In previous articles I have described and explained why community begins first with the individual. When individuals are empowered it will enable them to get involved and contribute through voluntary action as well as find a personal sense of belonging. Empowering individuals doesn’t favor a faction, bias, or collective interest of one group over another. It doesn’t group people and pick one side over the other. It benefits the greatest number of people in a society because we are all individuals. If we are to repair the divisions in our nation it must begin with heralding the individual above factions and extending basic respect toward one another. This can only happen at the individual level, and it begins with personal choice.
I would like to invite you to perceive society through two very different frames:
1. The Collectivist Frame.
2. The Individualist Frame.
The Collectivist Frame
The Collectivist Frame of perception takes the attributes of people in a society and groups them by those attributes. I’m using the term “attributes” as a broad description for the multitude of ways people can be collectively grouped together in a society under special interests. These special interest attributes range anywhere from physical characteristics, to economic status, beliefs, etc. The key that makes these attributes so powerful is that human beings attach their identity to them. Identity is a very powerful influence on people in a society. People will naturally begin to form micro communities and groups based on the attributes that they most identify with. It’s an instinct built into everyone to form these tribes where we relate to others and find a sense of respect and understanding under the same umbrella.
A healthy community has a diverse mix of these tribes of identity and beliefs and respects the presence of these differences. Though we may have differing views and disagreements, we owe each other the very basic expression of respect toward one another. However, the reality of tribes and groups forming isn’t an example of collectivism. Tribe formations are a normal part of every society. Collectivism occurs when society as a whole recognizes and gives these groups priority over the individuals within them.
The Collectivist Frame is the perception in a society through which humanity is collectively grouped and segmented by their interests and attributes alone. Collectivism ignores the dynamic depth and complexity of the individual and replaces it with a shallow categorical grouping and understanding of humanity. Collectivism then falsely presents that frame of perception as the model form of respect for humanity.
The Individualist Frame
The Individualist Frame of perception differs in that it doesn’t perceive society through the grouping of people by their attributes. Rather, the Individualist frame recognizes that empowering the individual is the most important foundation in society. Recognizing the individual is the highest understanding of what makes us human. We aren’t made up of merely a single attribute or belief that we can be grouped by and identified under, we are much more dynamic human beings as individuals.
So what makes up an individual?
There is no easy one answer. It’s a mix of multiple things that make you who you are – your biography, your personal experiences, your background, family, and traditions, the content of your character, your beliefs and views.
All of these are attributes and more make us who we are as individuals. Though people in society find community and belonging under the banners of interests and attributes, these things don’t wholly define the sum of who you are. The greatest virtue of a society is to recognize people by their individuality and support their rights as individuals.
Dr. Martin Luther King dreamed of the day his children were judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” This transcends collectivism. It’s a disservice to humanity for content of character to be irrelevant under the collectivist frame that only groups people by simple attributes. A society that empowers the individual enables the greatest number of people to fully realize their unique potential and talents.
The Two Frames Playing Out in Reality
These two frames of perception – Individualist and Collectivist – are most apparent in a society in two key areas: the laws of a society, and our own personal perceptions of people within society.
Under the laws, these two frames hold opposing views on which represents the best form of legal protection and justice for members of a society.
In our personal lives, these two frames define how we personally view and treat others based on which frame we choose to view people under.
The Legislative Realm
These two frames of perception often meet on the grounds of the law. The Individualist frame under the law states that people should have the very basic right to freely be who they are as long as it doesn’t impose on others. Under the Collectivist frame of the law, special interest groups seek their own gain through the plundering of other groups by using the law as their personal tool to further their agenda. It’s a zero-sum game in favor of the majority and lobbyists, and it creates division under such a model in which the victory of one group of society happens at the expense of other groups of society. Once the law begins to adopt such a favoritism it becomes corrupt.
Frederic Bastiat explained it best in his writing, “The Law”:
“The law, I say, not only turned from its proper purpose but made to follow an entirely contrary purpose! The law become the weapon of every kind of greed! Instead of checking crime, the law itself guilty of the evils it is supposed to punish!” – Bastiat
The law can never create societal peace and respect – only people can choose to do that voluntarily. Only people can respect one another. If the purpose of the law is to recognize the right for people to freely be who they are, empowering individuals is the most fundamental way to do so.
The law under its proper role is to protect the individual, and thus provide the necessary support for humanity. Collectivism divides people when it becomes a proxy battle for power under the law. Special interest groups lobby the lawmakers to have their views imposed on all other members of society. Suddenly it becomes a free-for-all battle between groups and their own interests. The chasm of division is born. The law no longer represents all individuals and protects their rights equally, instead it grants special collectivist rights and privileges to groups.
The Personal Realm
Respect, like love, is a personal expression. It cannot be written into law nor produced by social pressure. Social pressures do not produce a genuine expression of respect or love because its means is through obligation. It is up to the individual, introspectively making a conscious choice, to respect others. It won’t be accomplished through petitioning, protesting, or making demands for society to change – it starts with you and me.
It’s up to us to stop playing the divisive collectivist game. Too often our collectivist perceptions of people automatically groups others into friends or enemies rather than seeing each other as individuals. Such a frame of perception doesn’t ask others “why” they feel a certain way, or “how” they’ve arrived at those conclusions. It doesn’t even take the time to try, but rather immediately shuts the doors of dialogue. Where will communication begin if we first look to the national news media for a collectivist understanding of others, rather than one-on-one dialogue with our own neighbors in our community? Sure, we will naturally find ourselves in disagreement with others and will hold fast to our own principles. However, having respect for someone with a different opinion does not mean we have to relinquish our principles. We can make the personal choice to respect others with a different view while retaining our own beliefs.
I can speak very directly on this with conviction because I have experienced it myself. I have wrestled with my own collectivist views of others and seen the way it fosters my own judgement toward others based on that collective categorizing of them. Such a mindset doesn’t foster building community. I have also experienced how it feels to be immediately judged by my views and beliefs when people won’t take the time to know me as an individual and my content of character. I’m sure you have experienced something similar and felt the same way in your own life. We’re all guilty of this to some degree, but the important thing is we can all individually choose to see one another through the individualist frame – everyone with a unique dynamic character and biography.
You won’t truly know another person until you take them time to see them for who they uniquely are. That is why we must start by changing our perception through the frame of seeing each other as individuals, not through collectivism and categorizing. This starts with you and me, not trying to force society to change. It begins with the individual.