Social Organization

Chapter 9: Modern Communication: Individuality

Charles Horton Cooley

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IT is a question of utmost interest whether these changes do or do not contribute to the independence and productivity of the individual mind. Do they foster a self-reliant personality, capable at need of pursuing high and rare aims, or have they rather a leveling tendency, repressive of what is original and characteristic? There are in fact opposite opinions regarding this matter, in support of either of which numerous expressions by writers of some weight might be collected.

From one point of view it would appear that the new communication ought to encourage individuality of all kinds; it makes it easier to get away from a given environment and to find support in one more congenial. The world has grown more various and at the same time more accessible, so that one having a natural bent should be the more able to find influences to nourish it. If he has a turn, say, for entomology, he can readily, through journals, correspondence and meetings, get in touch with a group of men similarly inclined, and with a congenial

(92) tradition. And so with any sect of religion, or politics, or art, or what not; if there are in the civilized world a few like-minded people it is comparatively easy for them to get together in spirit and encourage one another in their peculiarity.

It is a simple and recognized principle of development that an enlarged life in the organism commonly involves greater differentiation in its parts. That the social enlargement of recent times has in general this character seems plain, and has been set forth in much detail by some writers, notably by Herbert Spencer. Many, indeed, find the characteristic evil of the new era in an extreme individuality, a somewhat anarchic differentiation and working at cross purposes. "Probably there was never any time," says Professor Mackenzie, " in which men tended to be so unintelligible to each other as they are now, on account of the diversity of the objects with which they are engaged, and of the points of view at which they stand."[1]

On the other hand we have what we may call the dead level theory, of which De Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America, was apparently the chief author. Modern conditions, according to this, break down all limits to the spread of ideas and customs. Great populations are brought into one mental whole, through which movements of thought run by a contagion like that of the mob; and instead of the individuality which was fostered by former obstacles, we have a universal assimilation. Each locality, it is pointed out, had formerly its peculiar accent

(93) and mode of dress; while now dialects are disappearing, and almost the same fashions prevail throughout the civilized world. This uniformity in externals is held to be only the outward and visible sign of a corresponding leveling of ideas. People, it is said, have a passion to be alike, which modern appliances enable them to gratify. Already in the eighteenth century Dr. Johnson complained that "commerce has left the people no singularities," and in our day many hold with John Burroughs that, "Constant intercommunication, the friction of travel, of streets, of books, of newspapers, make us all alike; we are, as it were, all pebbles upon the same shore, washed by the same waves."[2]

The key to this matter, in my judgment, is to perceive that there are two kinds of individuality, one of isolation and one of choice, and that modern conditions foster the latter while they efface the former. They tend to make life rational and free instead of local and accidental. They enlarge indefinitely the competition of ideas, and whatever has owed its persistence merely to lack of comparison is likely to go, while that which is really congenial to the choosing mind will be all the more cherished and increased. Human nature is enfranchised, and works on a larger scale as regards both its conformities and its non-conformities.

Something of this may be seen in the contrast between tow n and country, the latter having more of the individuality of isolation, the former of choice. "The rural environment,,' says Mr. R. L. Hartt, speaking of country

(94) villages in New England, " is psychically extravagant. It tends to extremes. A man carries himself out to his logical conclusions; he becomes a concentrated essence of himself."[3] I travelled some years ago among the mountains of North Carolina, at that time wholly unreached by modern industry and communication, and noticed that not only was the dialect of the region as a whole distinct from that of neighboring parts of the country, but that even adjoining valleys often showed marked differences. Evidently this sort of local individuality, characteristic of an illiterate people living on their own corn, pork and neighborhood traditions, can hardly survive the new communication.

It must be said, however, that rural life has other conditions that foster individuality in a more wholesome way than mere isolation, and are a real advantage in the growth of character. Among these are control over the immediate environment, the habit of face-to-face struggle with nature, and comparative security of economic position. All these contribute to the self-reliance upon which the farming people justly pride themselves.

