Back in 1859 the great English thinker John Stuart Mill published, in Chapter Three of his treatise On Liberty, one of history’s most cogent apologias on the subject “Of Individuality as One of the Elements of Well-Being.”
To Mill’s view, mass opinion (what we might call “mass culture” these days), is an undeniable blight to individuality, and therefore directly threatens freedoms civic and intellectual, cultural and democratic.
While explicitly political, Mill’s argument reaches down to the foundations of human nature and culture, articulating many of the challenges we face in a new, media-driven society fixated upon dollars earned, hits per day, and “going viral.”
As explained by the editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature:
On Liberty is not a traditional liberal attack against tyrannical kings or dictators; it is an attack against tyrannical majorities. Mill foresaw that in democracies such as the United States, the pressure toward conformity might crush all individualists (intellectual individualists in particular) to the level of what he called a “collective mediocrity."
Herewith, a sampling from On Liberty, Chapter Three. Mill, of course, is writing about Victorian England, but at his full-throated best he gives us many a parallel to the mass culture America of today:
No one’s idea of excellence in conduct is that people should do absolutely nothing but copy one another.
…To conform to custom, merely as custom, does not educate or develop in [a person] any of the qualities which are the distinctive endowment of a human being. The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference are exercised only in making a choice. He who does anything because it is the custom makes no choice. He gains no practice either in discerning or in desiring what is best. …
He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him has no need of any other faculty than the apelike one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision. …
I like how Mill acknowledges here, in the packed space of a small paragraph, the almost unthinkable difficulty of nonconformity: you’ve gotta be observant, he says, and reasonable, and judicious, and active, and discriminating, and decisive, and firm, and self-controlled, and deliberate. As personal characteristics go, that’s one tall order. And even then the pressure of the times, preferring mass appeal, is going to oppose you at every step.
But, says Mill, the force of one’s inherent character is not to be suppressed, for…
Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing. …
The danger which threatens human nature is not the excess, but the deficiency, of personal impulses and preferences. … In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest, everyone lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship. Not only in what concerns others, but in what concerns only themselves, the individual and the family do not ask themselves—what do I prefer? or, what would suit my character and disposition? or, what would allow the best and highest in me to have fair play, and enable it to grow and thrive? They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? what is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine?
Such lines of thought became known in modern times as “keeping up with the Joneses.” (Anybody use that idiom anymore?)
As for Mill’s point about one’s tendency to censor oneself, I’m reminded of Ray Bradbury’s famously portentous quip: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
I do not mean that [individuals] choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary. Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds. …
In light of Mill’s make-no-bones perspective, we might challenge ourselves by asking: What are bestseller lists, blockbuster movies, Billboard charts, Oprah endorsements, primetime hits, etc., but symptoms (however benign and excusable) of what Mill calls “the mind bowed to the yoke”? — that is, things we like because, first of all, other people have liked them.
Commerce obtrudes upon culture, and all is fine and well to a degree—until, in Mill’s terms, the commercial majority tramples down individual taste.
They exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes: until by dint of not following their own nature, they have no nature to follow: their human capacities are withered and starved: they become incapable of any strong wishes or native pleasures, and are generally without either opinions or feelings of home growth, or properly their own. Now is this, or is it not, the desirable condition of human nature? …
Many persons, no doubt, sincerely think that human beings thus cramped and dwarfed are as their Maker designed them to be; just as many have thought that trees are a much finer thing when clipped into pollards, or cut out into figures of animals, than as nature made them. But if it be any part of religion to believe that man was made by a good Being, it is more consistent with that faith to believe that this Being gave all human faculties that they might be cultivated and unfolded, not rooted out and consumed, and that he takes delight in every nearer approach made by his creatures to the ideal conception embodied in them, every increase in any of their capacities of comprehension, of action, or of enjoyment. …
It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation; and as the works partake the character of those who do them, by the same process human life also becomes rich, diversified, and animating, furnishing more abundant aliment to high thoughts and elevating feelings, and strengthening the tie which binds every individual to the race, by making the race infinitely better worth belonging to. In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others. There is a greater fullness of life about his own existence, and when there is more life in the units there is more in the mass which is composed of them. …
Let’s pause to revisit those two incredible sentences. Each an ode to the value and benefits of idiosyncrasy, each is certainly worth inscribing in memory:
1) “As the works partake the character of those who do them, by the same process human life also becomes rich, diversified, and animating.”
