Getting Beyond Individualism Vs Collectivism

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 just feel that we are “victims.”

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 Wall Street bailout) 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 conflict? 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 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 human 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 race track. 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’re perceiving 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 on its own; 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 are participating. And their decision to participate 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 which appears to have no appreciation of this collective spirit. In its place has been erected a paean to “liberty” 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, political gridlock and a steady decline in essential infrastructure and government services, and an inability to address critical issues like the steady stream of gun-related tragedies.

This isn’t working folks. 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 race track 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 at that race track, 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.

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Certain Dangers

Although it’s a basic element in modern physics, many people today have a problem with uncertainty.  Some say uncertainty is keeping businesses from moving forward; others claim there are certain Truths that stand as a bulwark against an alleged “moral relativism.”

In contrast to such paeans to certainty, The New York Times recently posted an interesting piece: “The Dangers of Certainty: A Lesson From Auschwitz.”   Drawing on lessons from an old BBC television series called “The Ascent of Man,” hosted by a Dr. Jacob Bronowski, Simon Critchley notes the distinction made in the episode “Knowledge and Certainty”:

He began the show with the words, “One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an actual picture of the material world. One achievement of physics in the 20th century has been to show that such an aim is unattainable.” For Dr. Bronowski, there was no absolute knowledge and anyone who claims it — whether a scientist, a politician or a religious believer — opens the door to tragedy. All scientific information is imperfect and we have to treat it with humility. Such, for him, was the human condition.

Critchley notes that a result of this inevitably imperfect information is that we assume a responsibility for our interpretation of that information. Knowledge isn’t based on some reality existing “out there” – it is based on our looking at the information and drawing our own – hopefully reasonable – conclusions. This personal dimension means that there is a moral aspect to knowledge:

For Dr. Bronowski, the moral consequence of knowledge is that we must never judge others on the basis of some absolute, God-like conception of certainty. All knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call “a play of tolerance,” whether in science, literature, politics or religion. As he eloquently put it, “Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”

As Critchley notes, this uncertainty is integral to our remaining both moral and human. Evil occurs when we think we have a god-like certainty that we know The Truth and others don’t:

The play of tolerance opposes the principle of monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism. When we think we have certainty, when we aspire to the knowledge of the gods, then Auschwitz can happen and can repeat itself. Arguably, it has repeated itself in the genocidal certainties of past decades.

When you consider the many evil things individuals and groups have done to other individuals and groups – or the the Earth itself – at one time or another, you will inevitably find an element of inflexible certainty in their beliefs. From the Crusades to Auschwitz to 9/11 – they all have their roots in the delusional but unshakeable certainty of their perpetrators that they were acting on the side of Good.

Such certainty can be seductive in an uncertain, chaotic world like ours. But for the sake of our sanity and our souls, we should be very wary of the purveyors of such certainties.

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Fear and Political Beliefs

Daily Kos had an article earlier this month titled “Fear is the mindkiller: Focus group peers into the Republican brain.” In it they quote from research by Democracy Corps:

Understand that the base thinks they are losing politically and losing control of the country – and their starting reaction is “worried,” “discouraged,” “scared,” and “concerned” about the direction of the country – and a little powerless to change course. They think Obama has imposed his agenda, while Republicans in DC let him get away with it.

This echoes something I discussed in depth almost two years ago. In my post “Keep the Change” I noted:

William O. Beeman, a professor of Anthropology at Brown University and author of “Fighting the Good Fight: Fundamentalism and Religious Revival,” also notes this varying response to change and talks about the responses of those who resist change:

In essence, all such movements are a natural consequence of human processes of cultural change. In every society on earth change proceeds at an uneven pace. Some society members embrace change with relish. Others find it oppressive and troubling. When people feel that change is being imposed on them, some will find it necessary to resist–sometimes violently. The dynamics of revitalization thus are tied to inter-group dynamics. When a group in society perceives itself as having its power and authority usurped in the course of social change, the group comes to blame both internal and external causes for its fall from power.

As far as internal issues are concerned, Beeman notes that decline is often associated with individual failings. “They accuse members of society of becoming weak and irresolute to the point where they let others oppress them.”  Regarding external issues, Beeman says “…the group objectifies an Other, and identifies it as an oppressor. Usually the movement advocates resistance — sometimes violent — to that oppressor.”

As with the movements Beeman discusses, the Republican base is choosing some extreme responses to the change we’ve been experiencing – like our recent government shutdown and flirtation with government default. They’re also “objectifying an Other” in their extreme negativity towards President Obama. These behaviors, and the fact that some people actually consider them reasonable, can be disturbing to those not viewing the world through that lens of fear.

It might be helpful to gain an understanding of the big picture here. I think “Keep the Change” has something to offer in that regard.

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Some people view the world in either/or terms. To them everything is either one way or another way: true or false, individual or collective, young or old, rich or poor, capitalist or socialist, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democratic, red or blue, sacred or secular, believer or nonbeliever, Christian or Moslem (or Jew), sinner or saint, evolved or intelligently designed, career-oriented or family-oriented, urban or rural, foreign or domestic, with us or against us, my team or your team, your tribe or my tribe, Mac or PC, Coke or Pepsi…the list goes on and on.

These people see the world as either Black or White.


Others take a more nuanced view of things. They argue that things are hardly ever as clearly demarcated as the Black & White Crowd claim. China and North Korea may both be communist countries, for example. But China seems much more hospitable and in tune with capitalism – to the extent that it can at times appear to have more in common with the capitalist United States than with communist North Korea.

