Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Individualism and Collectivism and Metryingtolearnthemism

I had no siblings till the age of 9. There were no many people in my village. At least about 200 meters distance to the next nearest house from mine. Most of them in my village were farmers. There were no political parties or much influence from politics.  People didn't have much social interactions. Religious/civil ceremonies such as weddings, Hindu religious celebrations, Cultural celebrations and Friday prayers at temples were the main source of social interactions. Most of them knew most of them by name in my village. Brought up as a single child till my age of 9 with ample nurturing from my parents, aunties, uncle and the isolated environment I spent my childhood shaped my character and somewhat make me a person who likes exclusivity and solitude.

The nineteen nineties were the peak time of civil war; my village was under the control of LTTE. People didn't have the luxury to watch TV nor had telephones, therefore no influence from the world outside.  School, home and sometimes playing cricket or football were the only things in life. On the positive side, no much people to influence my thoughts. I spend most of my times at home - claiming in the trees and picking mangos😛, disassembling and assembling my bicycle, decorating my bicycle with LED lights, playing with electrical gadgets, riding my motorbike, changing the carburettor settings and trying new things on my motorbike, doing mechanic works on my custom made 'water pump + generator' thing and playing in the tractor.  I didn't need a license or Helmet to ride my bike in my village when LTTE ruled the area.

I feel very fortunate to have had the independence of a sort and the ample time I had, to sit alone most of the time and wonder about things on my own. This freedom and the isolation had a profound effort on my character.  At the time, I didn't understand or develop any ideas on how to live and work with other people in harmony, how groups work, tolerance, the expectations of society, sacrifices to be made for others for a greater good for everyone, how my actions affect other people and what is expected from me by the society.
Individualism or perceived separation from society is as absurd as a suicide.
― Leo Tolstoy
I wanted to wear what is comfortable not what is convention, whether to a wedding or funeral or to temple. I didn't see any point in wearing something not comfortable to a wedding just because it's what accepted by society. I had no clue as to how my choices affect other people because I did not grow up interacting with many people in the society nor exposed to social issues.
Individualism and Collectivism and Me trying to learn them
Harmony - Photograph @ Watford, UK. 2009 © JEYARAMJ.COM

When my family move to Colombo, I was forced to deal with many issues I had no knowledge of handling.  Mainly because I didn't understand why people do what they do. The expectation in our collectivist society is that when everyone says yes, you say yes. Initially, the issue of having to say yes when the group say yes tormented me. I could remember many situations I couldn't stand being a part of a group; in the school; in tuitions. Frustration, angry, disappointment and sadness were the emotions as a result of not being able to adapt to a place where collectivism runs. Sri Lanka is mostly a collectivist country, not much of an individualist country. This struggle continued about half a decade. To learn the realities and familiarize myself with social and cultural practices, and to make some friends, only I know how much I had to suffer and sacrifice.

On the bright side, pursuing to know new things and trying understand social stigmas gave me difference experience about things and people. In this regard, there is a range of metaphysical (the branch of philosophy that talks about the principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, identity, time, and space.) subjects caught my attention.  I started finding information on anything relating to the issues I found difficult to deal with; starting with interpersonal skill development to psychology and social norms. Only in my early twenties, I started to understand that how other people think of me affects me a great deal, positively or negatively.

From a range of interesting topics in metaphysics, I thought of typing (not writing:) ) post on individualism and collectivism from the tiny bit l learnt and from the book I read nowadays. Baboon Metaphysics by Dorothy L. Cheney & Robert M. Seyfarth is one of the most interesting books I could suggest you read which talks about Human life and how it is conducted within a network of social relations, social groups, and societies.

Now., Individualism is the idea that the individual’s life belongs to him and that he has an inalienable right to live it as he sees fit, to act on his own judgement, to keep and use the product of his effort, and to pursue the values of his choosing. Collectivism is the idea that the individual’s life belongs not to him but to the group or society of which he is merely a part, that he has no rights, and that he must sacrifice his values and goals for the group’s “greater good.” According to collectivism, the group or society is the basic unit of moral concern, and the individual is of value only insofar as he serves the group.  ( , Accessed 4th Oct 2014)

Yet there are still people who confuse individualism and selfishness.
― Albert Camus

In our society, in Sri Lanka, or in the world, I have no rights except those which society permits me to enjoy. From the day we were born till the day we die the society permits us to enjoy certain things so-called rights and deprives the others. We don't have a choice but to obey these as we all have to live sharing this one earth. I do not have a problem with the fact that there are rules or we can't do certain things for a greater good of the community. I could very well understand that it's almost impossible to live without rules. But the conceptual deference between individualism and collectivism is not about whether to have rules or not, it's about how well we could act on our own or question authorities.
Individualism and Collectivism and Me trying to learn them
Harmony - Photograph @ Gampaha, LK. 2012 © JEYARAMJ.COM

Every single day we are controlled, monitored, judged, manipulated and punished or awarded by authorities, leaders, governments and corporations.  From the day we are born, we are brain washed to act in a certain way. This type of conditioning allows many of us to limit ourselves and kept in dark that we have to go through very negative things that otherwise we wouldn't go through. What am I talking about now? Let me try to list some of the things I find irritating because of the group pressure or because there is a tiny bit of collectivist social behaviours or some other social conventions.

