Collectivism, Individualism, and the Alternative…

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There was nothing more irritating to the middle-school version of me than collective punishment of a class.  It was totally unfair, from the perspective of a well-behaved individual, for the teacher to punish the entire class because of the few who misbehaved and seemed a gross injustice.

However, from a teacher’s perspective, punishing classes as a collective whole was 1) easier than finding the individual culprits and 2) might convince students to police themselves.  And, while it is debatable whether or not this technique accomplishes the desired ends, it is something used in military training and for the purpose of teaching that the collective unit will rise and fall together in a combat situation.

We thrive in groups.  There is a reason why you buy your car from a manufacturer rather than build it yourself and that reason is they can do it more efficiently than you can.  It is something called “comparative advantage” (which basically means that some people are better at doing some tasks than we are) and is one of the reasons why trade is almost always mutually beneficial.  For the most ideal result (for both individuals and the collective) it is usually better that we specialize and cooperate.

In real-life we do depend on each other for survival.   Yes, you might be strong, independent, well-disciplined and as prepared as one can be for a crisis.  However, if your neighbors are not, when a crisis does arise it will likely be you against the group and you will probably lose that fight no matter how prepared you are.  And, at very least, even if you were to somehow escape, you would not thrive as an individual like you do in a developed economy where there is cooperation and trade.

So, whether we like it or not, regardless if it is just or not to introduce artificial group responsibility for the actions of others, even if there was no moral obligation to be our brother’s keeper, there is group accountability that arises naturally because of our interdependence and also an economic argument to make for some collective effort (or collectivism) and denial of the individual.  In other words, we are individually better when we take some concern for other individuals who make up our own collective group.

Where Collectivism Goes Wrong…

In the first part of my life most of my effort has been to fight back against collectivism.  In life, as in the classroom, I was usually well-behaved, worked hard, lived within my means, always paid my own bills on time, and expected others to do the same.  It has always seemed terribly unfair that others would expect me to pick up the tab for their irresponsible lifestyle.

What is worse is that many collectivists are not content to subsidize those who they deem to be deserving of help out of their own pockets and instead support the use of use of government to enforce their ideals—taxes are used for income redistribution and affirmative action laws created in an effort to promote equality of outcomes.  To me that is trying to solve one injustice by means of another injustice.  There is no virtue in forcing other people to give to others against their will.

Furthermore, at some point, forcing a responsible person to subsidize another person’s lifestyle is to punish their behavior and promote irresponsible behavior.  The problem with artificial collective responsibility is that it can remove the incentive for the individual to be responsible for themselves and leads to a downward spiral.

For example, poverty has not been eliminated since the “war on poverty” began in 1964.  In fact, the percentage of single parent homes—one of the significant predictors of poverty—has increased dramatically over the same period.  It is often very difficult, for those already in the welfare system, to escape their dependence when the benefits of not working are almost equal to the income they could earn otherwise.

And then there is this awful thing called “identity politics” where people are put into competitive groups according to their race, gender or economic status and then pitted against each other.  Basically the idea is to promote conflict (rather than cooperation) between various identity groups.  People, according to this kind of thinking, should be judged as a part of their collective groups rather than as individuals and unique.

What identity politics amounts to, in practical terms, is that there are those who are collectively punished for the sins of their collective identity (past or present) and then those who, as a collective group, are deemed to be victims and therefore entitled to a protected status.  Identity politics is to blame for terms like “white privilege” and also for the resurgence of white nationalism.  It should be no surprise to anyone that those who are collectively punished will, in turn, circle the wagons and start to collectively protect their own identity group.

Teachers who punish the whole class for the actions of a few individuals assume that the group will push back against those who misbehave.  Unfortunately, it could also promote the opposite and cause the well-behaved students to give up and even join in the misbehavior because they will be punished regardless.  Likewise, when labels like “racist” or “sexist” are applied to an entire identity group they often become counterproductive.  People who are categorizing and castigated as a group regardless of their individual role might as well misbehave a little.

Collectivism ultimately fails when it is disrespectful of individual rights and disregarding of differences between individuals.  The potential for abuse is severe when it is the collective group versus some individuals or even when collective groups fights against other groups.  It is what leads to pogroms and purges.  Collectivism is extremely dangerous ideology when it becomes an excuse to privilege some ethnic, national, racial, religious, social or political groups at the expense of others.

Where Individualism Goes Wrong…

Individualism, to many people, seems like the perfect alternative to collectivism.  It is part of the ideological DNA of the United States of America.  Truly one of the things that made America great was the special consideration for the individual and their “inalienable” rights.

