One of the concerns I have after watching (and in the past sometimes video-filing and posting) the public protests of activists and ingesting their demands, is, what I am expected to do, personally. Activists generally talk about what groupings of people must do (even grouped by “whiteness”, for example) and stumble on what individual people (who may have, in their eyes, belonged to the class of “oppressors”) must do on their own.
This gets into the matter of “personal agency” (or “high agency”). At an adult individual level, that means “being your own boss”. That’s how my father used to put it, and yes it’s in my latest screenplay.
It used to be the case that young adults were not seen as having full adulthood agency until being (heterosexually) married and normally having kids (if possible). This idea gradually got diluted, starting maybe even in the 1950s (many more couples had no children or only one child, and many more adults in many extended families never married than is generally realized today), and the reduced inevitability of the “natural family” kicked into higher gear after, particularly Stonewall (on the heels of the Civil Rights movement). Gradually the idea of “double lives” developed (especially in the 70s), to fold back after the Internet and then social media came along and made many individuals’ lives much more “public” — to employers, even to the military, and leading to various increases in activism for individual rights that, say in the 1990s, tended to have a more libertarian flavor than today, where tribalism seems to be returning (it got ugly once Trump got into office).
The end result, though, is that single adults often in practice have a lot more personal agency than they did in the past even before marriage and family, and, well, there is MGTOW.
Personal high agency means, or starts with, taking care of the self, paying the bills (hopefully being wise about debt) but usually requires intelligence and practical education, having skills that employers will pay good money for, or business ideas (which may well be online content today) that others want to consumer and will pay for (at least by exposure to ads). It also generally means being able to start personally creative initiatives without depending too much on family or hierarchal social and economic structures. It means some degree of individualized drive to produce and create new things, and a certain curiosity that is independent of other people. That tendency toward hyperindividualism becomes ethically double edged as society gets more polarized as more individuals (especially, in proportions, within previously and perhaps currently oppressed groups) fall behind.
It is unavoidable to notice that some racial minorities — mainly blacks, non-white Latinos and native indigenous Americans – statistically (in proportion to numbers) achieve less personal agency (that is despite many individual exceptions quite spectacular in public, such as our 44th president) than do “Caucasian” people and generally who we call Asians (in the US). The reasons for these disparities are, of course, the long tail or systemic racism, which in the US focused on slavery and segregation, but which have comparable histories in many other countries with different specific circumstances. There are also positive reasons, such as placing a higher value on education (as connected to family life) in many Asian communities, as well as in various religious groups among “whites”, which include Judaism, Catholicism, and some of the more progressive expressions of Protestantism, and moderate Islam (that is Abrahamaic faiths).
When I see protests – this used to be mostly from the far Left (like Portland), but now the Right (Ottawa truck drivers — Jan. 6 and Charlottesville were essentially insurrections, beyond normal protests or even riots) – I definitely get the feel that the protesters want people to stop merely taking videos and vlogging the content; they need people to “join” them and accept the personal humility that comes with belonging to a “mass movement” (thin about “The True Believer”, Eric Hoffer’s 1951 book) Protesters on both sides (but more notably the Left) are “demanding” that more “privileged” people surrender their personal agency to join their ranks. Indeed, “silence is violence”.
For example, the ideology of “anti-racism” would, taken literally, seem to demand that individual white people sacrifice some time on effort to work specifically for group racial equity (as opposed to individual rights) and be willing to embrace the idea that shared victimization become a source of identity, in bonding with others. It’s an idea I find problematic, even offensive. Teaching history accurately (and how systemic discrimination tended to reinforce itself through history, like with redlining) is certainly called for, but mandatory personalized exercises (in schools or workplaces) to confess personal penance are not.
There are many ways in which societies conscript personal agency. Maybe the most conspicuous method is the military draft itself, which (with its male-only call, corruption by deferments and only later the luck of lotteries) threatened men’s lives until 1973. You see a lot of this in other parts of the world all the time (like right now in Ukraine). A society that tolerates violent behavior motivated by group grievance and doesn’t allow citizens to defend themselves properly would certainly be sacrificing personal agency. There would be limits to my own capacity to surrender agency and accept joining in group combative efforts if some calamity necessitated it.
(Posted on Wednesday, February 23, 2022 at 8 PM EST by John W. Boushka)