selfish behavior, characterized by utter disregard of the rights of others, even at times to the point of inflicting harm, it is bad and has no place in a sane society. So we have a dichotomy of individualism: constructive and destructive.

No great effort is required here to differentiate between the good and the bad. Destructive individualism is a philosophy of alienation from society, the embodiment of selfishness, the doctrine of an individual’s freedom from all bonds. It implies erosion or even displacement of the integrative forces that hold society together and enable it to function—family, community, church and neighborhood. Constructive individualism, by contrast, supports these coordinating units, survives alongside them, subscribes to a philosophy of effective coexistence, is a partner with the State in the common enterprise of creating a fuller life for all mankind. Much of history is an account of the struggle for dominance between the individual and the State, but, in truth, in a society such as ours, they must live together in intimate and mutually supportive association. At the center of this relationship, of course, lies the recognition that individualism, to be constructive, requires assumption of responsibility for consequences.

Individualism Threatened

Threats to individualism are many. At this point let us ask ourselves two important questions: How can individuality be preserved and man rescued from the anonymity of the great crowd? Why and to what extent has man fallen victim to the mass?

Of course we must recognize that both the individual and the mass are quite different from what they were three hundred, or even one hundred, years ago. The typical individual of the seventeenth century in the Western World was a man of unruly temper, fierce independence, constantly at war with his neighbors, and hostile to all attempts to discipline him or limit his appetites. The mass of a century ago, or even less, consisted of bands of disadvantaged men, illiterate, hungry, bereft of the benefits of full citizenship. Today the mass includes the advantaged, comfortable, educated benefactors of our technical gadgetry. But the struggle for individualism remains.

When we in highly urbanized societies ask ourselves why we are so uncomfortable, troubled, anxiety-ridden, we are apt to say, too many people. Our cities are crowded and our countryside is becoming so. Our journey to and from work may not be long in actual distance but in time it often borders on the intolerable. While some of us live where it is possible to organize our lives in such a way as to reduce the strain of overcrowding, we need to wonder just how long this escape will last. The chance to avoid the jostling of the crowd, to flee in pursuit of privacy, to hope for the solitude in which individuality thrives, to find quiet moments in a hurrying age, diminishes exponentially as the population grows and technology renders that population more mobile. And this brings us to the question, what is the role of technology in one’s quest for individuality?

Technological Advances

Some of our modern inventions make it possible for the earth to sustain with relative ease numbers which would have been impossible in earlier times: scientific agriculture produces more food; new materials are developed as old resources are used up. The telephone, the jet airplane, and now the computer are so commonplace as to be seen almost as given. (Losing one’s pocket calculator will soon be as serious as losing one’s eyeglasses.) Technology extends man’s reach and makes the accomplishment of his purpose easier. Journeys can be longer, safer and expeditiously taken. All this is fine—but only to a certain point!

As man consumes more space and multiplies his impact and presence on the globe, he promotes crowding or the subjective feeling of it. Our so-called “technological imperatives” are such that the machine becomes self-perpetuating. So we may soon reach that point in time, if in deed we are not already there, when adaptation and conformity to the dictates of the machine exact from man too grim a price. What does all this do to man’s search for individualism, to be alone, to feel free from too many environmental impingements? In short, what does all this do by way of denying man’s basic nature? Our devotion to technology, our commitment to finding some use for everything we invent, amounts to our reversing the old adage that runs “necessity is the mother of invention” to read “invention is the mother of necessity.” In short, this burgeoning of population, technology, mobility and the mass media raises serious questions concerning the chance an individual has to find a “home,” where he has room to move and time to think.

Responsible Behavior

Constructive individualism implies assumption of responsibility. Responsibility is such a familiar word there seems to be little need to define or describe it. In some instances responsibility is stipulated in explicit terms: there are laws to obey, contractual agreements to pay our bills on time, covenants to be faithful to each other “in sickness and in health.” In other cases, likely the majority, expectations are unwritten. They become our habits, without which society could not function or even exist. And, of course, there are many situations that lack definition of appropriate behavior, where mutually acceptable rules are absent.

When we wrestle with the meaning of responsibility we encounter many questions. But perhaps they boil down to two relatively simple ones: To whom am I responsible, and for what am I responsible? Responsibility is not a thing but a relationship. It is a relationship of three types: to others, to certain situations, to oneself. One is responsible for helping his neighbor meet his needs. If one is a religious person, he has responsibilities to his God that he must acknowledge. One is responsible to himself in a variety of ways: to understand himself, to keep himself under constant surveillance in order to ferret out his weaknesses and his strengths, to transform those weaknesses and reinforce the strengths, to respect and revere individual worth.

