COMMUNAL SOLIDARITY AND INDIVIDUAL FREEDOM: ANTAGONISTS OR ALLIES?
The following was submitted for the 2020 Hubert Butler Essay Prize.
It is understandable to question the relationship of the Collective and the Individual. We live in a world where the two are in constant conflict. Globalism has connected the world in ways that would have been fictitious even at the beginning of this century. We are more likely to talk, work, and play with people in different parts of our own country than we are with our neighbours or family. Everywhere we live, every hobby we share, every school we attend, and every job we work has their own WhatsApp group, Facebook page, Reddit sub, and Zoom meetings. Yet at the same time, to the same intensity, we are involved with the idolisation of individuals.
We follow people on Twitter, Tik Tok, and Instagram. We watch hours of YouTube videos, Twitch streams, and Snapchat stories that feature little more than one person talking. We binge an actor’s entire filmography on Netflix; we create Spotify playlists solely to one performer. There are Wikipedia articles on just one person that are longer than the history of many countries. There are entire genres of books and films dedicated to showing one person having amazing sway over the world. In some they don’t have any distinguishing talent or skills, but rather are admired solely for their individualism.
What appears to be a shared societal schizophrenia, paradoxically wishing for unity and exceptionalism, is in fact the same desire, inseparable and uncategorisable from each other to the point where attempts to break this dyad inevitably lead to suffering.
The two appear diametrically opposed. In terms of self-serving narratives, they serve each other well as villains. To the community, casting itself in the role of the Utopia amidst a barren world, the individual is the chaotic force of nature threatening to tear down the edifices of tradition, unity, and security for their bemusement. To the individual, casting themselves as unimaginably gifted Demi-gods of will and prophetic destiny, the community is a restrictive, authoritarian dystopia standing in the way of expression and choice.
These narratives have historical precedence. Many communities and countries have ostracised, limited, and banished outspoken citizens, much to their detriment, securing their negative light in the annals of public perception. It was the Holocaust and the mistreatment of the Jewish people, political opponents, and academics that led Albert Einstein to flee to the United States of America, aiding their war efforts. The repressive practices of China have been brought to the world’s attention by many free thinkers like the once imprisoned artist and political activist Ai Wei Wei. A Taliban convoy pulled over a small school bus carrying young girls, shooting one in the hopes of ending the education of females, ironically catapulting Malala Yousafzai onto the world’s stage. And the British government, wishing to silence dissent in Northern Ireland, let a man die rather than concede to his request of respect and equality, only to create a martyr in Robert “Bobby” Sands.
In the same way, individuals who declare themselves as wanting nothing more than their own freedoms became infamous to the societies they disavowed and terrorised. Ted Kaczynski was a gifted Mathematician who graduated from Harvard, described by his colleagues as a genius. He was also the Unabomber, whose terrorist campaign lasted two decades. Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon would describe himself as a political activist concerned with the failure of institutions to protect young children. Stephen has gone by many names, such as Andrew McMaster, Paul Harris, and Wayne King, but he is most recognisable as Tommy Robinson, a neo-Nazi extremist who has targeted ethnic and religious minorities and has been charged on numerous cases of assault and hate crimes. Andrew Wakefield was a physician who, against what he felt was a culture of silence within the medical community, published a globally cited paper on his research. This paper is the infamously uncreditable, serially debunked, scandalously erroneous “Vaccines cause Autism” paper that led to his medical license being revoked, the circulation of harmful conspiracy theories, and over 150,000 preventable death between the years of 2015 and 2018 linked to anti-vax beliefs he helped propagate. Is it any wonder that both the Collective and the Individual has reasons to mistrust each other?
Both have seen the extremity of which they are capable of. Who can trust anyone when governments bask in disconnection, apathy, and sweeping judgements? Who can trust anyone when a single person can snuff out so many innocent lives in seconds with a knife or a gun or a car in self-righteous delusions? These extremities have names and we must learn and identify them appropriately, resisting the urge to water them down to trivial insults during belittling squabbles. They are called Tyranny and Randianism.
Tyranny we may feel we know. We may think that it is easy to define and to cast out. Ironically, that is the intoxicating allure of tyranny. It promises that it is somewhere else. It misguides us into thinking that it announces itself, that it has that level of etiquette, that it wouldn’t dare creep into us without first politely asking. In another way, tyranny has manners. It humbly presents itself as a simple solution, only wishing for a moment of your time with a modest proposal. Tyranny speaks softly of better times, of tradition, of values. It begins with comfort, of assurance that you are correct, that you know what others do not, that your place is with others like you. Tyranny is a friend you never knew you needed until you’re told, in whispers at first, “wouldn’t things be easier if…”. Wouldn’t the streets be safer if people were taken care of? Wouldn’t you pay less tax if there were fewer people that needed to be paid? Wouldn’t the world be more pleasant if people all agreed on the same thing? Wouldn’t it be nice if we were in charge?
The world has seen the rise of these modest proposals. A modest proposal on immigration and taxation led to the rise of Brexiteers and the destabilisation of one of the world’s biggest economic blocks. A modest proposal on unity and nationalism has seen emperors reinstated in China and Russia in all but name. A modest proposal on strength and security has seen the United States and Brazil turn away from knowledge and towards conmen. And like most modest proposals that sweep communities and reshape the people into grotesque gargoyles, they are not accepted in seconds but are repeated over years until they are.
