Individualism: the Reappearing Ideal, part 3: Collectivism causes war

“God and Country are an unbeatable team: they break all records for oppression and bloodshed.” – Luis Bunuel

Pride, group centeredness and hero worship are symptoms of collectivism. They make us think of our group as superior and other groups as inferior. We could think of other groups as simply tools for our betterment, which leads to colonialism, or as being in our way, which ends in genocide. And if you think “no, not my group”, you are wrong. Your group has done it too and is just as capable as any other to do it again. Collectivism kills. Let us start with the antiquated notion of responsibility.

Finding the killers

Are soldiers murderers? If not, then who is a murderer? Most people who kill anything think that they are doing good. What makes soldiers different? If soldiers were more widely considered killers, fewer of them would go to war. Unfortunately, their benefits as veterans would be worse.

However, I must conclude that no, soldiers are not the same as murderers. To avoid entering into a comparative analysis, I will simply say that, when everyone around you tells you you are fighting for the greater good, it is distinct from the malicious intent to kill. Soldiers who violate laws of war must be punished, and most importantly, they must be told they will be punished. As important as holding soldiers accountable, their commanders must encourage the best behaviour and set the example. When no one holds anyone accountable, we get Abu Ghraib.

Leaders are almost entirely responsible for the creation of war. Because the leaders legitimise all the killing soldiers do, as the ones who invent the causes we are fighting for, conscript citizens against their will, promise men public adulation for their heroism, fabricate evidence that the enemy is evil, and jail or kill soldiers for deserting, they bear responsibility.

And yet, we could not have war without collectivism. If we questioned what our leaders told us and sought out the truth, and if we evaluated the right or wrong of war in terms of its effects on individuals instead of collectives, no one would initiate war. No one would want to invade other people’s lands and kill them in the name of the flag.

People in all countries continue to consume patriotism as if it were opium, except that they believe patriotism makes them virtuous. Patriotism among thinking people can lead to peace, as when one calculates that his or her country would be better off if it did not go to war. But these people are few and far between.

That is why I do not recognise any difference between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is simply a euphemism for nationalism (and for which “tribalism” is a cacophemism). With the right pulling of the strings, today’s patriot is tomorrow’s militant nationalist. And both of them are just a short leap away from militarism.

Nationalists will usually declare themselves willing to shed blood, including that of their compatriots, to keep their country intact. Separatism is anathema to patriotism because, as we know from part 2, nationalist and some religious fervour comes from ties to the land. This is our land and we will kill anyone who tries to separate it.

The violence of conformity

But land is just one part of the big picture. Conformity is a big part of dangerous collectivism. Individualism does not require or expect conformity, because individualists recognise that, not only are we all different, but that being different is good. When we are encouraged to have different opinions, through reading widely and learning to question what we read, talking to all kinds of people from different cultures and experiences, going to different places and living different lives, we learn to be different and to thrive on it. Individualists are different from each other.

Collectivists, on the other hand, value conformity. Conformity requires destroying individuality and diversity. And it is so widespread because collectivism is self replicating, expecting everyone to conform. It is far easier for a government to pass collectivist legislation than to take measures toward individualism. Witness the Republican Party’s attempt to criminalise flag burning. Any politician or party putting forward a bill like this looks like a solid patriot, whereas anyone voting against it must hate his country. Individualism is harder to spread because it cannot be forced on anyone.

So how does conformity lead to war? Conformity is rarely called conformity. It takes on names such as “unity”, “love” (eg. of one’s country or of god), “patriotism”, “loyalty” and so on. “Support the troops” means support the war. The war is conflated with the country to drum up support. If you love your country, you must support the war. They are baiting you to demonstrate your patriotism.

“Solidarity” is a particularly suspect term. Solidarity means, simply, join us, the winning side, or you are our enemy. Is there any word more dangerous to the individual? Solidarity is easily found in families (not all, of course), so leaders try to recreate the family on whichever scale meets their goals (eg. all of China, Sunni Islam) through words like brotherhood or brethren or motherland among everyone they want in the group. According to psychologist Steven Pinker, experiments show that “people are more convinced by a political speech if the speaker appeals to their hearts and minds with kinship metaphors.” (Pinker, 247) Emotive words have led us to the point where those in power can manipulate us with a tug of the strings.