These rights, purportedly “endowed by our creator” according the nation’s founding documents, have been enshrined into law and a government system designed as a bulwark against abuse of individuals.  Progress, at least in American terms, has been a matter of extending the umbrella of these individual rights to those previously disenfranchised and considered less than equal because of their gender, racial or ethnic group.  While we can never agree on the particulars, the general idea that “all men are created equal” and have rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is something most do agree on.

Respect for individual rights has made this nation great because it freed individuals to do what they wanted to do.  Yes, the nation was imperfect in it’s founding and remains imperfect.  However, the American ideal seems to be right in many regards, it is something that likely contributed to the current prosperity this nation and is something that has likely helped to shape a better world.  It is hard to imagine the world being better under the totalitarianism represented by men like Stalin, Hitler and other dictators claiming to represent a collective good.

Unfortunately, respect for the individual turns into a bad thing when it becomes individualism.  It is true that many are able to provide food, clothing and shelter for themselves as an individual.  However, nobody can provide for their own social needs and many in the world today are socially starved.  The problem is particularly acute in the developed world where people are materially prosperous and can live under a delusion of their independence.  But the truth is that it is not healthy for most people to be free from meaningful human connections or to have no purpose bigger than themselves.

The deficiencies of individualistic American culture have became clearer to me after I left home.  Being single, out on the road, a completely free individual, often made me feel profoundly lonely and unfulfilled.  I felt imprisoned in my own mind.  My siblings had their own lives, my friends all seemed to marry then disappear, the local church was unable/unwilling to pick up the slack, and depression set in.   No man is an island—positive social interactions and having a place to belong is what keeps us sane.

My recent trip to the Philippines punctuated this point.  The people there generally have less material wealth than their American counterparts.  As a result people depend on each other—family members expected to provide for each other, children help their parents, and is more or less an organic form of collectivism.  I felt happier there, as one participating in family activities, than I did with all the possessions and properties I’ve aquired over the past few decades.

As if to provide contrast, on my way way back from the Philippines I was put up in a Marriott (when my flight to JFK was diverted to Atlanta because of weather) and was basically alone despite being one of the hundred passengers and crew in the motel.  My accommodations were luxurious, my stomach full of quality grub courtesy of Korean Air food vouchers, my unlimited data plan connected me back to social media and all the entertainment in the world, and still it felt like a time devoid of purpose.

People do not need to be a part of an identity group.  However, we do seem to find our own identity in our interactions with other people and within a group.  Solitude, while therapeutic and a chance for reflection as a choice, is a punishment when imposed upon us by circumstances beyond our control.  Individualism, at an extreme, results in solipsism and anti-social behavior—it is easy to imagine that the world is against you when too disconnected from other people.

Where Community Gets it Right…

“Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world where people so often either ignore or fight each other. It is a sign that we don’t need a lot of money to be happy–in fact, the opposite.” (Jean Vanier)

Community can mean many things.  However, the word itself is a fusion of “common” with “unity” and most often describes a group individuals with a shared identity or interest.  In this context community is a collection of individuals who love and take an active role in each other’s lives.

I believe community is something that transcends the ideological extremes (and false dichotomy) of individualism and collectivism.  It is not a balance or tension between individual rights and the collective needs of a group.  It is rather a fusion of individual and collective concerns that is not a product of coercion or imposed as a legal obligation.  It is a place where differences become a strength rather than a point of contention and were grievances are addressed without becoming the group’s central theme.

A healthy community is focused on the highest common denominator of the group rather than on the lowest.  In other words, the goals of the individuals in the group are bigger than what is merely good for them or those who are most like them.  Those who make up the group are not forced to give up their personal autonomy to tyrannical collective process either.  Instead they are free to voluntarily use their individual strengths to the betterment of the group, willing to work towards the goal they share in common with the group, and without their personal needs being neglected.

Community is a Christian ideal.  It is centered on sharing an identity with Jesus and is following after his example.  It means being willing to suffer temporary personal loss for the external good of others.  It means loving social outcasts, reaching out to those marginalized in society and being a helping hand to those in need.  It means having an identity (both individually and collectively) greater than race, gender, economic status, nation, or religious affiliation.  It means a community formed by all those (past, present and future) united in a mystical common-union:

“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.  Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. “ (Colossians 3:11‭-‬14 NIV)

Community is where individuals take responsibility for the collective group and the collective group takes responsibility for the individual.  Not because they have to, not because they fear punishment, but because they want to, they have an identity bigger than themselves and love each other as Jesus first loved them.

Jesus Always Trumps Politics

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I overestimated. 

I had assumed my own conservative friends would spot a charlatan and choose a candidate with their own supposed values. 

Trump’s rise came as a surprise to many on the left.  However, the bigger surprise was probably for conservatives who are principled, conscientious and consistently liberty-minded.

Trump is everything conservatives have complained about in liberals.  He’s divisive like Barack Obama, a serial womanizer like Bill Clinton, arrogant like Al Gore and a waffler like John Kerry.  Yet somehow it is all okay when Trump does it? 

