“The dividing line in the culture war is not individualism vs. collectivism but, rather, peace vs. aggression. What are you willing to do to peaceful people, if they group in ways that you dislike?”
Arguments about the collective versus the individual are a focal point in the culture war. There are those who implore us to judge each person as an individual, rather than as a member of some group, some collective. Then there are those who argue that—while they agree that every person is an individual—group disparities (be they economic or social) are a moral stain on our society. And finally, there are those who accept collectivism as a good thing, that solidarity with one’s own tribe is necessary because people are social animals, and so on. We know the talking points.
This particular battle in the culture war tends to be messy because people are talking past each other. One distinction we need to clarify is that there is a difference between being either an individual or a member of some collective, and morally judging an individual as a member of a collective. For example, a boy named Jack is objectively part of a collective known as males—this is just a fact about the world (Trees are part of the collective known as living things, planets are part of the collective known as astronomical objects, etc.). At the same time, it would be a mistake to in any way judge Jack accordingly; being a member of the class of objects called males tells us nothing of his character, desires, or any other individual trait.
Notice that in the previous example, Jack’s membership in the collective called ‘males’ was involuntary. This is another distinction that clouds the cultural battlefield. Imagine Jack decides to join a local Church. The fact that he chose to join does give us information about his values. Not much, to be sure, but knowledge of one’s voluntary associations is far more significant, morally and otherwise, than his immutable characteristics.
People voluntarily group together along all sorts of lines, some more politically correct than others. Jack might’ve joined a Church, while Jill joined a soccer team. But people also join social clubs, activist groups, and empowerment summits that are explicitly ethnically or racially themed. The list of such organizations is too long for a brief essay, but the evidence is everywhere. All of this, while not really my cup of tea, is fine. People choose to associate with others for an infinite number of reasons. Some prefer to be around those with similar tastes; others, with similar values; and others, with similar immutable characteristics. There’s nothing dangerous about this, so long as such associations are voluntary.
I should emphasize that the individual and only the individual ought to face moral reprobation for his or her own actions. Punishment of someone because of the actions of those with whom he or she shares race, blood, or nationality is the precisely the kind of collectivist thinking that we must reject.
So it’s not collectivism, per se, that’s deserving of scorn, or of fear. Whether we mean “being a member of some set of entities with a commonality” or “a voluntary association with others,” collectivism is not quite the target of our ire. If we peer a bit closer, we see that it’s not collectivism but immoral actions that may follow. Violent ethnic conflicts aren’t wrong because each side is regarding members on the other side as members of a collective (and likely labeling themselves as such, in the voluntary manner discussed earlier). They’re wrong because the groups are in violent conflict. It’s the difference between voluntary segregation and forced segregation, between religious sects each congregating at their respective sanctums and killing each other over the reigns of the State.
In fact, this fundamental dichotomy between voluntary action and involuntary action turns out to be the real driver in this cultural battle. If the fight is over judging people as individuals vs. members of collectives, then it’s implicitly about whether we ought to judge someone for characteristics over which they have no control. Here, the individualists are in the right, since it is nonsensical to hold someone account for involuntary attributes with which they were born. On the other hand, when someone voluntarily joins some group, that choice reveals a host of values and preferences about that person. By joining a local Church, Jack becomes a literal Church member and is, at least partly, defined as such.
Every individual, by voluntarily acting as he/she does in the world, has demonstrated that he/she prefers that particular lifestyle to alternatives. The parent may prefer to work at a lower station in the company hierarchy if it means spending more time at home.
In all sorts of skirmishes in this ongoing war, the same dichotomy lurks underneath, begging to be exposed as the true agitator of our arguments. Take the debate over the gender pay gap, for example. Are the individuals, both male and female, voluntarily accepting work at some particular wage rate? What if differences between group pay is the result of millions of individuals making voluntary decisions? Why, the individualist rightly asks, is that wrong? Every individual, by voluntarily acting as he/she does in the world, has demonstrated that he/she prefers that particular lifestyle to alternatives. The parent may prefer to work at a lower station in the company hierarchy if it means spending more time at home. We cannot presume that all of these individual life paths are all due, even in part, to systemic discrimination along gender lines. Such a conclusion is tempting if one is collectivizing over voluntary and individuated decisions, which are themselves only a problem to tyrants and moral busybodies.
Let people be free to associate however they like, with whomever they like. Tolerance means accepting the choices by others, even if we morally condemn them. It means letting others live free from aggression by us. The dividing line in the culture war is not individualism vs. collectivism but, rather, peace vs. aggression. What are you willing to do to peaceful people, if they group in ways that you dislike? And would such forceful action make the world more tolerant, more prosperous? No, let us never stop arguing for peace, for the harmony between diverging tastes and interests, associations and beliefs. That epic battle is deeper than individualism vs. collectivism—the fight for peace over force is the battle for civilization itself.
Logan Chipkin is a freelance writer in Philadelphia and host of the Fallible Animals podcast. His writing focuses on science, philosophy, economics, and history. Follow him on Twitter @ChipkinLogan.