You're just an Individual

Whether you read psychiatric literature, social work reports or listen to the speeches of leading politicians, you'll find ordinary citizens increasingly referred to not as women, men, people, human beings or citizens but as individuals. Whether you lead an atypical lifestyle, are considered to suffer from a disorder or disease, are addicted to an obsessive behaviour or harbour subversive opinions, someone somewhere will probably refer to you as an individual with some label or other. A quick Web search for "individual with" (in inverted commas to narrow the search to that exact string) returns a plethora of references to disabled or psychiatrically labelled subjects. But the application is gradually spreading to encompass a wider cross-section of misfits, miscreants and deliquents, even blurring essential distinctions between the groups. A misfit is someone who simply finds it hard to assimilate into mainstream society for whatever reason. A geek fascinated by outmoded programming languages and oblivious to dressing norms may be a misfit in a fashion-crazed culture. A miscreant fails to believe the official doctrine, someone who fails to believe in the veracity of the latest terrorist scare is a miscreant setting her or himself against the dominant media outlets. A deliquent deliberately behaves in a socially irresponsible and potentially destructive way or may be so engrossed in the pursuit of pleasure that she or he is simply unaware of the social consequences of her or his actions, e.g. An alcoholic gambler may soon become a deliquent forced into crime through mounting debt and a risky lifestyle. Yet to statisticians all these categories just comprise individual specimens of humanity in need of classification.

New Labour enforcers seem to have four responses to well-argued condemnations of the government's actions. They may define the opinion holder as an extremist aligned with authoritarian regimes or fundamentalist religious sects. They may write off the view as a mere conspiracy theory. They may call into question the challenger's appraisal of the facts appealing to their residual party loyalty. However, when none of these options appears expedient, a classic tactic is simply to acknowledge awareness of the individual's personal beliefs. So if Tony Blair claims that the failure of the British foreign secretary to vote for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon following over 1000 civilian deaths is "the right thing to do to secure peace in the Middle East", we are supposed to believe he is privy to information to substantiate this claim. Yet if an opponent exposes the sheer hypocrisy of Blair's position in siding with aggressors, their views are dismissed as the personal opinions of individuals. Likewise if a woman becomes addicted to Internet gambling, her psychological dependence on this pastime and the resulting bankruptcy are considered personal problems of an individual with an obsessive compulsive disorder. Those responsible for deregulating and promoting the activity are just politicians and entreprenuers responding to public demand.

Most words have their uses, but the gradual semantic shift of this adjective and noun reflects a trend to alter language in order to blur distinctions and substitute implicit meanings. In NewSpeak an individual is a subject of investigation, while a man or woman are persons in their own right.

Author: 
Neil Gardner
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