Why? 

Well, I suppose it is because Trump is one of ‘us’ and is ‘our’ guy…? 

Which, in translation, is tribalism or identity politics and the same thing conservatives have claimed to loath in liberals.  This loathsome behavior has now become acceptable to some self-described conservatives because it suits their political agenda.

When you can’t beat them join them?

Conservatives, in fear of being marginalized and feeling unheard by the political establishment, have abandoned traditional conservativism en-masse to follow their own audacious Pied Piper who promises to give them a voice again.

Conservatives can no longer blame liberals for dividing the nation with a man as divisive as Trump as their choice for leader.  They can no longer point a finger at Hollywood for promoting evil when they themselves pick an obscene and angry man to represent them.

No matter what the outcome of the election (Trump, Clinton, or other) it is safe to say that irrationality has won, tribalism has won, and we all together will lose.  Something once anathema to American greatness has now come to define us both right and left.

Trump’s ascendency as a ‘conservative’ is a watershed moment.  Now no side can claim moral high ground.  Conservatives are now as guilty of rank partisanship and hypocrisy as their rivals.  They fall for fear-mongering propaganda as quickly as anyone else.

So where do we go from here?

First we must identify the problem in us, not them.  Jesus said that before we judge others we must judge ourselves, because how we judge others is how we will be judged (Matt. 7:1-5) and this is something that should sober up any honest person conservative or liberal.

Both sides identify the same problems. 

Both see the divisiveness, bullying and irrationality of the other side.

But, can we see it in ourselves?  Have we actually heeded the warning of Jesus, seen our own hypocrisy and repented?

Or do we hold onto our imagined right to a sanctimonious judgmental and entitled attitude?  Do we think it is okay for our side to be divisive because they are?  Is it fine to be a bully when it suits our own agenda?  Can we abandon a rationality of self-sacrificial love and somehow save ourselves?

#1) Simple labels lead to more division and greater irrationality.

Trump wins using what Scott Adams (who makes a case why the billionaire celebrity will win) has explained as the “linguistic kill shot” or taking an opponent’s most notable attribute and redefining it in a memorable and negative way. 

The presidential characteristics of diplomacy and reasonableness embodied by Jeb Bush were turned into “weak” and “low energy” by Trump.  Ben Carson’s political outsider status, unique life story and calm demeanor were turned into comparison to a child molester and a cause for mistrust.  Ted Cruz, a skilled debater and political strategist, he demolished by calling into question his credibility.

Of course, this is not anything new, political partisans and activists have long tried to define their opponents in a negative way.  The language in the abortion debate, for example: Those in favor self-identify as “pro-choice” while those against call themselves “pro-life” and both imply the other side as against life or choice.  It presents an intentional oversimplification of a complex topic.  It is often language representative of a false dichotomy and strawman argument.

This was also the most frustrating part of the healthcare debate early in President Obama’s first term.  You were either for a massive new government intrusion into the healthcare industry or you were pigeonholed as a cold hearted and angry racist. 

It was not conducive of a constructive dialogue.  It marked the end of any chance for bipartisan cooperation and in many ways forced otherwise reasonable people to choose a side.  Many conservatives have apparently decided to embrace the labels rather than rise above them. 

Perhaps it is because there is enough truth to the accusations against conservatives?  It does seem, in retrospect, that some of the opposition to Obama’s policies may have been partially rooted in bigotry and prejudice.  This could be in need of correction.

Political correctness came to be for a reason.  Unfortunately, the purveyors of political correctness have not overcome the same tendencies that they identify in others.  They, like those whom they deride as racists and sexists, have resorted to their own forms of the same ugliness.

Trump has mastered this art of oversimplification of opponents.  He uses language that creates a negative image and the more the identifier is resisted the more it is reinforced at a subconscious level. 

Trump relies on irrational human tendency to judge ‘outsiders’ collectively.  This leads to more mistrust, creates deeper division and leads to more tribalism.

#2) More tribalism (or identity politics) will never make America great.

Trump promises to make America great again.  But in reality he represents a more advanced stage of the cancer destroying our strength as a nation.  Namely the problem is tribalism (or identity politics) and this is not helped more angry partisan rhetoric.

Just the other day I was told (by a left-leaning friend) it was “politically toxic” to get lunch at Chick-fil-A.  And on the other side we have Joshua (coffee cup controversy) Feuerstein and a less than meek spirited woman marching through Target (submissive man and family in tow) demanding people leave or be in league with the devil.

Tribalism blinds us to the sins of those with whom we identify with and leads to a vengeful self-perpetuating tit for tat cycle.  Both sides have convinced themselves the other side is getting what they deserve when the government encroaches on their freedom.  It might be described as revenge for what their tribe did to ours, but it is really just hatred and hypocrisy.