Sometimes these folks will point to a larger whole containing both sides. As Barack Obama said in his 2004 Democratic Convention speech: “…there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America.”

These people will say they recognize that, rather than being black and white, the world is made up of Shades of Gray.


Shades of gray certainly give us a better picture of how things are. It’s much easier to see details and recognize items in this picture. But the picture is still incomplete. It rests on a mental abstraction of the world, filtering things through the mind into this shade and that.

We are accustomed to using our brains in every dealing we have in the world. In refining our thinking we can get beyond the limits of a black and white world and perceive its many different shades of gray. But that only takes us so far in perceiving and understanding our world.

Perhaps we need to step back once in a while, stop dissecting and analyzing everything, and just let the world speak to us while we listen. Maybe the world can then tell us something more about itself.

Sunrise Near Heldebergs

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Holistic Healing for Deserts – and Climate Change?

TED recently posted an excellent talk by Allan Savory, who works to promote the holistic management of grasslands around the world. In bringing land that was once desert back into productive and sustainable grasslands, his program may also offer a significant role in dealing with climate change.

His talk offers a great example of the powerful way an holistic approach might address a serious problem.

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Want to Teach Children? You Need a Little SOLE

Many people are familiar with DIY – “Do It Yourself.” There’s a whole industry focused on that, with TV shows like Ask This Old House and companies like Home Depot and Lowes.

Thanks to the Internet, it looks like we now have another kind of DIY phenomena: LIY – “Learn It Yourself.”

Actually, in this case the process is called SOLE, or Self Organizing Learning Environments. It describes a new approach to education in which children, working together on a computer connected to the Internet teach themselves…well, pretty much anything.

The New York Times has published an interview with Sugata Mitra, the man behind SOLE and the winner of the 2013 TED Prize. As the Times notes:

Dr. Mitra is best known for an experiment in which he carved a hole from his research center in Delhi into an adjacent slum, placing a freely accessible computer there for children to use.

Once they were given access to this computer, “the children quickly taught themselves basic computer skills.” According to Mitra:

We noticed that they learned how to surf within hours. It was a bit of a surprise. Long story short, they would teach themselves whatever they had to to use the computer, such was the attraction of the machine.

…But I got curious about the fact that the children were teaching themselves a smattering of English. So I started doing a whole range of experiments, and I found that if you left them alone, working in groups, they could learn almost anything once they’ve gotten used to the fact that you can research on the Internet. This was done between 2000 and 2006.

Drawing on this experience, Mitra has been working on a new approach to teaching, in which much of the work is done by the students themselves. The $1 million prize he received from TED will help him develop a learning lab to explore a new way of teaching students. This new way will require a different role for teachers:

We need teachers to do different things. The teacher has to ask the question, and tell the children what they have learned. She comes in at the two ends, a cap at the end and a starter at the beginning.

Teachers are not supposed to be repositories of information which they dish out. That is from an age when there were no other repositories of information, other than books or teachers, neither of which were portable. A lot of my big task is retraining these teachers. Now they have to watch as children learn.

This is another example of how the ready availability of information on the Internet is changing our world. In previous times teaching was a traditional Newtonian top-down, mechanical enterprise; teachers distributed information which was absorbed by the students. Mitra’s new system is basically creating an emergent form of learning, in which teachers establish the context and then let the students learn on their own.

It will be interesting to see how Dr. Mitra’s project turns out.

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No More Secrets

The 1992 movie Sneakers offered a recurring phrase: “no more secrets.” This was a key plot point in what the Internet Movie Database described as a “complex but lighthearted thriller about computers and cryptography, government and espionage, secrets and deception and betrayal.” One of the characters had acquired a decryption device capable of accessing any computer network; as a result, there would be no more secrets.

Fast forward twenty years. We now have a movie – Zero Dark Thirty – that portrays both the search for and the killing of Osama bin Laden. The mission at the time was top secret – almost everyone was kept in the dark about it until it was over.  Even now those involved with the movie are not at liberty to talk about aspects of it, including details about the CIA agent who was the inspiration for the Maya character in the movie.  As the Washington Post’s Emi Kolawole notes“There is still information that, at least for the foreseeable future, will remain hidden from view, always behind a whispering veil of secrecy.”

Nevertheless, this movie reveals a great deal about both the search and the ensuing mission to Abbottabad by SEAL Team 6. That’s pretty amazing – especially since the raid happened less than two years ago. Compare that to another CIA mission that was the subject of a recent movie, Argo. That mission, which involved smuggling US embassy staff out of Iran in 1980, was largely unknown by anyone until the movie came out thirty-some years later.

While there are doubtless a variety of reasons for the difference in the timeliness of these two stories, a key factor is how technology has changed our expectations. As Kolawole observes:

But in the age of the Internet, that whisper sounds a little different – a little louder, perhaps — than it might have sounded in the past. Today, we are used to having information available at our fingertips on just about everything…Even the former director of the CIA learned the hard way that it is all but impossible to keep anything online secret for very long.

I have written before about how the ready availability of information has changed our world. The existence of a movie like Zero Dark Thirty just reinforces that point.

But it also shows another way in which things have changed. Twenty years ago we had a movie concerning secrecy in a computerized world. But revealing secrets then was deemed to require an electronic device – a super decoder kind of black box that very few would know how to make or use.

With the Internet, many secrets today can be uncovered just by going to the movies or searching Google – or WikiLeaks. In a very real and accessible way, we now live in a world in which there often truly are no more secrets.

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