“Yes, we’re all individuals now!”

A few years ago, the iconic leader of Apple computers, Steve Jobs, died. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that Jobs has become something of a hero in American culture. The “maverick” innovator whose skill and talent created extraordinary devices and billions of dollars of income. In a somewhat incongruous coincidence, Fred Shuttlesworth died the same day Jobs did. In contrast to Jobs, most people know nothing whatever about Shuttlesworth. He was a minister in Birmingham Alabama, and one of the most important civil rights leaders (he co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was one of the main organizations working to promote the end of segregation in the South). One can tell a great deal about a culture by the heroes we celebrate. That Jobs has become a hero and Shuttlesworth is forgotten pretty much tells us what one needs to know about whether U.S. political culture is more aligned with Mill or Rousseau. The plucky entrepreneur is no doubt far more celebrated in American culture than the one who devotes himself to improving the justice of our political community.

However that may be, I also wanted to link to one of the most famous commercials in recent times.

What is of interest to me here is the obviously Millian elements of this advertisement. The commercial aims to celebrate “oddballs,” diversity, genius, and so on, which is straight out of the Mill playbook. It is also emotionally powerful. Our culture tends to identify with figures like this; we like to think of ourselves as aligned with people like Martin Luther King or Albert Einstein, and this is not just because of the moral or political rightness of these figures. Though MLK is remembered more than Shuttlesworth is, King’s memory is almost wholly de-politicized. What gets remembered is a “cuddly” Martin Luther King, the one who talks about his dream and makes us white folks feel good about how tolerant of other races we’ve become.

This de-politicized celebration of King is explicit in this ad. The viewer is not really supposed to identify Martin Luther King’s political positions–his opposition to the Vietnam War, for instance, or his advocacy for more resources to deal with the effects of poverty and racism. Rather, one is invited to identify with King’s, or Einstein’s “oddballness,” the fact that they “didn’t care for rules.” This claim, of course, is utterly absurd in all of the cases cited in the ad. Whatever else you might say about MLK, he respected the rules. But the issue here is not just the ad’s falsity (is there anything more boring that pointing out when an ad is false or misleading?). What’s important is the mythology it invites the viewer to accept: We love the underdog story–the person that is outside the system, is able to see things that more “conventional” people miss, and then succeeds against the odds. In a way, this is Mill’s basic orientation, through and through. And in this sense, the position Mill is arguing for really has won the day. We tend to find it superfluous even to argue for it any longer.

This might mean, of course, that Mill’s celebration of individuality has become a dead dogma. The other reason I wanted to share the ad is that Millian ideas, which were really controversial at the time he wrote them (Mill was considered to be a far left radical), have now become advertising slogans. One expresses one’s individuality or asserts one’s oddball geniusness by purchasing an Ipod. And this leads me to one other key issue regarding Mill: his position has perhaps become all too compatible with the tendencies, so prominent in contemporary political culture, toward privatization and consumerism. In the name of genius and innovative individuality, one ends up embracing a mass consumerism and conformity.

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4 Responses to “Yes, we’re all individuals now!”

  1. Andy Maskiell says:

    It’s a little disheartening to actually read the comments on this video. From those alone, it would seem that most people completely buy into this type of advertising. I can see why; the images of such influential people, ones who are loved and celebrated by so many people, linked together with a product that claims to have sprung from the same way of thinking (individuality, uniqueness, oddness, etc.), make for an incredibly compelling advertisement.

    As much as one wants to love these types of advertisements, the darker and more subtle meaning which you pointed out is very troubling. It’s almost a type of propaganda, to gradually form a populace which celebrates, not questions, everything about Apple’s products. Perhaps that’s looking a little too far into this video, though given other recent adds (such as this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiyIcz7wUH0 and one more which I couldn’t find…it involves the iPad being used in a variety of settings and being held to be this kind of ‘need’ in everyone’s life, that it will soon be essential for almost everything you do) seem to enforce that this trend is maybe not quite over.

    All of this aside, these interpretations of Mill’s idea of individuality seem like a bastardization of everything he stood for. As much as he prized individuality, I can’t believe that he would ever endorse his ideas being brought to this level or find them an adequate level of what he considered to be individual.

    • gmackin says:

      I think your final remark is right. I do not mean to imply that the Apple commercial’s glibness is what Mill had in mind. Quite the contrary. I only mean to suggest that what’s happened is that the notion of “individuality” has become (to use Mill’s term for it) a dead dogma. Everyone espouses it, but no one seems to think about what it actually means.

  2. scter117 says:

    There is no I in team…but there is in individuality, conformity, and Ipod. Perhaps Mill’s individuality spread simply creating a form of conformity is evident in America today. However, I think the individuality in America today is so wrongly understood and applied that it can’t really be evidence.

    Passivism is what Mill was likely trying to dissolve with focus on individuality. But how could a nation focused on individuality end up so passive conformist? People’s desire for individuality is displayed by the incredible growth of Facebook and Apple products (Iwhatever). Those technologies provide evidence that individuality has become synthetic and something to share with everyone. It is more of an ideal that we claim to maintain instead of a lifestyle or real attitude.

    A possible cause is the loss of understanding what is so great about our “free” society. We tend to think of freedom only as the freedom to get some job then buy stuff (freedom to conform). Instead, it truly is the freedom to pick a job or lifestyle that we desire and then live comfortably as we define comfort. We have, as Mill claimed necessary for individuality, the freedom to live as we please (in our capitalistic society, with the harm principle sort of with out laws) yet we don’t have true individuality?

    Maybe (going far on a limb here) conformity of consumerism is not necessarily a sign of lost individuality. I mean, if we all think Ipods are pretty great as individuals, who’s to say that conformity is really pertinent? We all like to have stuff that represents us and thus consumerism wins the day through monopolizing desires for individuality.

    • Andy Maskiell says:

      I agree with this notion that consumerism has monopolized on “individuality” (whatever that means to each person) and that technology has resulted in this kind of facade that individuality is created through using Facebook and Apple products. It has come to a point where not using either is a sign of a cultural maverick and, in a lot of ways, almost virtually impossible due to how much both are widely used.

      I disagree, however, with the idea that we live in a society that allows us, “the freedom to live as we please.” For some people, I do not doubt that this is entirely true, due to whatever reasons (wealth, intelligence, hardwork, etc.). But there are plenty of people who seemingly are denied those privileges. For every success story you find about someone working hard and making a prosperous life out of virtually nothing, I would not be surprised if you found thousands of people around the country who try just as hard and are not able to reach the same level. Sure, success can be defined any number of ways but some people have to take up positions that they would not choose freely.

      This is nothing I am an expert on, though I do not find the notion entirely inconceivable, especially with places like LA and San Francisco, both of which have huge homeless populations. Not for a second do I believe that every one of those people desired to live that life (despite if their previous life choices led them there or not) and that none of them have tried to escape it and have not been successful. In this sense, I do not think our society has yet truly reached Mill’s ideal. Perhaps is precisely because we do not live in that type of society which has accounted for your diagnosis of the relationship between consumerism and individuality.

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