To Be or NOT to Be an Individual? That is the Question!

Friday, 29 October 2010 14:03 Written by  Ebony L. Morman

When you walk down the street, look around the classroom or glance around the office, what do you observe? Do you see a group of people who are dressed similarly, or does each person have a distinctive style? Do you see people with similar hairstyles and makeup, or is each person distinguished? Do you hear people using the same slang during conversation, or is there one person who has a way with words that’s particularly unique?

coolAt a time when it seems as though celebrities dictate how society dresses, looks and even talks, it’s difficult to define individualism and what it means to just be yourself. Oftentimes, in a social situation, you see people who already share a commonality, like race, age, class or gender, look the same. Rather it’s a new hair style that Nikki Minaj is wearing, the flyest kicks that Jay-Z wore in his latest video, or even the dramatic makeup that Lady Gaga wore on stage, there seems to be a collective urge to be just like someone else.

Alas, here is where the plot thickens! While Nikki, Jay and Gaga are a part of the same society that could be accused of not having their own identity, they’re indeed three examples of unique individuals. For the most part, celebrities, idols and heros aren’t afraid of being individuals and expressing who they are at any cost. The irony is that society collectively wants to be like a group of individuals.

PhD student Ellie Shockley, who studies social psychology at the University of Chicago, describes it as a tension between individualism and collectivism. Both social orientations are pervasive, and even though America is built on individualism, she often witnesses examples of collectivism.

“Lady Gaga serves as a great example of how much fame we sometimes award to an extreme individualist,” Shockley comments. “So, we're dealing with a complicated phenomenon in which young people are conforming to be more like individualistic pop stars and athletes.”

There may not be a clear cut way to define this particular phenomenon; however, Shockley would even argue that individualism is slowly becoming more common, even though collectivism is still present and rather powerful, she adds.

Powerful is definitely the right adjective, because whether we’re referring the obvious effect that role models, famous or not, have on society or referring to a deeper sentiment that’s found in history, either extreme can be truly powerful.

As a powerful individual, Rosa Parks stood up for African Americans and their right to choose a seat on the bus, but as a powerful collective whole, many activists played a part in giving all African Americans civil rights.

“When it's safe and proper to be individualistic, like when it comes to non-socially-urgent things like clothing style or musical preference, I say people should be reminded to go and enjoy their freedom to be an individual,” Shockley says.  

“We live in a place where people value and reward individualists. So, if you can be an individual and also a good team player, then you’ll successfully juggle the competing demands of being yourself and fitting in,” she says.

It seems like a healthy balance of staying true to yourself, while doing some things because they are socially acceptable is a good route to take.

“To quote Dr. Seuss, ‘Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind,’” Ellie adds.


-Photography by GMO Photo Editor Billy Montgomery

Ebony L. Morman

Ebony L. Morman

GMO's Senior Editor Ebony L. Morman received her B.A. in journalism from Northern Illinois University and her master’s in journalism from Columbia College Chicago. The Chicago-native enjoys writing about almost anything, but since she also has a passion for music, writing reviews of albums has become one of her favorite past times. Aside from GMO, Ebony freelances for a variety of publications and volunteers in her community.

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