Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Individualism v. Communitarianism

An interesting opinion column by David Liang today in the Collegian: Western Culture more individualistic compared to East. (Don’t blame him for the tortuous headline—that’s entirely at the discretion of a copy-editor who has just given the column a cursory one-over.)

In the West, people generally regard themselves as unique individuals within a society to which they have little or no social obligations. In fact, people feel positively annoyed if they feel their individuality is threatened. As a result, Westerners are more oriented towards personal goals of success.

However, East Asians (people from Japan, Korea, China and other Sinic countries) tend to place more emphasis on teamwork and the overall success of the group of which they perceive themselves to be part. Success is sought as a team rather than a personal badge of merit.


Since Westerners are inclined to believe that individuals are separate units within a society, it would only make sense for each person to be entitled to certain rights and freedoms. But there's a much less developed sense of "individual rights" among Asians, and any conception of rights is based solely on the individual's "share" of the total rights in the collectivity. This is largely why so many Chinese people find the western concept of "human rights" to be a very fishy one.

But then, having developed this interesting point, he wimps out in the conclusion:

Having lived in both cultures, I can't honestly say that I prefer one over the other — both have their merits and shortcomings. Perhaps as globalization takes hold and nations are drawn together, both cultures will gradually be integrated into one that combines the best of both worlds. My cynical side tells me that will never happen. But, hey, it never hurts to hope.
What David misses, is that individualistic cultures allow for groups (at the whim of the individual) but it is the nature of the communitarian culture that it cannot tolerate the individual—one precludes the other, in Eastern cultures.

That is, in a radically individualist culture, people are free to associate as they want. If they want to meet up with like-minded individuals and form a hippie commune amongst them, that’s fine—as long as they don’t coerce others into joining, they can be as group-oriented as they want. However, systems that are at the opposite ends of the spectrum from individualism—be they communist, fascist, or what have you—the individual cannot be tolerated. The group is all that matters. If people aren't kept rigidly in line they will naturally act so as to benefit themselves and those close to them, possibly at the expense of the group effort. Individualist nations are free nations, and communitarian nations, unfree. This is a truism.

[internal update: Just ask yourself whether you'd want to live in America and be a communist, or live in North Korea and be a libertarian.]

Therefore, if David wants a mishmash of both styles of living, he paradoxically has to fully embrace radical individualism—it’s total freedom is the only philosophy that allows collectivism and individualism to coexist, based on a general principle of non-coercion.

This is why I find the racial group identity tenant of diversity to be so pernicious. It, in a sense, coerces people to be a part of a group—you can’t help if your black, but diversophiles claim that, nevertheless, you are part of a larger black group of which you share a culture and attitude. Also, they claim to speak for all blacks, despite what any individual may say. Take the “Ask A Black Man” panel. A few blacks were brought out as representative of all (despite their disingenuous aping of individualist rhetoric). Group identity is being forced on these people through government organs, via the common lure of affirmative action and the ever-present, over-inflated fear of racial discrimination.


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