Collectivism vs. Individuality

What do you think of when you ask yourself, “Who am I?”

Is it those things with which or with whom you identify?  Maybe the company for which you work?  The team for which you play or cheer?  The religion in which you believe?  The country in which you were born?  The culture into which you were born?  The brand of a particular product you wear, drive, consume, or carry everywhere with you?  The type or class of people you befriend or associate?  Your family?

Or is it those things that are unique to you?  Maybe things you have done?  The people you have helped?  The things you have learned?  The things you have accomplished?  The things you enjoy?  The experiences you have had?  Your talents?  Attributes of your personality?

Your collective identity consists of the former, while your individual identity consists of the latter.  When we think of our collective identity we say that, “I am one of them,” or “This is what we are like,” or “This is what we can do.” With our individual identity we say “This is what I am like,” or “This is what I can do.”

Collective identity can be good

When a mission or goal is too complex for a lone individual to achieve, coordinated group effort—teamwork—helps an awful lot.  Teams create and accomplish things that would otherwise be impossible or would take too long for a single individual to finish, e.g., families, charity organizations, and businesses.

To the extent that an individual promotes, works toward, funds, or otherwise contributes to the group’s mission, he can take credit for its success.  If the group’s work or creation is virtuous and/or valuable, the individual contributor might even experience a sense of pride knowing that he was a real part of the good effort.  Having made a real contribution to a group’s effort seems to afford one bonafide collective identity.

Collective identity can be irrational—though harmless

In cases of collective identity where the individual has made no contribution to the group’s accomplishments, does it make sense for the individual to feel “proud” of his collective identity?  Consider fanaticism in all of its forms.  Examples include devotion to a rock band, team pride, and brand loyalty.  But if you aren’t making the music, playing for the team, or producing the product, in what sense do you “belong” to the group?  Some might say that they are united with others due to simple shared interest.  But we know that it can go deeper than that.  Consider the zealot who loyally perseveres even when “his” team continually loses, or the true brand disciple who continues to patronize a company regardless of the quality of the product.

And what of the t-shirts?  What about those loud ubiquitous t-shirts people proudly wear to declare their loyalty to a band, team, or brand?

Almost everyone has personally experienced this phenomenon.   In recognizing this tendency, we learn something about ourselves.  We know that there exists within a drive to pick a group and become apart of it.  We seek to belong.

As long as this is just about fun and feeling good, then it is no big deal.  Tattooing names and slogans on our bodies, camping out all night to be the first to acquire a product released at midnight, or following a band around the country might be considered silly behaviors, but as long as they don’t harm or encroach on anybody else they seem pretty innocent.  But is that the extent of it?  Is there a point at which our drive for collective identity becomes something more serious?

Collective identity can displace our identity with humanity

Collective identity leads to a sense of responsibility.  It demands a measure of loyalty in conformity.  To belong you have to become like—you have to follow the rules.  These “rules” might only be an informal generally understood list of attributes applicable to identity with a particular group, e.g., true fans of this band wear this color, speak with this vocabulary, and work for these types of companies.  Or the rules could be a formal creed demanding strict adherence to a detailed code, as might be the case with a religious cult.

Collective coherence requires the eradication of inappropriate deviance.  If nonconformity is tolerated then the whole idea of being “one of them” breaks down.  If being “one of them” means that you can be anything that you want to be, then the notion of belonging becomes absolutely meaningless.  Conformity is a must.

Virtually all people naturally identify collectively in a very broad sense—we identify with humanity.  This is more than being of the species Homo sapiens.  It means than when we see other humans around us we realize that, “I am one of them.”  As is the case with all instances of collective identity, identifying with humanity itself requires a degree of loyalty in conformity to a set of rules.  And what are those rules?  As I have previously discussed, humans are born with a sense of rights.  To encroach on these rights is to commit a wrong. These rights and wrongs are the rules we have to follow in order to be accepted into the group that we call humanity.  A human who disregards these rules, we ostracize.  And if he harbors contempt for these rules (our rights) to a sufficient degree we find that we no longer consider him to be “one of us”.  He becomes something less than human.  He becomes an outcast.  An outlaw.

While we are born naturally identifying with this broad super-collective that we call humanity, as we age we are enticed by collective entities of all kinds.  The first ones we encounter are often family and religion.  Identity with a particular political group or party often comes next.  Identity with our country or culture comes soon enough.  Our work groups are there too.  As we age and mature sometimes our collective loyalties shift.  We might change our political, religious, or philosophical affiliations until we feel that we finally belong—then we settle in with those groups.

In time this identity with particular groups may give us a stronger feeling of belonging than we ever experienced with humanity overall.  We may find that “our people” are more important to us than, well, people.

Collective identity can be dangerous

If our loyalty toward these groups becomes sufficiently fierce we may find that our sense of responsibility toward humankind diminishes.  What if we say that, “What is good for my family, my church, my country, my company, those of my sexual orientation or inclination, race, gender, or class, is what is most important to me; in fact it is more important than what is good for humanity”?  We gain a connection with groups at the expense of our connection with humanity.

