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  • Individuality and Loyalty to Truth under Tyranny
  • George Kateb (bio)

a person can be loyal to a principle or betray it. a common criticism leveled at someone in authority, or in a position where people look to him or her for guidance or inspiration, is that this person has betrayed a principle that he or she had professed allegiance to and usually upheld but now, in especially difficult circumstances, has abandoned.

My chief concern is with loyalty to truth, to the principle of seeking or holding on to the truth in difficult, indeed unusual or unprecedented, circumstances, where serious personal and external obstacles to understanding the truth exist. I am disposed to believe that only a small number of individuals in such circumstances can maintain loyalty to this principle. The burden of truth is always likely to be carried by only a few individuals, who thereby earn, in my judgment, a complex kind of honor, which I will try to delineate. I impute to these individuals the capacity for inner freedom; specifically, inner freedom of mind, which is necessary if loyalty to truth is to be possible, when one's responses to the conditions of society militate powerfully against seeking or holding fast to the truth. For a few persons, betrayal of truth would feel like a self-betrayal equivalent to suicide, to a loss of self.

Let us notice that every conscious loyalty is to a principle, but not all principles are abstract as, say, an intense commitment to truth is. Yet when a principle is not abstract, it is nonetheless likely that imagination helps to shape it. So loyalty to family, for example, although it might begin in what seems to be instinct, will become under duress a conscious affirmation or rejection. The idea of the family [End Page 607] must play a role in the process by which loyalty to the principle of family solidarity emerges or endures betrayal. Correspondingly, the imagination helps to constitute loyalty to a country; or, at least there is no instinct to it. To be sure, there are many pragmatic concerns that sustain it, but the imaginary, even in the form of fantasy, often permeates pragmatism.

Since I promote the concept of the inner freedom of individuals and tie it so closely to a commitment to truth in extraordinary circumstances, I wish along the way to place this concept in relation to other concepts of individualism, especially two others: democratic individuality and care of the self. From the perspective of loyalty to truth-seeking and truth-remembering as the highest loyalty, inner freedom is the kind of individualism that is central. This means that democratic individuality, the concept that I have tried to promote since the 1980s, can no longer figure in certain kinds of speculation about the future, nor can Foucault's idea of care of the self. However, in reflection on the present condition of society, the concept of democratic individuality still has work to do.

If inner freedom of mind is an uncommon achievement, perhaps one should also say the same about care of the self and, almost paradoxically and more disappointingly, about democratic individuality. The almost insuperable obstacle to these kinds of individualism, when they are present as cultural possibilities, or any other kind, is the ease with which people everywhere fall into group identity. Ethnicity, patriotism, religious affiliation, nationality, race, and color are, singly or in combination, widespread forms of intense group identity. Individuality cannot coexist with strong group identity, which substitutes itself for reflexive and active personal identity. To think of oneself as, above all, a member of this or that group means that the group is the most important fact in one's life; group membership defines all the cultural possibilities of the self in the world. Such membership, which begins in imitation and often remains submerged beneath full consciousness, seems to give definitive answers to troublesome questions about personal identity and also makes the [End Page 608] questions it purports to answer the only questions about a person's identity that can possibly arise. Group identity hides existential questions that it does not want to recognize or is even afraid to recognize and makes...


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pp. 607-632
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