In the city we find an individuality less picturesque but perhaps more functional. There is more facility for the formation of specialized groups, and so for the fostering of special capacities. Notwithstanding the din of communication and trade, the cities are, for this reason, the chief seats of productive originality in art, science and letters.

The difference is analogous to that between the development of natural species on islands or other isolated areas,

(95) and on a wide and traversable continent. The former produces many quaint species, like the kangaroos, which disappear when brought into contact with more capable types; but the continent by no means brings about uniformity. It engenders, rather, a complex organism of related species and varieties, each of which is comparatively perfect in its special way; and has become so through the very fact of a wider struggle for existence.

So, easy communication of ideas favors differentiation of a rational and functional sort, as distinguished from the random variations fostered by isolation. And it must be remembered that any sort is rational and functional that really commends itself to the human spirit. Even revolt from an ascendant type is easier now than formerly, because the rebel can fortify himself with the triumphant records of the non-conformers of the past.

It is, then, probable that local peculiarity of speech and manner, and other curious and involuntary sorts of individuality, will diminish. And certainly a great deal is thus lost in the way of local color and atmosphere, of the racy flavor of isolated personalities and unconscious picturesqueness- of social types. The diversities of dress, language and culture, which were developed in Europe during the Middle Ages, when each little barony was the channel of peculiar traditions, can hardly reappear. Nor can we expect, in modern cities, the sort of architectural individuality we find in those of Italy, built when each village was a distinct political and social unit. Heine, speaking of Scott, long ago referred to "the great pain caused by the loss of national characteristics in conse-

(96)-quence of the spread of the newer culture—a pain which now quivers in the heart of all peoples."

But the more vital individuality, the cultivation by special groups of peculiar phases of knowledge, art or conduct, of anything under the heavens in fact that a few people may agree to pursue, will apparently be increased Since uniformity is cheap and convenient, we may expect it in all matters wherein men do not specially care to assert themselves. We have it in dress and domestic architecture, for instance, just so far as we are willing to take these things ready-made; but when we begin to put ourselves into them we produce something distinctive.

Even languages and national characteristics, if the people really care about them, can be, and in fact are, preserved in spite of political absorption and the assimilating power of communication. There is nothing more notable in recent history than the persistence of nationality, even when, as in Poland, it has lost its political expression; and, as to languages, it is said that many, such as Roumanian, Bulgarian, Servian, Finnish, Norsk and Flemish, have revived and come into literary and popular use during the nineteenth century. Mr. Lecky, in his "Democracy and Liberty"[4] declared that "there has been in many forms a marked tendency to accentuate distinct national and local types."

To assume that a free concourse of ideas will produce uniformity is to beg the whole question. If it be true that men have a natural diversity of gifts, free intercourse should favor its development, especially when we consider that strong instinct which causes man to take pleasure in

(97) distinguishing himself, and to abhor to be lost in the crowd. And, as regards the actual tendency of modern life, only an obstinate a priori reasoner will maintain with any confidence the decline of individuality. Those who charge that we possess it in extravagant excess have at least an equal show of reason.

Nor, from the standpoint of sentiment, does the modern ' expansion of feeling and larger sense of unity tend necessarily to a loss of individuality. There is no prospect that self-feeling and ambition will be "lost in love's great unity."[5] On the contrary these sentiments are fostered by freedom, and are rather guided than repressed by sympathy.

In a truly organic life the individual is self-conscious and devoted to his own work, but feels himself and that work as part of a large and joyous whole. He is self-assertive, just because he is conscious of being a thread in the great web of events, of serving effectually as a member of a family, a state, of humanity, and of whatever greater whole his faith may picture. If we have not yet an organic society in this sense, we have at least the mechanical conditions that must underly it.


  1. Introduction to Social Philosophy, 110.
  2. Nature's Way, Harper's Magazine, July, 1904.
  3. A New England Hill Town. The Atlantie Monthly, April, 1899.
  4. I, 501.
  5. The concluding line of E. W. Sill's poem, Dare You?

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