Assumption of responsibility takes many forms. Sometimes we are hampered in our efforts to be responsible to others. Out of a sense of independence, pride or unreadiness, some people do not want to be helped. Sometimes our responsibility takes on the trappings of remedial or compensatory behavior: We find ourselves having to bear the cost of consequences of decisions we have made in the past, consequences that are proving to be more destructive than we had anticipated. But these two forms of assuming responsibility—helping others who do not want help, and shouldering the cost of our past actions—are only part of the picture.

Creative Action

Central to the concept of responsibility is that of response, and central to the notion of response is that of action. Robert Johann, in his brief essay on responsibility, writes: “The meaning of a man’s life is the difference his presence makes in the overall process.” When we activate responsibility, we exert energy, we introduce purpose, and often we take risks. Creativity frequently enters the picture. Responsibility is not always simple compliance with established rules, a mere external conformity to contracts and agreements. In many instances one’s responsibility involves his exerting effort to alter the course of events, to reform existing institutions, to explore new possibilities for human fulfillment.

This plea for individual expression and responsibility is not being made at the cost of neglecting the role environment plays in one’s development. The extent to which what we are is a function of socialization is common knowledge: we learn from others what we are supposed to know and do; we behave in terms of their expectations. Rather early in life one acquires a conception of self; he becomes an object to himself. This phenomenon, from which such concepts as self-consciousness, self-assurance, self-confidence (and, unfortunately, self- indulgence, self-love and selfishness) get their meaning, marks the beginning of a person’s recognition that he is real, that he is an object to others, that he counts. But this need to emphasize external social forces—the influence of others—must not fall prey to undue emphasis. Growing up is a process of relinquishing much of our dependence on others and acquiring independence—and that independence places on one the responsibility of behaving in acceptable ways, ways he has had the chance to learn. We cannot remain children; soon each of us who is normal must become ultimately responsible for almost all he does.

The relationship between individual responsibility and leadership is relatively clear. Those who can lead have an obligation to do so—but often honest and efficient leadership encounters obstacles. In many instances, one does not have to be an honest leader to gain his ends; those he leads, often as dishonest as he, do not require him to perform ethically; and, finally, leadership implies the exercise of power, and power is anathema to many people. Innumerable are the capable and honest citizens who shy away from leadership positions because they have come to believe that power always corrupts, and that personal abuse of power is inevitable. There must be a mutually supportive, relationship between the leader and the led: the leader fulfills his followers’ needs for goods and services, for recognition and response; the followers, in turn, provide the leader with status, commensurate prestige, and other ego satisfactions. But in the end, in legitimate causes, honesty and self-respect in the leader precede trust and respect from followers. Therefore, getting right with oneself, in leadership as elsewhere, is of the essence.


Let us re-examine briefly what we have just said. A major part of what we call social adjustment is essentially an individual’s relation to himself. As Alfred Whitney Griswold has said: “There is no such thing as public morality, only a composite of private morality.” In a very real sense, the quality of a society over time is the quality of the individuals composing it. We need community, but it must be community which sustains but does not suffocate the individual. However, in asserting our individuality we must be different without being contrary, without flaunting our independence.

Henry Van Dyke called individuality “the salt of common life.” “You may have to live in a crowd,” Van Dyke continued, “but you do not have to live like it, not subject to its food. You may have your own orchard. You may drink at a hidden spring. Be yourself if you would serve others.” To this, of course, should be added the admonition that serving others is not easy, and that, for some people the advice “be yourself” is dangerous. But, although Van Dyke wrote these lines many years ago, they still have credence in this fast-paced age of “too many people.”

Here we have joined Winston Churchill in insisting that responsibility is the price of greatness. Our privileges can be no greater than our obligations. Character is doing, without expecting publicity. Integrity is working just as hard when the boss is away. Contrary to much of the message of the media, life is not made up solely of winners and losers; there is ample reward for simply succeeding at the level of doing one’s best.

Perhaps a fitting close to this plea for constructive individualism is a simple paraphrasing of the Kantian “categorical imperative”: Act always in such a way that you would see your actions as deserving to become universal law.