Individualism has reached a breaking point. Convinced of their own right-ness, individuals have destroyed sacred buildings, attacked and killed religious celebrants, shunned homeless people, hidden unfavorable aspects of their own lives behind assumed power and privilege, and, in some cases, bragged about all of it with impunity. Why? Because they feel it is more important to be right than to be human.
We can see the results of this kind of thought and action in troubled sovereign nations such as North Korea and Venezuela. Other recent examples from the last 100 years include Iran, Iraq, and the Balkans. Germany and Japan have reversed their pre-World War II destructive tendencies. Being right in those cases and others have had a high cost in human life as citizens and soldiers pay with their lives for short-sighted individualism. America and “the West” are not immune from this needless loss of life just to be on the “right” side of history.
Collective individualism – many people who share the same opinion – often guides responses to natural disasters and wars against rogue states. It’s easier – more “right” in some ways – to join together, put some of our individual preferences on hold, and step up when a righteous war or fire, tornado, mega-quake, volcano, or tsunami creates suffering. How about climate change? Will that natural disaster be resolved only when the majority of voters decide that their individual aspirations are so compromised that they must work together instead of in competition? Will individuals put what’s “right” for themselves aside in service to a greater humanitarian good?
The downside of collective individualism
Policies based on the majority opinion often go awry. Consider Brexit. Or the Trump administration. Or the War on Terror. Unintended consequences aren’t often apparent to voters. It’s for this reason that representative democracies – whether capitalist or socialist – function better than dictatorships or government by popular opinion.
When civics were taught in my grammar-school days, we were instructed to vote our personal choice: what is best for me. While that’s a respectable way to make choices, it ignores the possibility that what’s best for me – what’s “right” for me – may be wrong for someone else. Instead of voting my individual preferences, these days I tend to vote on what I think is best for others, too. This is why, as a Libertarian in America, it makes sense to support policies that help more people move in the direction of social responsibility, which is often at odds with collective individualism.
Society – perhaps worldwide – is discovering the downsides of collective individualism. How does it feel, for example, to be a Palestinian or Israeli living in the shadow of terrorism? Is either nation more “right” than the other? Citizens of both are, first of all, human beings, and their governments’ disagreements, though ancient, don’t serve the larger world in any way.
Symptoms of collective individualism appear as racism, homophobia, misogyny, nationalism, sexism, and religious fundamentalism. The ghosts of Nazism still haunt us. Many nations offer civil liberty to all of these short-sighted symptoms of collective individualism; nations like America are now attempting to deal with the results of constitutional rights that appear to trump basic human decency.
The upside of collective individualism
On the other hand, collective individualism can encourage individual initiative with social responsibility – to do one’s best while voluntarily sharing results to others, too, in ways that tangibly benefit them. Compassionate capitalism captures the positive essence of collective individualism. In this transitional ear, until we can trust that individuals will offer the results of their success to those around them (libertarian), we must engage some level of government policy to step in and guide our individual tendencies in a more collective, humanitarian way.
That guidance could take the form of a regional United Nations, or it could take the form of incarceration of nationalist or fundamentalist extremists. Sadly, these options seem to be offset by the downside of collective individualism that still pervades many parts of the world, including nations whose moral authority used to be sacrosanct.
Shock and awe may have worked on the battlefield at one time, but if America has learned anything about war in its short history, Americans would be wise to consider that the crowded world of the 21st Century doesn’t respond well to overpowering military might. While it’s not a popular fact, the American Revolution was fought and won using tactics the North Vietnamese used successfully against America itself – the same tactics Afghanistan has used to defend itself for hundreds of years. However “right” the cause may be, collateral damage in the 21st Century is not social responsibility.
The world today needs a more constructive response to peacekeeping than what has been used in the past – a response guided by doing less harm than the past – a response guided by shared suffering and the practical results of compassionate engagement with fellow human beings. A socially responsible response, if you will.
America still attracts refugees and bona-fide immigrants, many of whom settle into American life without incident. Policies, however, that hard-nose refugees and immigrants, or separate and separately detain families seeking asylum, do not rise to a level of social responsibility.
While we may disagree about what kind of immigration policy is most “right,” do we not have an ethical obligation to other human beings? Is it more socially responsible to be afraid of what might happen than to offer kindness where no kindness has been offered?
