Individual freedom is at an all-time high in our country. It’s actually been on the rise for quite sometime. You may be old enough to recall the ‘Me’ generation. Elders were alarmed to see the younger folk intone that ‘greed was good.’ There was hand wringing and prophesying that our nation was going to hell in a hand basket. Many of the beleaguered moaners had been genuine placard carrying protesters and sitter inners. “What means this ‘in it for me’?” the asked. How can those so young be so cynical they wondered? But in many ways this new generation was just a product of social evolution. Their values seemed alien on the surface, but at their core they were really quite familiar.
The individual and the declaration of his/her pursuit of happiness is as old as, well, as our nation. It’s what constitutes happiness that has changed over time. Our individual rights, many of them the result of hard won fights by protesters and sitter inners, have brought a new reality. One need only take a quick look around to see how we have changed our orientation to the larger world. It is not one single thing, but the mosaic of; S.U.V.s, double-wide strollers, texting while walking, driving or in religious service, grooming or performing personal hygiene in restaurants, standing in the doorway of the subway car, letting doors slam on faces and behinds, that lead us to consider that the individual now reigns supreme.
There is much to say for individualism of course. It is a sign of creativity and a self-actualized life to stay true to oneself. But there is tricky terrain to tread when we consistently choose our individual rights over the collective good. Legally we have the right to arm our entire family and ourselves as if the British are coming. We also have the legal right to shelter our children from public services and mental health care. Do either of these individual rights benefit society in any way?
Legal rights are designed for the betterment of society. They reflect our collective ideals and values. Is enacting law a panacea? No, but it’s a start. It’s true that seat belt laws don’t make good drivers, but they might just protect you from the bad ones. What car laws do (and we have many of them) is say; “No, your individual rights cannot infringe upon the rights of others.” All reasonable people can agree that in fact that is where we draw the line.
No, you may not own any and every kind of gun you desire because doing so infringes upon the rights of others. No, you may not deny your child care and support because doing so infringes upon (his/her and the) rights of others. We must collectively provide such care and support with a fervor. We must remove the stigmas and euphemisms surrounding mental illness. We must agree that the only shame in any illness is that of a culture that doesn’t care. If we care, we must find a way to move on from the ‘Me’ and towards the ‘We.”