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Individuality in Community: The Symbiotic Relationship Between Individual and Community

September 9, 2013

Before we can talk about individualism, we have to talk about its history. The age of structuralism brought with it beliefs and teachings that humans are stuck and defined within a structural framework called society. Even if some action was done purely of our own volition, the underlying cause of it could be traced back to some influence of the social environment or upbringing that explained how we behave, act, and live. Should we know the causal history of a person, all the causes that led up to this very moment in a person’s life, together with all the laws of nature, we could predict with certainty what he would do. This is known as determinism. There has been much debate about whether or not we still have free will if such a deterministic and structured world is true, but delving into that would take us on a different journey.

Post-structuralism is the knee jerk reaction towards how structuralism conceived the individual as a cog in the system, turning within a fixed framework. The French Revolution (1789-1799) became the catalyst that made many intellectuals and people question the truth of structuralism. France had been largely controlled by the Catholic Church, with the clergymen exercising their power over the people and justifying their actions as being of God’s will. In invoking God, they controlled the French people to believe that their teachings were from God, when in fact it was a way for the clergy to abuse their power and legitimately steal money from the people, all in the name of God. This resulted in the French people being controlled by the Church’s teachings where good, bad, right and wrong were defined by the clergy of the Catholic Church. It became a totalitarian rule masquerading as the Church of God. The French Revolution was a testament to the human’s ability to overthrow and overcome the structural framework they are stuck in through their own individual wills, and post-structuralism was born. Even though there is a structural framework that governs us all, we can still “play” within the system. And it is in light of post-structuralist thought that the idea of individualism appears.

Individualism argues for the freedom of the individual to define for one’s self his own identity, beliefs, goals and purposes in life, as well as having and being able to demand his own individual rights. Religion or the state should not control what a person should believe or do, but it is the autonomy of a person to decide. Individualism states that the individual’s goals and rights are more important than the group’s or community’s goals and rights and should take priority over them. As such, individualism stands in direct opposition to collectivism, where the goals and voice of the group is most important. The older generation, especially in Asian society, prioritise the family and community over the individual. Your goals and aspirations had to be in line with the progress and betterment of the family or community you are born into. The individual gets subsumed into the aspirations of the family or community. Your parents want to become a doctor or take over tne family business. The elders in the community will chastise you if you bring foreign ideas to their ears and beat you for disobeying their words when you try to assert your individuality. The individual is being sacrificed for the greater good.

It is no surprise then, that, like the French Revolution, the young people who are sick and tired of this Asian authoritarian rule, will rebel and embrace the tenats of individualism. “No more being sujugated by my parents or my community, no more sacrificing what I want for what they want. I have a right to believe what I want to believe, and pursue what I want to pursue.” Too much oppression and control gives rise to too much freedom and liberality. Individualism is a double-edged sword: on one hand it was salvation from collectivism and community-centred living, on the other hand it thrust many people into a state of lawlessness and immorality. For without the rules and beliefs of the community, the individual had the freedom to define for his or herself what is good, bad, right, wrong, truth and falsity. Individualism became as excuse for people to do whatever they wanted without feeling any guilt whatsoever. “It does not matter what I do as long as I do not hurt anyone else.” Or, “What is right and wrong is relative anyway, as long as it feels good to me then it must be right.” From complete control to a total lack of control.

The solution is synthesis. It is not a matter of arguing whether collectivism is better than individualism or whether individualism is right and collectivism is wrong. A balance must always be found between two extremes. My proposed solution begins with the notion of personal identity and individuation. The principle of individuation (which is different from individualism) describes the manner in which we are distinguished as an individual from other individuals in this world. It defines us as being an individual person as opposed to being a part of some other entity. It is a more modest claim tha individualism, for all individuation states is that the individual is separate and distinct from the whole, be it the community or society. You realise that this is also the premise on which individualism begins. But now that we can call ourselves distinct persons that can be distinguished from the collective, what then makes us who we are? The proponents of individualism will be hasty to say that we must cut off any influences of the society or community on the individual and instead build our identity on what we ourselves believe to be truth. Some of you might already see the problem with this.

Individualism is not as individualistic an idea as proponents of it want it to be. Firstly, there is the issue of what to believe. As one of my teachers once said, “It is almost impossible to be original because all our ideas are influenced in some way by our surroundings.” But of course one could argue that individualism is not about being original in thought or belief but being uniquely different from others by picking and choosing what they think defines them. So we see that the individualistic identity is literally self-defined; put together by the individual person. But can we truly define our own identity independent of society or community? Here, some proponents of individualism might get weak in their knees and admit that some things like upbringing and environment do factor into a person’s identity, but this is very minimal and in no way has a hold on their identity as an individual. But I argue that it is impossible to find one’s individuality and identity without the individual having ties to a community. Remember my favourite phrase that I always quote from Aristotle? “Man is a political animal.”