Religious liberty and fundamentalism
The United Methodist Church today is in a conflict between its religious constitution, which applies to all Methodists worldwide, and the Constitution of the United States. At issue is whether LGBTQI+ individuals ought to be ordained church leaders, and whether LGBTQI+ marriages may be performed in the Methodist church.
The issue of ordination is clearly church-specific, but what about “gay” marriage? American marriages between LGBTQI+ partners are Constitutionally legal, but Methodist Church law forbids them. For a confirmed American LGBTQI+ Methodist, being unable to marry in one’s own church seems much less than “right,” but the collective individualism of the worldwide Methodist Church does not agree with the United States Constitution on this important issue, which is a civil liberty in America and elsewhere but not in the majority of the worldwide Methodist congregation.
There’s no argument that a private organization may follow its own rules as the majority of individuals in it see fit to approve them, but is this a socially responsible position to take when the organization’s rules impact world citizens in different ways? Is it more important to cling to a religious doctrine of exclusivity when that very doctrine might cause the demise of the organization?
A bigger example is faced by Muslims around the world. Not all Muslims are fundamentalists, however Sharia Law seems to be very much at odds with the constitutions of many Western nations. The violence with which Sharia Law is administered is anathema to many non-Muslim people, who long for some kind of credible reassurance from strong Muslim leaders.
Until the collective individualism of Methodists and Muslims shifts toward a more compassionate, less fundamentalist – some might say less literal – application of religious law and doctrine, there will be continued unease in the human race. With great respect for the religious doctrine of both Methodists and Muslims, how can it be socially responsible to invoke “rights” of religious freedom when those rights deny civil liberties to others, Methodist, Muslim, and non-believer alike?
The Christian fundamentalist movement, too, seems to be more concerned with strict, literal adherence to The Bible than with appreciation of the spiritual teaching contained in the same book. Spiritual teaching, according to Christ Jesus himself, must be done by metaphor, since worldly language has no terms and human beings have no grasp on the realm of the Spirit.
A literal interpretation of Biblical laws may work within the Christian individual collective, but it lacks social responsibility when non-Christian human beings are impacted by Christians in ways that are not socially responsible. How many more people will die in mosques or synagogues before this lesson is learned and the Christian individual collective begins to practice compassion more meaningfully?
As a final example, what gave early Christians in the New World any kind of moral right to overrun its native peoples?
Individual and collective compassion
We’ve looked at how rugged individualism’s rough jackboots are failing to sustain collective individualism. Instead, those same ideals have drawn the world more toward more base pretentions and their ugly symptoms.
There will always be individual initiative, much of it sublime. But along with individual initiative, there must be individual compassion. Our world is in a critical moment, clinging to what may be the last threads of literalist attachment to rules and regulations that cause more harm than good. There’s no reason anyone should be made to feel wrong because of what they believe, but our institutions and policies have not yet caught up with that insight.
The irony is that so many people have been made to feel wrong about their beliefs that the innate compassion in those beliefs is overrun by a desire to eliminate anyone who does not also accept and adopt them literally. That elimination happens in elections, terrorism, the disintegration of established churches, and even between friends and neighbors. “What’s right” has become equivalent to “what’s loudest” without regard to who might get hurt along the way. That may be the course Mother Nature intended, if for no other reason than population control, but it seems cruel.
Regardless of how strongly we hold our beliefs – religious or otherwise – isn’t it time to pause, breathe, take a view of our fellow human beings that’s informed by “us” rather than “us and them,” and enter an empathetic, sustainable conversation that admits all comers? If that conversation happens with compassion, perhaps we can find a way to rejoice in our individual concept of “right” without harm to those around us.
This isn’t a new idea, but we are running out of time to implement it more widely. And that will only happen with the collective engagement of a majority of human beings. In this era, we have a worldwide opportunity to move from collective individualism to collective compassion. Along the way, we can build a foundation for a future more free from greed and all the -isms and more imbued with the best aspects of the human spirit.
Who doesn’t want that, right?
I’ve written a book about best practices to engage the human spirit, regardless of belief system. More here.
Is it More Important To Be Right Or To Be Human?