What is our part in this? We are the reason tyranny rises in any inch of the world, whether material or digital. It is the unheard who are keen to listen to the unspeakable. Tragically they are often placed in this position for the preservation of the community, of the group, of the majority. Of course, the repugnant and unacceptable should rightly be left unentertained, but it is our fault if they remain in those states. It is our duty to challenge these beliefs, especially when a morsel of them sustain the community and its structures. We cannot fully eradicate racism if we are afraid of questioning the concept of citizenship and immigration. We cannot expunge homophobia and transphobia if we don’t touch on the societal views on marriage and biology. We cannot dismantle the prejudices against the poor and the unemployed if we leave those of wealth and success without suspicion.
I hold myself as someone who wishes to fight against bigotry that would lead us astray from humanity’s future. And I am in good company. But sometimes I fear those who surround me have yet to learn the difference between what is right and why it is right. “Woke culture” is a term I dislike, as it patronises and disregard the efforts and legacy of movements such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter which justifiably seeks to create a world for all. Yet I am worried. I am worried that from the swell of support movements gain they attract too the easily swayed, those who don’t fully comprehend what exactly change entails. The ills of society cannot be simplified into single afflicted colours, genders, or attractions. There are deeper levels that we must address that can’t be encapsulated by a hash tag or tweet. We must know intimately why something is wrong, not just that it is declared as such. Communities, countries, the world untied against such bigotries cannot hope to defeat them if we do not understand them. And that understanding begins with us as individuals.
Randianism is the term coined to described the idealised person in accordance with the beliefs of novelist Ayn Rand, as exemplified in her novel Atlas Shrugged which has been described by the television show “South Park” as a (quote) “piece of shit”. Randianism holds that the Individual is responsible for their own life and happiness to such an extreme that it is in the interest of society as a whole that each person acts upon their most selfish desires, with the end result being that Collectivism would be made obsolete since each person would be responsible for their own security, finances, health, and general standard of life, guided only by inner rationality. Other names for Randianism would be avarice, psychopathy, and egoism. This is very much the same mindset of tyranny, of Us versus Them, of In-Groups and Out-Groups, but on a smaller scale.
No individual can truly say that they are beholden only to themselves. Materialism by its very nature states that all that is here is here; that wealth is in a permanent state of being outside of destruction and creation. As such, value can only be transferred from one to another, even in different forms. A bag of rice that costs three euros can only be exchanged for three euros, lest the value on either end diminishes. Profit, therefore, is the inflation of the value of one part of this transfer at the devaluation of another. An individual who profits has devalued another. It is therefore logical to state that a wealthy individual who pays little in taxation to the community or wages to their employees is wealthy due to the value they rob from the community and those who work. How can such a blatant example of theft and greed go unnoticed and unchallenged within our community? The same way the larger scaled tyranny does; by modest proposals.
We all dream of ourselves as heroes. Some dreams are simple, like being the best parent or being employee-of-the-month two times in a row. Some dreams are grander, such as being gifted artists or rabble-rousing leaders. Even now as I write this, I daydream of reading this essay before a cheering audience, flooded with pride and praise. These dreams are fed to us by the mythology of the Individual we grow up with. Brave stories of courageous people, standing on the bows of history, weathering the wild seas of change and adversity. George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo, Rosa Parks. From war to art, we remember the names of individuals who stood when others kneeled. We rarely remember those who propped them up. We remember Martin Luther King and his iconic speeches, yet we have failed to remember Bayard Rustin, an organiser who helped Dr King’s words reach millions. We remember Winston Churchill’s strong, booming voice giving hope and vitriol to Europeans suffering bombing campaigns, yet few remember the drive and intellect of Alan Turing who not only cracked secret German codes but also created a precursor to the modern computer. We remember the minimalist style and showmanship of Apple founder Steve Jobs, yet we have nearly all but forgotten the coding fluency of another Steve; Steve Wozniak, whose long unacknowledged work at Apple carried on the mantel of the aforementioned Turing.
I do not bring up these individuals as substitutes but rather to demonstrate how no one legacy is without the sacrifices of many, how our dreams are only met by the larger community which supports them. Indeed, if I myself am to reach my aspirations, it is not an overly modest statement to say that it is because of my family, my partner, and my country. We as individuals hold a debt to our communities that we can only ever repay not by boasting or self-congratulatory personas, but by acknowledgement of our part in those around us and they in us.
Community solidarity and individual freedoms are not binary; they are not two battling bucks who take it in turns to win, but rather they are fluid. They breathe life into one another. They teach each other, ask more, expect better, demonstrate how things could and should be. There can be no greater good than good for all, but all must include all. There can be no freedom for any of us if it requires the subjugation of others. We must cast aside the notion that to ask for help is a failure to be alone, just as to allow expression is not a failure to govern. The question shouldn’t be answered by attributes but by application. There is no inherent good and evil in them other than what they reflect about each other.
To be part of a community is a choice that strengthens the individual and their ability to create. To be an individual is a choice that strengthens the community and their ability to nurture. To be both is a choice to be human.