Communities and Individuals: A Look at Collectivism and Individualism

individual

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.

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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

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.

Individualism

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.

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What do you think?

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6 responses to “Communities and Individuals: A Look at Collectivism and Individualism

  1. This man-night discussion must have happened when I showed up late because of my SOFAT meeting.

    It’s an interesting discussion to have. I was actually expecting a very different blog entry from the title as I generally think of individualism and collectivism as more political terms. To me, collectivism is the idea that if you get enough people together, actions that would be considered plainly criminal when undertaken by individuals magically become acceptable. Theft becomes taxation; murder becomes war; protection rackets become police work. That kind of thing. Conversely, individualism is the belief that all individuals really are created equal and that no matter how many may get together, they will never magically gain the right to violate the rights of another individual.

    The topic you bring up is interesting because the question as you’ve framed it really isn’t one of politics at all. If I can, though, I would like to bring politics into the equation. I would submit the idea that those who are politically individualistic (libertarians, voluntaryists, anarchists, etc.) are far more likely to strike a balanced view of the importance of both the individual and the community. And I think we can all agree that both are important.

    Even a consummate rugged individualist like myself can recognize that without the people around me, I would be nothing. As an aspiring filmmaker, for example, I could not achieve my vision without the cooperation of other individuals, and it’s vital that I be able to recognize that lest I become a pompous, self-serving ass. The flip side of this would be the collectivist who tries to completely de-emphasize the value of individual contributions to such a project, homogenizing any semblance of individual identity in his attempt to turn the film into communal property. In doing so, he misses out on a chance to recognize just how beautiful it can be when individuals work together of their own accord towards a common goal.

    Look at the films that we love the most. They are, more often than not, written and directed by auteurs with a clear creative vision. Shot by accomplished cinematographers. Acted in by actors with genuine range. They are a compilation of great achievements by individuals all working towards a common goal. We don’t want to see stories written by focus-groups, directed by mercenaries, shot by yes-men, and acted out by card-board caricatures of the classic Hollywood leading man. Film is far and away the art form most reliant on the strength of a community, and yet it can only reach it’s full potential when individual identity and creativity is allowed to shine.

    I believe that those with a more collectivistic mindset not only have a tendency to take away from individual accomplishment, but also to wrongly assign the blame for individual failings. Look at the recent gun control debate. A few lone individuals commit atrocities and collectivists everywhere are essentially calling for the punishment of all gun owners regardless of how decent a person they strive to be. At the same time, many of these same collectivists will make excuses for equally heinous actions on a far greater scale if it is the government – the embodiment of the collective – that undertakes them.

    The individualist, on the other hand, will invariably condemn both the actions of public and private sector murderers, as well as generally acknowledge the fact that if we were nicer and more loving to the people around us, they’d be less likely to go postal in the first place.

    I could write a lot more on this topic, but I’ll wrap this up by saying that I believe that the political individualist has a more balanced view of both the individual and the community than the collectivist does because, whereas the collectivist sees the community as a sort of abstract entity in and of itself that he attempts to ascribe an arbitrary value to (usually based on worldly things like the size, net worth, accomplishments, or demographic makeup of the community), whereas the individualist sees community for what it is: a collection of individuals. And individuals have intrinsic worth.

    • Well-constructed reply, David.

      I think we’re both looking the same direction. You’re saying your an individualist but still engage in community mindset and activity, but neither extreme has complete hold on you. Individuals take personal responsibility and initiative, while freely contributing and engaging in collective efforts at times, while still maintaining identity both as individual and as community member. This is precisely the kind of “third way” middle area it seems we would all do well to explore and uphold.

      “The individualist sees community for what it is: a collection of individuals. And individuals have intrinsic worth.” Great lines. Scripturally speaking as well, I would add, “Individuals united as Jesus’ body, the Church, also therein find some of their intrinsic worth.” We’re made for community, too.

  2. I feel like this is a very important distinction to make, especially as the world becomes a more global and connected system of human connections. Christ and the Gospel should not be so entwined with a particular cultural ideology that it appears to be incompatible with a large portion of the world. Our God and faith is large enough to encompass both aspects of collectivism and individualism to create this “third way.”

    And John, as a history teacher, you give me hope that perhaps these hormonal 12 year olds that I teach might actually learn more about their world and place in it.

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