Democrats described conservatives of being unpatriotic for opposition to tax hikes and other liberal policies.  Now Trump supporters have turned tables and claim you aren’t a patriot unless you support their vile mouthed candidate.  This is utter nonsense, nevertheless it is believed by many on both sides—it keeps us divided, easily manipulated, and weak.

“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” (Mark 3:24-25)

Abraham Lincoln paraphrased that bit of Scripture in his House Divided speech to point out the double-mindedness of those seeking to be on both sides of the slavery issue.  Lincoln lost that round, nevertheless his point was well made and our own prideful hypocrisy today (on both sides) must be addressed or we will fall.

The tendency to demonize or marginalize those who disagree is expression of identity politics.  Rather than respect each other we are driven to mistrust.  Rather than build a common unity around our shared values, we are encouraged to divide into competing tribes of race, gender or religious affiliation.  The result is a predictable never-ending conflict where nobody ever wins and everyone comes out as loser.

We cannot promote divisiveness, demagoguery and disunity then claim to love a nation that values freedom.  We cannot expect tolerance for ourselves or our tribe while demanding others share our opinions and being completely intolerant of those who do not.

#3) The answer to abuse and bullying is not more abuse and bullying.

Every abuser feels justified.  Men, child molesters or rapists, will often blame immodesty of women and the innocent for their own sinful lusts.  Likewise looters and rioters feel their own violent outbursts against are excused because of police brutality or other historic injustices.

People bully and abuse others because it works.  It may even get Trump elected according to some.  It is easier to manipulate others into compliance with fear of violence than it is to convince them with a rational argument.  The civil conversation is over when the mob arrives shouting demands with torch and pitchfork in hand.

Trump has encouraged mob spirit in his political rallies.  His supporters gleefully cheer on rough treatment that they feel is justified and it is dangerous. 

For years conservatives have put up with the disruptions and disrespect for those expressing their perspective, so perhaps some of us think this makes it right for us to act out?

It might be cathartic to see some elbows thrown on behalf of our own perspective.  However, repaying evil with evil is a path to greater evil.  It is a positive feedback loop that produces greater evil with each cycle.  It is a march towards civil war and a path to our mutually assured destruction.

We can’t overcome evil with evil.  We must overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21) and forgive.  Real moral leadership leads by example rather than use of reciprocal violence and political force.

Jesus trumps partisan politics.

Politics is about power.  Political leaders often use fear to motivate and threat of violence to manipulate those who stand against them, they feed discontentment rather than promote peace, but this is not the way of Jesus.

I’ve heard some exclaim: “We’re electing a president not a pastor!”

This is double mindedness.  Those who believe a thuggish leader is necessary to control their neighbors should not be surprised when the same rationale is used by their adversaries to subjugate them.  It is not reconcilable with Christian love.

Jesus is the answer or our profession of faith is a lie.  Jesus is the right example of leadership, is the only appropriate basis for measurement, or he’s not our Lord and Savior. 

And, furthermore, if the standard for leadership established by His example can’t be reconciled with politics, then I recommend those who claim to be Christian choose their master and remove themselves from the process entirely or admit their unbelief in Jesus.

A President is indeed like a pastor (read more if interested) to a nation.  His morality and ethics will is the example for the nation (or so that was the claim of conservatives in response to Clinton’s infidelity) and cannot be ignored.  We cannot separate the character of a person from their politics nor can we seperate our own personal morality from those whom we choose to represent us.

Politics, or at very least the politics of division, violence and tribalism, is antithetical to sincere profession of faith in Jesus.  Politics that leads by force rather than example is a direct contradiction to what Jesus taught.

“Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)

That quote is the final answer given by Jesus to a legal expert (perhaps the equivalent of a Constitutional conservative today) who asked what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus first ask what the law says, the man responds with a summary of the law—love God and love your neighbor.

But the expert, evidently unsatisfied, wanting to be justified, pushes for further definition and asks Jesus: “And who is my neighbor?”

It is at this point that Jesus tells a story of the ‘good Samaritan’ who treated an enemy (his political and ethnic or social rival) with loving care and respect.  Jesus does not answer the question of who is our neighbor, instead he answers how to be a good neighbor.

That is the way of Jesus.  We are to love our enemies, to lead others by showing them by example how we wish for them to treat us and through this overcome evil with good.  This brings unity and love rather than more fear and divisions.

If there is no candidate attempting to lead with Christian love?  Stay home election day and pray.  When given a choice between two corrupt and unrepentant people?  Choose neither! 

We should choose to transcend the tribal political warfare.  We can love our neighbors as faith requires without casting a ballot. 

So, when in doubt, choose Jesus and love your neighbor.