Musings on Individualism in America – Sania Sufi

Screen Shot 2015-07-23 at 2.23.33 PMOriginally Posted in  علم کی تلاش میں/ ilm ki talaash (In Search of Knowledge)

Written by Sania Sufi

I attended a workshop on prison abolition and alternatives to the Prison Industrial Complex. The take back from this eye-opening workshop was:

1) The ineffectiveness of the state apparatus to administer conscientiously just reparations period. As a student of political thought, I find the philosophical underpinnings of the nation-state and subsequently, its conception of “justice” to be problematic. And this is without the additional layer of injustice regarding how people of color, women, political activists, and other minorities are treated.

2) The need to re-create an active consciousness of community and utilize it as an alternative method of administering justice. My emphasis on the re in re-create is intentional as indigenous and third world peoples lived and breathed community and communal based governance before colonization and the individualistic culture to be born out of European Enlightenment thought. Islamic governance, for example, is based on moral law which highlights the importance of maintaining communal/familial ties. Many Native/African tribes also rely on social kinship as a central component of governance.  

So pathological is the internalization of individualism that sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, refers to it as “cancerous” and a threat to freedom. How does this then translate to governance? What is the quality of life where governance is not defined by historical traditions and philosophy grounded in justice oriented ethics and morality but rather by a secularized theology (subservience to the State) in which hyper-sexualized, racialized, and consumerist attitudes grow exponentially? How does today’s ‘democratic’ and ‘progressive’ political culture, driven by individualism, contribute to a deterioration of social kinship?

Societies such as in the US where an individualistic culture thrives obstructs individuals from recognizing communal agency and accountability. This is apparent in the carceral system and its “one-stop-shop-quick-fix” prison sentences to deal with criminal behavior. How does the prison system contribute to a decrease in criminal activity? Can the prison system be regarded as merely a band-aid as it fails to tackle the root of criminal activity? I am reminded of Wael Hallaq’s comments on modernity here: “The doctrine of progress never asks why the disease exists in the first place, nor does it ask moral or existential questions about the system which produces such ills, about its structure and modes of operation.” The prison system, similarly, does not ask compel us to ask questions. It teaches us that criminal activity is divorced from greater structural injustice, it teaches us that creating a business out of mass incarceration is a solution, and it teaches us to turn a blind eye and ignore the deeply seated problem(s) that actually do exist. Such narcissism is a reflection of an individualistic culture which obstructs us recognizing the ineffectiveness of the prison industrial complex. It is for this reason that the language of ‘human rights’ and ‘women’s rights’ sounds hollow amongst some Muslims; such liberal ideas promote the rights of individuals over communities.

There is a greater responsibility we must have as a community. We must examine and question the root causes of social decline/behavior. There is an epistemic pathology inherent within segments of American society, but more broadly any westernized (to borrow from Ramon Grosfoguel’s terminology) setting, in which human rationality thrives. Human rationality, as an Enlightenment concept, depends on individualism as a crutch because it recognizes no bounds to human intellect. The arrogance and self hubris found within human rationality mirrors the individualism inherent in American culture today.

Suggested Reading:

  1. Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis
  2. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish
  3. The Impossible State by Wael Hallaq
  4. Political Theology by Carl Schmitt
  5. After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre
  6. Red Pedagogy by Sandy Grande
  7. Sociology of Islam by Ali Shariati
  8. Everyday Security by Michel Foucault
  9. US Prison Culture

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