Individualism might be successful in extracting the individual from a collectivist identity, but this can only be done by putting the individual into another community: the Community of Individualism. It is ironic that in rejecting the influences of one’s own community and escaping the slaughter of the uniqueness of our identity at the hands of collectivism, we end up on the chopping board of individualism. Do not be fooled by it. The belief in the notion of individualism is itself an influence and those who hold ideas of individualism and anti-collectivism form a community unto themselves. In other words, beliefs of our forefathers are thrown away so that we can embrace the beliefs of individualism; we abandon our birth community to get adopted into the community of individualism.

I believe that true individuality is not a matter of denouncing our roots and our past and disassociating ourselves from the communities and people that have the greatest influence and control during our formative years. It is also not about championing freedom to do whatever we deem fit and in doing so assert our freedom from the control of religion, the state, or community. A knee jerk reaction towards collectivism or community is not asserting our individuality. In fact, individualism kills individuality because in escaping the stability and control of rules and laws in community or society we end up more lost as to what defines our identity. With postmodernism and truth being relative, one’s identity becomes like shifting shadows. There is nothing to root us down and we are carried along by whatever wind should find us. If a certain idea sounds good then it becomes truth to us. If something feels good to us then it becomes right. There will be a feeling of not being grounded in reality. Our identity is but relative to the winds of individualism and in no time we lose our individuality for we believe whatever individualism champions and our values become mere opinions as they change depending on the situation we find ourselves in.

Another side effect of individualism is how it is so inward-focused that it promotes self-centredness and apathy towards others. Since personal goals and interests take precedence, we would fight for our own interest even at the expense of others by justifying that it is our individual human right to do so. Where in community, the members had to always prioritise and consider the greater good that would ultimately benefit the community, individualism is not self-sacrificial. So do not be tricked into believing that individualism champions love. The only love it supports is self-love, celebrating pride, person achievement, and elitism. So for those who hold that love, care and concern are important values that define their existence, then the notion of individualism should be very unpalatable for them to swallow. In rejecting the influence and control that the community has on you, you are effectively also rejecting community itself; rejecting people, rejecting relationships, rejecting sacrificial love.

As such, we need a bearing; we need a fixed unmovable point from which we can define our individuality. A focal point from which the individual takes their reference from. This point is community, the one thing individualism discredits. When asked about what defines us, we are bound to cite values that have been inculcated by our religion or family, and the different life experiences that made us into who we are now, a wiser and more mature person. We have to simply acknowledge that we can never fully escape our past and our heritage. Much of our identity will be predicated upon our upbringing and our environment, things we have no control over. It is foolish for proponents of individualism to think that they can just discount these influences that form a great part of who we are as individuals. It is impossible to believe that we can erase it all and start on a blank canvas. In fact, it is our upbringing and our community environment that shape our identities more than anything else in our life. The issue is then not one of escaping or embracing the influence and control of community over our lives, but how do we interact with these influences that have already affected us.

Since trying to jettison all traces of community influence will only be in vain, defining our individuality then takes on a new meaning. All of us may say, come from an Asian Christian background, like me. But obviously we are not all the same. Our beliefs and values might be the same, but how we interact with them; how we understand, apply, make sense, and integrate them into our lives, are all different. This is where the uniqueness of our individual identity is formed. Instead of just blindly accepting and following whatever is taught by the community or religion, one should critically engage with these values and beliefs. Critically examine one’s own values and beliefs, and whichever we find is not beneficial or wrong we throw it out and keep the ones that we believe should define our personal identity. In doing so, we do not reject the community outright, but instead choose which values and beliefs to accept or reject while still being a part of our community. So it’s not about redefinding ourselves but choosing what values and beliefs in our family, religion, community, and society should define our individuality. We will always be a tapestry of all our influences, good and bad. The only way not to become merely a collection of all our influences is to assert our freedom of choice as individuals, not to reject them, but choose how we want them to affect us. We do not redefine ourselves, we redefine the values, beliefs, goals, ideas, etc. that have influenced us and in doing so we assert our individuality and identity.

The individual can only be defined within the community, while individuality is formed when we choose how we fit into that community. Do not be fooled by individualism, the individual and community are not in direct opposition. If anything, the quest of developing our identity and individuality is done by synthesizing our individual values, goals, and desires with that of the community’s. If we can do that, then accomplishing of the community’s goal gives us fulfilment as a member of that community, and our own personal goals become more meaningful when we know achieving it benefits not only ourselves but others in the community as well. In caring for others within the community we realise our communal nature, find personal fulfilment in life, and take one step in the right direction to self-actualisation; the actualisation of our humanity as a part of our individuality. The individual must be defined within the context of a community to find security and purpose in life. The community must be defined in terms of the many individuals that make up its body for in the synthesis of differences the growth and development of the community will be achieved. To be an individual is to be in a community, and to be a community is to recognise the individuals that define it.

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