2) “In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others.”
To give any fair play to the nature of [the units and the mass in a culture], it is essential that different persons should be allowed to lead different lives. In proportion as this latitude has been exercised in any age, has that age been noteworthy to posterity. Even despotism does not produce its worst effects, so long as individuality exists under it; and whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called, and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men. …
Can mass culture, then, equate to a form of despotism? We rarely think of the matter in these terms, but Mill, a century and a half before us, was unafraid to do so. And maybe his notion holds today—particularly if we consider the lack of material encouragement and assistance our culture offers the arts and humanities.
As John Gardner once put it, “In America, though federal, state, and local governments make feeble gestures of support (the whole National Endowment for the Arts comes to, I think, the cost of one frigate), it seems clear that nobody quite knows what to do with artists.”
There is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical; and unless there were a succession of persons whose ever-recurring originality prevents the grounds of those beliefs and practices from becoming merely traditional, such dead matter would not resist the smallest shock from anything really alive, and there would be no reason why civilization should not die out, as in the Byzantine Empire. Persons of genius, it is true, are, and are always likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom.
But today, to take artists for an example, we may repeatedly notice the effects of Mill’s “tyrannical majority” where “unpopular,” as we use the term, often means more precisely “uncommercial.” A book is judged uncommerical by the publisher’s sales force, or a movie judged uncommercial (“low-concept” as they say) by its production company: These works thereby become predestined to unpopularity.
In a better, more truly pluralistic culture of individuality, a culture in which “peculiarity of taste and eccentricity of conduct” were alive in audience, artist, and marketer alike, being at odds with commerce would not expressly doom a work to unpopularity.
Now Mill gives us three paragraphs meriting invocation in any coherent argument for improved arts funding:
Persons of genius are, ex vi termini [“by force of the term”], more individual than any other people—less capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small molds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character. If from timidity they consent to be forced into one of these molds, and to let all that part of themselves which cannot expand under the pressure remain unexpanded, society will be little the better for their genius. If they are of a strong character, and break their fetters, they become a mark for the society which has not succeeded in reducing them to commonplace, to point at with solemn warning as ‘wild,’ ‘erratic,’ and the like; much as if one should complain of the Niagara River for not flowing smoothly between its banks like a Dutch canal.
I insist thus emphatically on the importance of genius, and the necessity of allowing it to unfold itself freely both in thought and in practice, being well aware that no one will deny the position in theory, but knowing also that almost everyone, in reality, is totally indifferent to it. …
Originality is the one thing which unoriginal minds cannot feel the use of. They cannot see what it is to do for them: how should they? If they could see what it would do for them, it would not be originality. The first service which originality has to render them is that of opening their eyes: which being once fully done, they would have a chance of being themselves original. …
And now we’re brought home to an answer as to why eccentricity is in fact desirable and commendable, no matter how little cash it may earn you:
(This post also appeared at Soul Shelter)
The initiation of all wise or noble things, comes and must come from individuals; generally at first from some one individual. The honor and glory of the average man is that he is capable of following that initiative; that he can respond internally to wise and noble things, and be led to them with his eyes open.
…When the opinions of masses of merely average men are everywhere become or becoming the dominant power, the counterpoise and corrective to that tendency would be the more and more pronounced individuality of those who stand on the higher eminences of thought. It is in these circumstances most especially that exceptional individuals, instead of being deterred, should be encouraged in acting differently from the mass. … Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportioned to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time.
… It was men of another stamp than this that made England [read: America] what it has been; and men of another stamp will be needed to prevent its decline. …