Letter to the Editor: The pain of independence, the uncommon rugged individualist

LETTER TO THE EDITOR – The idea of rugged individualism is about as American as apple pie, but human survival and the fight or flight tendencies in our brains say something much different. To stand alone goes against our nature, which is why when an individual does, and is proven to be right in their stance, they are regarded well in history. These individuals are rare, but shouldn’t be.

We often hear talk of the need for an engaged, informed, and active citizenry, but all too often the call to action is left to someone else. While we admire it in others, we don’t necessarily want to take the stand ourselves. This aversion, it appears, stems from the amygdala in the brain that registers negative associations of going against the crowd. This reaction in our brains registers going against the crowd as so perilous that it has the power to change our perceptions of a problem. Between 1951 and 1956 a psychologist, Solomon Asch, performed studies to determine the danger of group think. What he found was that when confronted with the simplest of tests people perform accurately most of the time when they are alone, but when they have to perform in front of groups, with unknown actors purposely picking the wrong answers, peer pressure kicks in and their accuracy drops significantly as they pick answers consistent with the most vocal or the group.

In 2005 Gregory Burns, a neuroscientist at Emory University conducted an updated version of Asch’s experiments using an fMRI brain scanner to see the brain activity during the experiment. What he found was that the groups’ influence was like a mind altering drug. If the group chose answer A, it was much more likely that the individual would also choose A. The people didn’t always side with the group, but when they did, Burn’s saw more activity in the amygdala which registers upsetting emotions like fear of rejection. Burns coined this phenomenon the, “pain of independence.”

You may be asking yourself what this has to do with the American Ideal of rugged individualism. Susan Cain, in her book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” said this: “… [the pain of independence] has serious implications. Many of our most important civic institutions, from elections to jury trials to the very idea of majority rule, depend on dissenting voices. But when the group is literally capable of changing our perceptions, and when to stand alone is to activate primitive, powerful, and unconscious feelings of rejection, then the health of these institutions seems far more vulnerable than we think.”

What you do when you choose to endure the pain of independence and speak out against the crowd is give other people the courage to join you and do the same. Some of the greatest injustices in history were either committed or eradicated based on one individual’s conviction to speak out. Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr. exemplify two sides of this coin.

While it may go against the grain of who we are, whether it is our personality, our loathing of conflict, our fear of standing alone or being disliked, or just simple stage fright, it is a brave and worthy act not just because it is a civic duty, or a civic right, but because it is brave, requires courage, and is necessary to keep the government just and ethical. This is especially true of those of us in society who are experts in our fields, who have insight that those who did not take our path of study and hence don’t know what we do, because we have something worth giving and it is a specialists knowledge.

We all know the dangers of peer pressure and it doesn’t stop in high school or college and isn’t just about taking drugs, sex out of wedlock, or any other undesirable moral issue. It has to do with matters of consequence that affects our everyday lives and the lives of those around us. Just like we would hope our child would be the one to dissent to poor or immoral behavior amongst friends, we also need to dissent and speak out publicly against immoral actions by the mainstream or the crowd who may be misguided, uninformed, or criminal.

Rugged individualism may very well be as American as apple pie or football, but it will not continue to be if we sit passively by and wait for someone more suited to do it. We all have a God given voice to use and we should be using it.

Thankfully there will always be the few who will stand up against all the odds and fight, and may give the rest of us the courage to add our voices to theirs, but we shouldn’t always stand by and wait for someone else to do what we ourselves can do. This is how great movements begin, how change is instigated, and how an informed citizenry performs its duty well. It is a force to be reckoned with when people not only choose to be informed, but those who can inform choose to be the asset they can be by sharing the knowledge they have gained rather than hoarding or squandering it.

To those who have been given much, much is expected. Let your voices be heard because it is easy for the crowd to squash one voice, but hard to squash many voices. You never know if your lone call in the wilderness will give courage to others to raise theirs a well.


Submitted by: Greta Hyland


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