Americans Have A Major Problem With Toxic Individualism

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
Julia Meslener for Scary Mommy, KTSDESIGN/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY/Getty and Jon Sailer/Unsplash

Rugged individualism. It’s a term that is nearly synonymous with “American.” Isn’t it great for a person to be capable and self-reliant? Isn’t it wonderful to put in the hard work to better oneself? Who would fault anyone for having determination and tenacity?

But there is a point when individualism becomes less “rugged” and more “toxic.” Self-reliance is great until we demand it of everyone without considering that some may be differently abled or have different resources available to them. Worrying primarily about yourself is awesome until you refuse to commit to even the most minor inconvenience for the sake of other people’s health and safety. Determination and tenacity are admirable traits until you have to step on other people’s necks in order to achieve your personal ambitions.

The line between rugged individualism and toxic individualism is a thin one indeed.

I often wonder if we’ve stepped over that thin line as a country. It seems that, here in the United States, we have convinced ourselves that the poet John Donne was wrong, or that his words simply don’t apply to us: Every man is an island.

We have all seen people refuse to wear a mask to prevent the spread of COVID because it “infringes” on their personal freedom. Never mind the fact that if they would simply opt to wear the mask of their own free will as a demonstration of giving a shit about other humans, they would be exercising a personal freedom of choice and the debate over whether or not to mandate masks would be moot. But, for these people, their ability to do whatever they want supersedes the health and safety of those around them.

In our efforts to be strong and self-reliant, too many have forgotten that our actions often don’t impact only ourselves — our conduct ripples out and affects those with whom we share a community. This is toxic individualism.

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Every major health organization agrees: Wearing masks helps prevent the spread of COVID-19. What too many fail to recognize when they say things like, “If I get sick, I get sick. That’s my choice,” is that the mask they wear protects others more so than themselves. Or they know this but don’t care. “Stay home then, if you’re so worried!” they’ll snarl, as if it’s easier for every single American with an underlying condition to stay totally isolated at home for an indeterminable number of months than it is for them to simply put on a mask.

Rachel Garlinghouse, a staff writer at Scary Mommy, is beyond frustrated with people who refuse to even try to understand the fears of people like her. Garlinghouse lives with type 1 diabetes. “When people say this is ‘just a virus,’” she told me, “I am disgusted. Something as seemingly harmless — though COVID clearly isn’t harmless — as a virus can have lifelong consequences for some people, including children.”

Garlinghouse pointed out another detail that many probably aren’t aware of: For some people, being infected by a dangerous virus can “turn on” latent autoimmune disorders. It was a virus, years ago, that turned on Garlinghouse’s type 1 diabetes. “The body mistakenly attacks parts of itself as an overdrive response to a virus,” she told me. It’s these less-obvious ripple effects that toxic individualism refuses to consider.

The bottom line is, talking about something as simple as mask-wearing as if it infringes upon your personal liberties is how you let people know you’re willing to sacrifice other human lives as long as you don’t have to endure a minor and temporary discomfort. “When people say that this virus ‘only’ impacts those who are older or sick,” Garlinghouse said, “it’s dismissive, but also ableist. Is my life worth less because I’m a vulnerable population?”

Of course, all of the foregoing assumes anti-maskers actually believe COVID-19 is killing people at the rate health authorities say it is. Many in this camp are so committed to opposing science and mainstream journalism, they create their own news out of thin air. The virus is merely a conspiracy by the Democrats to make Trump look bad, they say with a straight face as every country in the world takes similar measures to prevent the spread of the virus and distribute vaccines as quickly as possible.

It isn’t just individuals who are hurt by toxic individualism. Entire healthcare communities are suffering. A recent story from NPR focused on an exodus of healthcare administrators from rural communities in Kansas. Experts who previously had been admired and respected were being ridiculed and attacked by anti-maskers to the point that they felt compelled to vacate their positions. Some even received death threats.

Vicki Collie-Akers, an associate professor of population health at the University of Kansas, told NPR these health officials had been “leaders in their community” and were “leaving broken” at a time when their presence is more important than ever. With vaccines being distributed across the country, these professionals are needed to coordinate distribution and administration of the vaccine. It won’t be any easy task to fill those vacancies with new health professionals given that job seekers would be perfectly aware of why those positions are vacant in the first place. Who would want to subject themselves to this selfish mindset from their community when the whole reason they got into their profession was to help others?

Toxic individualism is much more than working hard and bettering yourself with an emphasis on self-reliance. It’s a proud refusal to examine one’s belief system when presented with evidence that you may be wrong. One of the important aspects of science that make it, well, science, is that conclusions must be backed by evidence and must stand up to scrutiny. When a conclusion crumbles under scrutiny, a scientist must be willing to admit they were wrong. Otherwise, they can’t call themself a scientist.

Too many Americans appear to have confused individualism and freedom with doing whatever the hell they want with no regard for the health and safety of others. If we’re going to emerge from this pandemic with the soul of our nation even remotely intact, we have got to do better. We’ve got to start caring about each other. Because, truly, no man is an island. We’re all connected here, whether we like it or not. It’s time we start acting like it.

Any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. — John Donne

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