Every Tuesday, I eat hot wings with a bunch of guys at what we call Man Night. Usually, the conversation revolves around how our week is going and what we thought of the latest films, but every once in a while we stumble into deeper thoughts on life, culture, and truth.
This week, we got on the topic of the differences between Western culture and Eastern culture. If I remember my high school history and world cultures class correctly, Asian cultures like Japan, China, Korea, etc. are largely based on what is called collectivism.
Collectivism emphasizes communal ties and heavy dependence upon other people for everything from social needs to life direction to daily physical needs. Because there is such high value on relating to others in the same family, social circles, town, and nation, there is a great potential for either public honor or public shame.
I’ve heard it said that because of this sort of honor-based society, a person may be highly praised by his family or community, or if he’s done something foolish or imperfectly in any way, he’s shamed and demeaned by his family or community. For many this shame from the group creates the most terrible guilt and depression, and for some, leads to drastic outbursts or suicide, because they feel there’s no place for them to fit in that group.
Collectivism seems to be the polar opposite of Western civilization’s default, especially in the United States. Western culture highly values individualism, where a person is generally less tied to his family or community, and seeks honor for himself, alone. We often praise solitary heroes or individuals who stand for something, allowing a single person to bask in the glory of an accomplishment that was likely not just due to the individual’s cunning or strength, but often aided by a group of people working with that individual. The honor and shame in Western society generally falls only on individuals, not groups of people.
In a system of individuality, it’s easy to get lost in selfish glory-seeking while failing to acknowledge the importance of the family and community. Often, individuals will lack meaningful engagement in a larger community, at the expense of losing the richness of friendship and support. In an absence of communal context, a person grows prouder, more selfish, and more likely to live foolishly without accountability. An individual alone gets lost in a false reality.
A Third Way
Perhaps there is another way societies can address this, some sort of middle road to balance the importance of community and individual responsibility.
For those who are Christians, God places high value on both groups of people and individual people. Some of the themes of Scripture even direct us to live with integrity and personal responsibility, but also cultivate a vibrant life in context of family and community.
Life’s successes and failures are meant to be shared, not kept behind an emotionless face while pride or guilt corrodes the soul. Honor and shame should be recognized among individuals, but also seen as reflections of the culture created by the group of people around those individuals.
We each play a role in the lives of those around us. Let’s find a balance in this world of collectivism and individualism.
What do you think?