  1. In one of the projects I was working for we had a new manager. On the first day, he had a meeting with us and told "I want to talk to those engineers who say I can't test reasoning that it's QA job. I want to talk to those who say I can't do managerial work because it's managers Job. I don't like to keep people in my project those who are not willing to work with others and share the workload… ". Most of our team members who were refusing to do any managerial jobs or testing jobs were quiet and ever since we had the meeting, we had to do few managerial things.  If he had told me this in person, I would have definitely given him an explanation saying why it's not a good idea. None of us told anything objecting our new manager because, I believe, it's the bystander apathy psychologist talk about.  Sometime I have had wished that I had told the manager that we can't, when I had urgent development works to do and also had to do some of the managerial tasks we willingly undertook. This might not be an ideal example, yet the point is that sometime we willingly respect the authority and allow them to control us as a group we wouldn't do that as an individual.  Collectivist cultural background contributes to this kind of group behaviours, I believe. Collectivists believe that prioritizing group benefit over individual benefit creates harmony and betterment. Individualists believe that they are responsible for their own actions not the group, so prioritizing own benefit over group benefit is more appropriate.
  2. One of my school friends got married last April and our class mates were invited. I noted on my phone the date and location and forgot about the wedding till the notification pop-up on my phone. I requested a short leave from work, bought a gift and went to the wedding with the clothing I normally wear to work. I didn’t think even a little about what other people would dress or how I would be looked-at in the wedding. Every one of my class mates were wearing suits and were in one place as a group. They looked at me weird and asked me “what are you wearing?”. One of my friends told me that he called the others and found out that they will all wear suit. It was crazy for me to understand they had called everyone to know what they are going to wear for the wedding. The fact that they all were in the suit and I was in a denim and shirt made them feel uncomfortable to keep me in the group. It’s really surprising for me to understand how clothing could make people feel connected and how one person could become a stranger wearing different dress.  In this there is a dissonance between those who feel majority wearing the same and the one or two don't wear what the majority wears. I believe this is also might be because of the expectation from a member of a group should adhere to the group's values and practices.
  3. At work, whenever we have a meeting or any announcement from the management, most of our team members will be invited and at the end the discussion the person who holds the meeting or make an announcement will ask from us as to whether we have any questions.  Only a few of them ask some questions and others don't ask even if they had any question. It's definitely a cultural/racial thing I find among Sri Lankans, at least in the people I work with. Whenever I ask questions in the meetings or forums, I have my team mates coming and trying to comment negatively condemning that I ask the question or how stupid the question was or they knew how the management would answer backing the company. The fact that one person asks questions differentiate the person form the rest of them don't ask any questions.  There might be different reasons why this behaviour among our team members, but for a small degree that they don't like to ask question because the group doesn't encourage asking questions.
People in the collectivist countries tend to prioritize the group goals over individual ones. While this increases the harmony and connections between people, it is failing to question authorities and failing to look at the alternative views. This leads to a situation where fewer opportunities for constructive criticism and alternative ideas. This could be one of the reasons why we see fewer innovations in collectivist Asian countries than in the individualist western countries. This collectivist culture essentially ends up diminishing creativity and innovation, in my opinion. People should be allowed to question authorities, criticize, act on their own judgments, enjoy the fruits of their own labour without sacrificing the whole for the group and go outside the boundaries to invent new things. 

“The word "We" is as lime poured over men, which sets and hardens to stone, and crushes all beneath it, and that which is white and that which is black are lost equally in the grey of it. It is the word by which the depraved steal the virtue of the good, by which the weak steal the might of the strong, by which the fools steal the wisdom of the sages.
What is my joy if all hands, even the unclean, can reach into it? What is my wisdom, if even the fools can dictate to me? What is my freedom, if all creatures, even the botched and impotent, are my masters? What is my life, if I am but to bow, to agree and to obey?
But I am done with this creed of corruption.
I am done with the monster of "We," the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame.
And now I see the face of God, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride.
This god, this one word:
― Ayn Rand, Anthem