In losing that connection we stop experiencing the “I am one of them” sensation when we look at the people around us and everywhere else.  And when we no longer see other people as being one of us we stop caring about the violation of their rights—in fact we might even approve of such violation if it contributes to the interests of our preferred group(s).  So we find that we have departed from our natural sense of responsibility to uphold the rights of all humans and have replaced it with advocacy for the interests of “our people”.  If a collective group loses its sense of responsibility to respect my rights, and instead seeks to benefit and/or promote itself via the violation of my rights, we become enemies.  Crisis has erupted.

Most problems on a national or global scale are the result of a departure from our natural inclination to uphold the rights of all and to instead advance the interests of a few.

Our collective identity leads to our acceptance of behavior we previously abhorred.  Given sufficient support from our collective groups we discover a willingness to forcefully seize the property of others and to forcefully prevent or punish particular behaviors.  Things that would be evil for one person to commit against another person become OK when it is a matter of one group against another.  This happens all the time.  It happens when when we insist on seizing money from one group of people and disbursing it to other groups of people.  It happens when we prohibit people from engaging in behavior that some might find morally reprehensible but that nonetheless impacts nobody other than voluntarily consenting adults.  It happens when we pass arbitrary rules and regulations to protect the business interests of certain groups from competition from others.  It happens when we restrict access to media and information that we believe is unfit to consume.  It happens when we forcefully intervene in the affairs of other countries.

Because of this tendency to lose touch with evil when we meld into the collective, our natural inclination to respect others and their property becomes corrupted.  Most of history’s truly heinous atrocities occurred under these circumstances.  The Communists vs. the Capitalists.  Men vs. Women.  White Europeans vs. Black Africans and American Indians.  Christianity vs. Islam.  Upper class vs. middle class vs. lower class.  The Nazis vs. everyone else.

Collectives inspire fear

Groups with whom we disagree scare us in a way that individuals do not.  This is because we know that groups, more than individuals, have this tendency to abandon their sense of a need to uphold everybody’s rights.  So out of fear we are often inclined to form our own groups to counter a collective threat.  This leads to escalating fear and tension, and in some cases, violence.  We have to stop this cycle of fear and paranoia.

Rather than being afraid we should simply expect that people are going to be different in mind and in action.  It is inevitable.  Because of this, people will cluster into collective groups for all kinds of reasons, rational and irrational, and important and silly.  And that’s OK.  And it remains OK as long as these groups pose no threat to other groups or individuals.  It is also OK to not like all of these groups and to not be nice to them. But not liking and not being nice to them doesn’t make them your enemy, nor you theirs.  You don’t even have to keep it a secret that you don’t like or approve of them.  It’s even OK to talk about your misgivings, as long as you do not threaten them.  And it also OK to simply steer out of their way.  We can expect and tolerate diversity without always embracing it.

And as long as we tolerate the existence of other collective entities, and they exist peacefully, we must make sure we don’t turn our groups into threats.  We cannot allow our groups to become somebody else’s enemy because we feel that our group is in some way privileged.  No individual has the right to seize, control, or destroy another’s belongings or his person, and neither does he have the right to threaten any of these things.  Once this happens, fear and retaliation on the part of other individuals and/or collective entities is justified; so trouble begins.  None of this trouble is necessary or inevitable.

Violation is always anti-human

When we see a violation of rights take place against another, rather than see it as an act committed against a man, woman, hispanic, white, Muslim, Catholic, homosexual, Republican, Democrat, Iraqi, or an American, see it for what it really is—an evil act committed against another human being.  An evil act is no more or less evil when it takes place against one of “my people” or against one of “their people”.  It happened to a person.  And I am one of those.  And you are one of those too.

Until collective interests interfere and corrupt our thinking, we instinctively know that rights apply to everybody.

Today we live in a world of warring factions, tribes, rogue states, political parties—collective entities of all types—fighting over everything, and in some cases nothing at all.  Most of the time there are no clear good guys because in all of these conflicts both sides have committed evil.  Picking a side is frequently a matter of determining which bad guy you want to be.  It is madness.  There is a solution.  Rather than divide the world into multiple hostile collective entities, let’s just divide humanity into two simple groups: the people who initiate force against the peaceful, and those who remain peaceful.  That’s it.  If you are in the latter group then the former is your enemy.  We simply live and let each other live until another refuses to do so and commits a violation.

And while it is not an absolute necessity, it’s a very good idea to explicitly oppose all violations of rights, even in the cases of people who aren’t “one of us”.  Recognizing and condemning a violation of rights does not require us to befriend, like, or approve of the behavior of the victim.  So we should always condemn violations of rights and stand up for victims, regardless of their collective identity.  After all, you might need that individual’s support some day when you are threatened.

A violation of rights against another person is primarily a crime against the victim, but it is also an expression of contempt for the very system of rights that makes civilization itself possible and sustainable.  It is a threat to civilization.  And for that reason we should be very angry whenever we see it happen, regardless of the collective identity of the victim.  The victim is human.  And that is enough.

Use collectivism to accomplish great things.  But never use it to inebriate your sense of moral indignation when another’s rights are violated.  And never use it as as an excuse to violate another’s rights yourself.

The relevant conflict is not with the battle between my group and yours.  It is with the battle between the people who get what they want through peaceful interaction and the people who get what they want through force.  This is where we see who is truly good and who is truly bad.

It doesn’t matter where your collective identity lies; we are all in this together because we are all human.

    • joseph a brost
    • June 28th, 2010 1:51am

    beautifully displayed matt

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