- Americans ignore traffic laws and endanger others now more than ever. This could be a sign of hyper-individualism overriding communal values.
- Stephen Crane's short story "The Open Boat" illuminates modern America's dilemma around hyper-individualism and a communal solution.
- Individual rights and community values can coexist in ways that are mutually beneficial.
Are people running red lights, ignoring stop signs, and weaving recklessly in and out of traffic indications of a society that is out of control and mired in destructive, self-centered patterns of behavior?
If so, we are in deep trouble because they are occurring everywhere in increasing numbers. The National Safety Council (NSC) reports that there were “an estimated 9,420 traffic deaths during the first three months of 2021 ... That’s up 10% over the same period in 2020 and up 12% compared to 2019.” The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) states that “speeding is up 22% across America since the pandemic started.” Salvador Castro of the California State Highway Patrol reports that the average speed on some highways is 95 miles per hour. He adds, “Even with us driving, people will pass us ... as if we’re standing still.”
According to the NHTSA, more people than ever before are also refusing to wear seatbelts, and there has been a significant “increase in impaired driving” incidents. Road rage incidents are likewise trending upwards. They include a recent incident in which a 6-year old Los Angeles boy was shot and killed merely because he was a passenger in a car that was targeted by an angry motorist who felt affronted by a lane-change disagreement.
If these reckless and dangerous driving trends were the only signs of out-of-control hyper-individualism undermining the social contract, perhaps we could dismiss them as aberrations. Unfortunately, they are much too common.
A nation of narcissists?
Everywhere we look in our society, it seems that individuals have taken the attitude that they have the right to conduct themselves in whatever way they see fit, and everyone else be damned. A grocery clerk in Georgia was recently shot and killed for merely reminding a customer that store policy required everyone to wear their masks over their noses. A similar incident involved a Target employee who had his arm broken by a customer for reminding him of store policies regarding masks.
Still others are rebelling against recommended vaccinations that are necessary to protect everyone against coronavirus mutations. Not only are these individuals putting themselves at great risk, but they are also creating potential life-threatening virus mutations that could endanger everyone in this country.
Have we become a nation of narcissists who turn our cameras around to take flattering photographs of ourselves because we are not interested in the world beyond our narrow, self-serving confines?
This is not, however, the first time hyper-individualism has threatened the social contract in our country. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a group of wealthy, powerful “Social Darwinists” misrepresented Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species to promote a philosophy of self-interest at the expense of communal needs and priorities. They ignored Darwin’s fundamental precept that it was the “species,” not the “individual,” that would ultimately determine who would survive and who would fail. A stronger case could be made from Darwin’s research that the surviving "species" were the ones that supported collective actions. By ignoring this precept, the philosophy of the Social Darwinists created a slaughterhouse environment for the poor, needy, and low-paid workers in dangerous industrial complexes.
There was eventually a backlash against this societal carnage, often generated by reformers known as “Muckrakers.” They were mostly a group of journalists, artists, and literary figures who addressed what they perceived to be the fallacies in Social Darwinism.
One short story I have taught many times summarized the Muckrakers' arguments against their ideological rivals—and it is as relevant today as it was in the 1890s when it was first published. Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat is based on the author’s personal experiences as a journalist on board the Commodore when it sank during the 1897 Cuban Revolution. Crane and several members of the crew managed to escape in a lifeboat. For the next 30 hours, they drifted on the open sea as powerful waves rose above and alongside their lifeboat, which he described as no bigger than a “bath-tub.” All they could do was carefully coordinate and synchronize their movements to avoid the lifeboat capsizing. If a survivor on one side of the boat moved, another survivor had to coordinate a similar movement as a counterbalance. Crane’s story, with a few subtle exceptions, is a tribute to selfless communal responses to life-threatening forces.
The need for collective action against certain threats
The implications of Crane’s story still resonate in a more modern context. The story encourages us to see our own life-sustaining planet Earth as a lifeboat traveling through an often hostile, threatening universe. Some threats we are currently powerless to avoid. Others we can more effectively confront if we abandon hyper-individualism and realize we are all collectively dependent on one another for our survival.
The polio epidemics of my youth provide another compelling example of the need for collective action against certain threats. Without the dedicated efforts of Jonas Salk and his fellow researchers working collectively, many more young people in my generation would have died or been paralyzed for life. Salk also refused to protect the vaccine under his own name to profit from it. Rather, he made it available to the larger world community without any such benefits accruing to him. What could be a more selfless communal response to the needs of others struggling to survive on Lifeboat Earth?
There is one more wrinkle in Stephen Crane’s story that deserves some attention. Three of the four survivors in The Open Boat made it safely back to shore through mutual, coordinated dependency and some good luck. The one crew member who did not survive was the “Oiler.” Because he was the strongest member of the crew, he did most of the rowing and his efforts helped the others survive. He is also the only one who is identified by his name: “Billie.” However, his exertions on behalf of the others exhausted him, and he died a few feet from shore.
Perhaps a voice from the last decade of the nineteenth century can still teach us something about how we must work together, while simultaneously recognizing gifted individuals with superior skills, if we are all to survive.
Crane’s story does not ultimately condemn all forms of individualism. To the contrary, it seems to suggest that strong, gifted individuals, who are committed to the welfare of the whole of humanity, are also needed if the inhabitants of Lifeboat Earth are to continue their journey across a perilous ocean of threats and challenges.
Keristen Holmes, “Why are people driving so poorly these days?,” June 9, 2021, cbs8.com.
Faith Karimi, “It’s not just your imagination. Drivers in the pandemic have gotten more reckless,” June 19, 2021, CNN.
“The road rage killing of 6-year old Aiden Leos. What we know about suspect, shooting,” Los Angeles Times, June 7, 2021.
“Man Kills Georgia Grocery Worker in Mask Argument, Police Say,” New York Times, June 14, 2021.
“Who’s Enforcing Mask Rules? Often Retail Workers, and They’re Getting Hurt,” New York Times, May 15, 2020.
“Park Ranger was telling a crowd to social distance. Mid-speech, someone pushed him into lake,” CNN.COM, May 4, 2020.
Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat,” Anthology of American Literature (Vol. II), Prentice Hall, Inc. 1997.