Individual or collective?

man receives vaccine

by Milan Vodicka, Ph.D.

In this writing, I offer you the possibility to look in a mental mirror. Perhaps you will recognize yourself – or others – as a proverbial archetype of “me me” individuality or “us together” collective thinking and acting. Why pay attention to this? Well, individually it may lead us to support vaccination mandates or not. It may lead us to support abortion or not. The collective support will emerge from the majority of these individual decisions.

Unquestionably, individualism and collectivism affects our lives and – not to forget – lives of others. So, what are the images in the mirror? The major differences seem to be related to our subjective actions regarding the “truth.” First of the three major archetypal patterns is a person whose truth is the truth and nothing else is the truth. The second is a person believing in the universal collective truth, of reason and rationality. And the third, a post-modernistic believer “everyone has his/her truth” and so be it.

You may reflect on the first image as perhaps a fundamentalist fanatical religious devotee – or someone proclaiming “vaccines do not work” or “the presidential election was stolen.” Yes, while actually knowing nothing or next to nothing about how vaccines or elections work.

The second image may remind you of a scientist, or a believer in science. Science as a collective body of knowledge, carried on individually, yet collectively permeating the whole.

The third one invokes the “uninvolved” observer. A person who, say, does not vote “because it does not make any difference” – forgetting and ignoring that actions as well as inactions have consequences.

So, which one most closely resembles you or me, perhaps not as a whole personality, but in specific actions, regarding vaccinations, voting, abortions, and anything else?

What is really troubling about those positions is that they appear, or actually are, “at each other’s throat.” This leads to the so called “culture wars” and uncivil behavior on the public stage. The current reports about fistfights aboard airplanes, harassment of school officials at their homes, name calling and profane language among politicians (and elsewhere), or physically trashing vaccination sites are evidence of that.

Everyone who does not recognize and worship the “me-truth” is labeled something “not me,” “not us.” This is a favorite tool in the arsenal of communists and fascists, as I know them. “We,” as a collective of affiliated individuals, are in lockstep against “them” – those different from us. Welcome to the US politics of two major parties!

The underlying question regarding the “collective” and “collectivism” is, of course, “what collective?” Is it a tribal “my family, my affiliated community (of religion, nationality, or – not completely unrealistic – color of skin)?” As I alluded, a political party? Something more abstract, such as “public health” or “our collective future facing climate change?”

Imagine monkeys riding on the backs of elephants, in a herd of elephants. Assume the herd has a destination. With regard to getting to the destination, it does not matter which elephant’s back any monkey is riding, as long as the herd stays together.  The comfortable back that monkey is riding is just like a belief or ideology a person “rides.” Which back it is may make some difference, yet not a significant one – as long as the herd stays together.

The key phrase here is “as long as the herd stays together.” If the herd splits, or the elephants would fight one another, the monkeys will be carried to their own destinies accordingly. The individual destinies will be determined by the fate of the collective.

The conclusion, if there is one? The individual and social aspects of life are inseparable. One cannot and will not exist without the other. However, they can complement, “live in harmony,” together – or they can fight (as they in many cases nowadays do). Each one of us, willingly or unwillingly, participates in this.

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