What is expressive individualism

Decrease text sizeIncrease text size
Article Date: 
Oct 29 2012, 2126

Expressive individualism is the individualistic tendency that wants to express and thus fulfil oneself. Basically it holds that the person is there to fulfil oneself, to express oneself creatively and thus, lead others to their own self-fulfilment. It is the set of priorities that comes to us through the media, through television, movies, advertising, and also today through the newer technologies of internet, Facebook, blogging, Twitter, among others. It can be traced to the 60s, among the celebrities who serve as models or heroes for many of our youth.
The ethics of ‘expressive individualism’ is a position, which holds that the supreme ethical value to which other obligations must be subordinated is the creative self within. Such a core becomes the only source of value. The realisation of the core and the evolution of the genius in oneself may be admired by others and may also benefit others. Through “expressive individualism,” the whole universe will, for the first time, be complete.
This change in western culture made possible by greater affluence and security represents a trickle-down phenomenon and democritisation of the awe reserved for the artist. The artists were revered as a genius during the nineteenth century, but today such reverence is spread to the entire population. According to professor Patrick Madigan, of Heythrop College, London, expressive individualism holds that “nothing that constrains this expansion, which interrupts or limits this transfer, is to be rejected as parental abuse, psychological repression, or cultural imperialism.”
Sociologist Robert Bellah was the first to coin the term ‘expressive individualism’ in his book entitled The Good Society (1990). This term has recently been taken up and expanded by contemporary critique, Charles Taylor, in his major work A Secular Age (2007). Taylor traces the romantic revolt against the neo-classical constraints, the subservience to external norms and formal rules, which form integral part of “expressive individualism.”
Taylor explores in detail the life style of ‘expressive individualism,’ that has originated from the Romantic Movement, and has invaded the contemporary consumer culture. He relates it to issues like the sexual revolution, the call to openness and a toleration of divergent lifestyles, the concentration on self-fulfilment, pick-and-choose approach to religion, fashion, politics, education, marriage, and leisure activities, among others. Madigan shows this culture is fostered primarily by celebrities. People become celebrities in various ways — forming a popular rock band, acting in commercials or TV soap-operas, becoming champions in sports, fashion models, stand-up comics, news announcers, or weather girls. The goal is to achieve name and face recognition. Once this is attained, Madigan points out that they may “branch out to other media possibilities to take full advantage of their ‘bankable’ status, go on world tours or start talk shows and become social pundits.”
Expressive individualism, with its emphasis on individual fulfilment, can be a useful way of “deflecting criticism and exonerating ourselves.” We resort to a series of one-liners or sound-bites such as ‘It felt natural’, or ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time’. If the contention of thinkers like Bella, Taylor and Madigan are right, then the western society is based on the ethics of expressive individualism and individual fulfilment. We need to affirm that together with the creative; we need also patience, perseverance, persistence, discipline, hard work for an enduring, and genuine spirituality.
(The writer is a professor of science and religion)