Are we individuals who live and achieve things on our own, or are we members and products of a larger collective? This question – this either/or distinction between individualism and collectivism – is at the heart of the schism in today’s politics.
According to some, we are all individuals. We are responsible for our actions, pursuing our own interests, sinking or swimming on the basis of our individual merit. If we are successful and wealthy, these people say “we built that” on our own. If we are unsuccessful and poor, they say it’s because we’re lazy and foolishly “spend all our money on booze or women or movies.”
According to others, we are all members of and shaped by groups. We are products of our upbringing, blessed or limited by our environment, helped or hindered by society and its laws, succeeding or failing based on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. If we are unsuccessful and poor, these people say it’s because life presented obstacles (bad parents/poor schools/bad neighborhoods/discrimination/etc.) that we were unable to overcome. If we are successful and wealthy, they say it’s because of the help of others (family/friends/teachers/mentors/employees/etc.) as well as tax laws and government policies (like the 2008 Wall Street bailout and the 2017 Republican tax cut bill) that favor the wealthy.
Both perspectives seem reasonable. Does anyone think individual responsibility is not important? And does anyone not recognize that someone who has grown up in a stable home and neighborhood and who has attended good schools with capable and caring teachers has an advantage over someone who hasn’t?
But if both perspectives are reasonable, how do we get beyond the either/or divide at the heart of this divide? Perhaps we can find a clue in the stadium phenomena called “the wave.”
A wave is created when successive groups of people in an arena jump up and raise their hands, then quickly sit back down, creating the appearance of a wave of humanity rippling around the stands.
In late August of 2008, at the “Sharpie 500″ Sprint Cup at Bristol Motor Speedway, the pre-race festivities included an official attempt at the world’s largest human wave, with an estimated 168,000 people taking part.
Imagine you were there that evening, standing in front of the pits next to a man holding a green flag. The race is about to begin, and the tiny half-mile track is filled with the din of the sold-out crowd. You can barely hear the announcer over the PA system as he tells everyone about the planned wave. Then the starter points the green flag at the throng in front of him and sets it off.
As the multitude roars, you watch the wave start off towards the first turn. You watch as masses of people jump up and sit quickly back down, section after section around the turn. You might wonder at some point whether they will keep it up, but as you watch you see the wave come sweeping out of turn four and head to the finish line.
Now imagine that, as the wave sweeps down the home stretch and continues on for a second lap, your focus shifts to a single person in the stands in front of you. Maybe it’s a friend, or a celebrity you recognize; maybe it’s a particularly attractive stranger. In any case, focused on this particular person, you watch as they suddenly jump up and throw their arms in the air with a cheer and then quickly sit back down.
What happens next? Do you continue looking at this person – if it’s a friend do you smile and wave to them? Do you turn your focus back to watching the human wave swing around turns one and two?
More importantly, do you think about the perceptual shift you just experienced?
To understand what just happened, let’s consider an analogy from modern physics. According to quantum physics, all matter and radiation have both particle- and wave-like characteristics. Any distinction between these two properties is simply due to how they are observed.
As demonstrated by the famous double-slit experiment, an electron will reveal either its particle or wave nature based on how it is measured (observed) when it goes through either one or two slits. Simply stated, if only one slit is open an electron will act like a particle; if two slits are open it will behave like a wave.
A similar effect can be recognized in our scenario from the racetrack. As we saw, you can either watch a crowd doing the wave OR you can watch an individual participating in that wave – you can’t see both at the same time. What you see is the result of a shift in how you focus on what’s in front of you.
Realizing this offers us a way beyond the either/or conflict about individualism and collectivism. It becomes clear that this conflict is a result of fragmentary perception, in which we only see the wave going around the track or we only see individuals jumping up and down. Each of these perceptions is incomplete by itself; the event only fully makes sense when we consider both facets equally.
A wave depends on individuals deciding to take part by standing and throwing their hands up in the air and then quickly sitting back down. But these individual actions are tied to the actions of the rest of the crowd. Individuals are only likely to take part if the people in the section before theirs participate. And their decision to join in increases the likelihood that the people in the section after theirs will also take part.
Just as matter and radiation have both particle- and wave-like characteristics at the same time, any accomplishment by a group of people has both individual and collective qualities simultaneously. Any achievement an individual gains from a group endeavor is inextricably tied to the achievements of the other members of the group.
Americans have historically had a strong sense of individualism, but in the past such individualism was leavened with an awareness of a collective American spirit. Our national motto – “e pluribus unum” – proclaims “out of many, one.” Our Declaration of Independence concludes with the phrase “…we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” And at the signing of that document Benjamin Franklin famously said “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Today we have many who subscribe to an extreme form of individualism that appears to have no appreciation of this collective spirit. In its place has been erected a paean to “liberty” and “the free market” in which individuals are free to do whatever they please without regard to the effects of their actions on others and society.
And so we have individuals in business whose primary goal is maximizing their personal wealth without regard to how their actions affect those who work for them, the shareholders and customers of their companies, or the communities of which they are ostensibly a part. We have politicians who are consumed with a desire for position and influence without regard to their actual responsibilities to the voters they are supposed to represent and serve or to the public employees who carry out their policy mandates. And we have debates about issues like gun violence in which proclaimed individual rights trump any serious concern for the safety and well being of others in the community.
After decades of such extreme individualism we are dealing with its fruits, which include a growing economic disparity between the wealthy and everyone else, a steady decline in essential infrastructure and government services, and an inability to address critical issues like the endless stream of gun-related tragedies.
This is not working. It’s time for us to renounce this extreme individualism and to regain an appreciation for the leavening effect of the collective American spirit. It’s also time we moved beyond the imaginary schism between the individual and the group.
Nothing is accomplished without individual action. But success is achieved on a collective level. The wave at that racetrack wouldn’t have happened unless individuals actively participated. But the final achievement – the wave – is a collective result.
If we want to find real success – as a person, as a business, or as a country – we need to get beyond the fantasy that our individual interests are somehow distinct from our collective well-being. As we learned from that racetrack, success only comes when we see our individual talents and accomplishments blended with others to create a larger wave of human achievement.
It’s time we learn to ride that wave into a successful future.