The COVID-19 Impact of Expressive Individualism

Robert Bellah was a philosopher who once stated that the modern West’s human beings are identified in an unusual way. He described them as emotionally strong, but surrounded by less important material. According to Bellah, we are expressive individualists — meaning that “each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized.” This mode of self-definition wars with older, more traditional modes, which suggest that our identities lie in how we interact with the world and society around us. Expressionist individualism on the other hand, says that we cannot be ourselves without validation from the outside world. As professor Carl Trueman points out, this viewpoint is essentially solipsistic; he explains, “When identity is psychologized, and the pursuit of happiness becomes a subjective, psychological matter, anything that challenges that paradigm is deemed damaging and oppressive.”

The most obvious example of this phenomenon is the insistence made by transgender advocates to insist that men are not just trapped in female bodies or vice-versa but also that society mirrors that false self-perception. Expressionist individualism can also be manifested in other settings, including belief in racial essenceism and denial of parental right, as well as objections to science.

This is even used in relation to COVID-19.

COVID-19 ought to be an example of how expressive individualism is failing. This exogenous shock occurs regardless of the person’s subjective thoughts and feelings. No matter what the objections of those who disagree, the data maps out the individual’s risk factors. Vaccinations can reduce the likelihood of death or hospitalization for the majority of people. These data should allow us to keep track of them and make changes to our pandemic response based upon new information.

Yet, we as society have psychologized COVID-19 using expressive individualist terms. After Bari Weiss, on Bill Maher’s program, pointed out that COVID-19 has been eliminated from the majority of people who were vaccinated, and that it is safe to assume that life will return to normal, there was a huge backlash — pressure from COVID-19-vulnerable individuals who now feel superior morally to COVID-19. Thus, Sara Haines of “The View” lamented, “I think some of the things we’ve learned in this pandemic will stay the same. I may never ride the subway without a mask, I may never go indoors to big crowds and feel comfortable without a mask.” Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times explained, “What you can’t do is force other people, whose vulnerabilities might be much greater than your own, to agree with your risk assessments and join you in moving on while the pandemic still rages.”

This is exactly what Goldberg and Haines have done — forcing others to do things that science cannot support for their emotional comfort. Omicron is not being stopped by boosters. Omicron can only be stopped by N95 masks. The disease is now endemic, which is why Dr. Hans Kluge of the World Health Organization’s European region stated this week, “Omicron offers plausible hope for stabilization and normalization.”

Pandemic paranoia will not be accepted as a normal part of one’s identity. The public health establishment is now able to cultivate a large number of people who evaluate their morality by the extent they feel compliant or panicked about COVID-19. In fact, 68% of all people who have been fully vaccinated are still very concerned that they might get sick in the coming year, as compared to 39% who were not vaccinated. It is exactly the opposite of what public health officials should have done. However, expressive individualism won the day again. This conjoins one’s feelings and one’s identity.

Ben Shapiro, 38, is a graduate of UCLA and Harvard Law School, host of “The Ben Shapiro Show,” and editor-in-chief of He is the author of the New York Times bestsellers “How To Destroy America In Three Easy Steps,” “The Right Side Of History,” and “Bullies.”

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