What Is The Effect Of Asking Americans To Think About The Greater Good?

NPR:

Okay. So is it a problem that the president is saying those two things at once?

It might be, Steve, because we actually have many examples of what happens when politicians make appeals to individual rights versus when they make appeals to the greater good. This isn’t a left or right thing, by the way. Obviously, on the case of guns, conservatives are much more likely than liberals to espouse the cause of individual rights. But when you think about gay marriage or abortion, it’s liberals who are arguing in those situations that individual choice ought to matter more than the views of communities.

Now, the reason all of this is of interest to social scientists is that we’ve known for a very long time that Americans have this very strong streak of independence. I spoke with MarYam Hamedani. She’s a researcher at Stanford University. Here’s how she put it to me.

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I suspect the “problem” lies in a sociological classification of societies that is in common usage. It is that of the Individualist vs Collectivist Cultures.

For a good definition of the differences, I usually refer to this: http://psychology.wikia.com/wiki/Collectivist_and_individualist_cultures

In individualist cultures, political outlook is riveted upon one’s personal benefit (or “profit”, if you like). Iow, what’s in it for me? Or, “How does it effect me, and the collective be damned – because I don’t really care”.

For as long as one’s notion of self remains fixed upon oneself, the social context within which s/he works/lives/plays is purely secondary. In collectivist cultures, the opposite is the rule. The social context dictates one’s notion of self within an heterogeneous context thus subjugating one’s individual context.

Or more simply: Individualist cultures believe that what is best for the individual is, ipso facto, best for everyone. Collectivist cultures are guided by the tenet that what is best for the collective is best for each of its members.

In the US, we have given a name to this Individualist Notion, which we call the Pioneer Spirit. Which is nice as a notion, but as an historical fact is biased. Our pioneers did assume the dangerous risk of setting out from established colonies (collectives) to establish other such colonies as the country pursued its Manifest Destiny toward the Pacific Ocean.

Yes, it was a great personal risk. But, they undertook this pursuit “collectively”. Since time immemorial, humans have banded together for purposes – first and foremost – of mutual survival. Once the bottom levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is satisfied by a collective (namely, our communal market-economy), then they progress upwards to higher level of needs/desires.

To this day, I maintain, the tussle between Individualistic and Collective notions has been transformed and personified in democracies by the cleavage between Left and Right political parties. Furthermore, the distance between opposites is gradually reducing and far more of any given electorate trends towards the middle of both extremes. The ability of the middle to switch directions – between Left and Right – is more and more an aspect of modern democracies.

Thus blurring the lines between Individualism and Collectivism.

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