Collective vs. Individual

See the article Harmony and the Dream by David Brook.

He did touch on a deep distinction although I don’t quite agree with the way he phrased it. A short response is that I want BOTH ( Collective and Individual), and you should too. But I need offer more specifics.

First of all, collective values have been traditionally very hard to evaluate. Thus practically it is better to put more emphasis on Individuals. In my post Why IT Software Makes Our World More Human, I wrote “No matter what we do, we have to come back to “human”. All concept should be evaluated under “human”. Individualism just realizes that it is easy to tell whether a thing is beneficial or harmful for an individual, but it is difficult whether it is beneficial or harmful for the group or the country because we don’t know who will benefit in the name of the group or the country. The history tells us that collectivism or nationalism often benefit just very few people and become tools used by those few people to exploit the majority. Thus individualism says let’s evaluate things mainly based on whether it will harm or benefit an individual. When we are not sure whether if a thing is beneficial for a country, let’s first make sure it won’t harm any individual. This is the spirit of individualism. Of course in the situation when the group will certainly be harmed, the individualism’s answer is very clear. Let’s look at the example of Qiu Shaoyun. If he rolled over, he could have pulled off the fire on his body. But that would expose all his ambushing army under the fires of the enemy. Thus he chose to stay still and let the fire burned him to death. In individualism, every individual is equal. It is better to sacrifice an individual for the lives of a group of individuals. I hope this can answer the attacks on individualism. IT of course gives us new ways of evaluating the group interests and more ways to deal with the group and individual relations.”

To be clear, collective is certainly larger than individuals since collective is a collection of many individuals. So when the situation is very clear that lives of a collection of individuals are going to be harmed, it is the rationale of an single individual to sacrifice his own individual safety for the collective. That is individual consciousness. But whether that value should be imposed as social morale or enforced by law is totally another issue.

We are limited. To work with our limitation, it is better to let individuals working for their own interests as the starting point. I believe in our historical time, it is still practical to do so, especially when it comes to expectation of the mass. But as a whole society, we need to have better ways to gauge collective values and have more ways for individuals to participate in collective goods.

There is actually no collective, since collective is just a collection of individuals. So we have to be careful when we come to collective values, such as national pride. What is national pride/patriotism? Aren’t they too superficial? Do they translate to many people’s dignity and life? Why do we harm an individual dignity or life just for the superficial national pride? For individualism, the answer is that it is more practical and executable to protect that individual if we know for sure that individual’s rights are going to be harmed.

Since there is actually no collective and collective is just a collection of individuals, individual rights and dignity should never be ignored. People talking about individuals sacrificing for collective are often people who are in power and don’t have to sacrifice themselves.

Although Chinese tradition has a strong emphasis on collective (we actually had a tradition of individualism as well, for example, the Spring and Autumn Period and Waring Sates Period more than 2000 years ago, and the great novel of Monkey King ), we had many great individuals. And Chinese history is a history of these great individuals fighting the system and the collective system suppressing these individuals. So the growth of China at our present time is not to continue this oppression, but to finally overcome it. I don’t know Mr. Brook gets this or not.

One world One Dream. To me , this dream is how individuals can live with dignity in a society and how individuals can cooperate/play with each other. We have come a long way. Finally as the world becomes one we can learn from each other to achieve our common dream.

It is not collective vs. individual. It should be individuals’ choice. Thinking collective vs. individual is still thinking in the mind frame of collective. It is still trying to to impose collective values on individuals. True individualism makes this an individual choice. Let individuals choose the best for themselves given all these choices. The benefit of cultural communication is that it offers more choices. When an individual develop himself/herself and pursue his/her happiness, s/he will be able to go beyond the boundary of culture and be with the truth itself. More different elements within a culture, more choice, more diversity, richer culture, more beautiful society.

Collective or individual, the bottom line is that individuals’ dignity should be respected. Individuals should be treated as human being, not as things. Their basic rights should be defined and protected. People shouting the slogan of collective are usually individuals who are on the top of the power hierarchy and try to take advantage of the mass by asking them for sacrifice.  I don’t see any collective in that. I only see bloated individual greed. There is no real collective value in it.   Collective might be a good ideal, but without practical mechanism it only leads to a minority group of individuals suppressing a much larger group of individuals.

But from the general westerners’ perspective, Mr. Brook’s article has some value because western culture is too obsessed with individual self. So to remind them the good values of collective is helpful. (Don’t you think it quite a stupid thing that the westerners need to be reminded that collective has its values? These values are taken for granted in the east. Similarly, what the west has taken for granted of the values of individuals, has to be advocated in the east.)  But for people in the east to read Mr. Brook’s article and mistakenly think that it is just a cultural choice between the two is a dangerous simplification. Thus there is a need to look closely into it. For the westerners, it is also beneficial to know the whole story instead of just blindly following the other way.

So collective or individual, it is not to choose one over the other. It is about how to balance the two together. This balancing is a high art.


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Filed under Cross Culture Communication, Grassroots

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