Which strings, and when? The most dangerous form of collectivism is nationalism, and the most dangerous symptom of collectivism is war. Some of the rhetoric of the power hungry appeals to our innate sense of dignity and desire for recognition: the supreme sacrifice; hero/martyr/glorious dead who died for his country; honour, duty, self sacrifice, loyalty—who says these are good things?

Eliminating the middle

So we become sheep. There are only two flocks allowed: us and them. If we were encouraged, or even just allowed, to think for ourselves, we would appear on all points of the spectrum. Some people would follow blindly, some people would dissent blindly; some would support the war with reservations, others would disagree with reservations; some would never make their minds up and others would not even know there was a war on. And if they were individualists, they would be against all violence in the name of their group against another group. But in the land of collectivism, there is no room for people in the middle, and there is no room for anti violence.

Why do you think Hizbollah, Chinese Uighur separatists, al Qaeda and the Tamil Tigers attack targets with militaries that far outweigh them? Because if they can provoke the enemy into overreaction, they can eliminate the opinions of the moderates. They can hold up dead people and say, this is all because of them, when of course the terrorists are the provocateurs. And if any moderates remain, the terrorist groups kill them, especially if they are from the same group.

So now we have polarised morality. You are either with us or against us. There is no more middle. Leaders justify war in the name of some of the following: security, freedom, peace, culture, monarchy, country, god. What if the soldiers did not believe in the vague ideas they were fighting for? There would be no war.

When coupled with media that creates perceived external threats, these words legitimise military spending in the trillions. Military spending is good for politicians, who win support from the military, and get to present themselves as tough. How someone who gets someone else to fight for him is tough, I do not know. Perhaps we imagine that, when a hundred thousand troops swarm into Iraq, George Bush is at the head of them. And of course, people who are against military spending are shouted down as cowardly or unpatriotic.

Does my claim that all war would be eliminated by eliminating collectivism seem sweeping? The fact is, it is the only necessary condition for war. Everything else is secondary. If we get into a fistfight it is personal. If we pick up a gun to defend “our country” or culture or religion or whatever, it is because we feel undying, unquestionable loyalty to our associations. People with absolute opinions that do not question their values and never compromise are the ones who fight wars, commit suicide bombings and perpetuate all racism. Group thinking is at the root of all group on group violence. The result of a football match was the trigger and ostensible cause of a war that broke out between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969. 4000 were killed and 100,000 displaced. Collectivist belief anywhere can spill over to anywhere else.

The elusive “just war”

Whenever we are told we should support war, it is almost always framed somehow in terms of World War Two. Imagine, say the war’s apologists, if we had not intervened to stop Hitler: the Third Reich would dominate the earth, the world would be totalitarian and everyone would be dead.

Leaving aside this dubious historiography, these people are appealing to the “fallen heroes” clause in your social contract. “Our forefathers”, goes the line, “fought and died for this country. Therefore, we must do the same”; or at least, we must do everything we can to honour them. Why do you want to do what our forefathers did? (Is it an insult to question this dogma?) What if your forefathers had owned slaves? Should you honour their memory?

No, what invoking the fallen heroes clause means is that we should consider all the things these people went to war for virtuous. Yet, let us examine what we already know.

  1. Wars are almost always started by elites. Sometimes they simply use nationalism to appeal for our support but, increasingly, they make war out to be just. The just war, the good war, that is why we fight.
  2. Just wars do not always live up to their purposes. When we are trying to stop “evil”, we kill, torture, rape and so on. War is hell, and it turns most of its participants into demons. Our history books do not preserve our forefathers as truthfully as they could.
  3. The elites use the outcome of the war to raise collective sentiment. If we lost, it is because they fought dirty. If we won, it is because we are the best.
  4. Elites approve the history books, and rarely let ones that tell the whole story through. We cannot have our children learning the truth. They must learn to serve their country, not to question it.
  5. We grow up believing the version of history that makes our group look superior and provides rationale for any further just wars. We fought World War Two to stop evil; we went to Vietnam and Iraq (and wherever else) to free those people; the Six Days War was proof that we are god’s chosen people; our wars of unification were justified because we are a happy country now; the wars to spread our religion were justified because we were doing god’s will; our colonial wars were right because those people are better off now; and so on as you turn the pages of your textbooks.

Collectivism turns a group’s intentions into the just war. All our wars, in fact, are just wars. It turns our enemies’ perceived aggressions into unjustifiable, unforgivable evil. The whole idea of “evil” would not even exist (outside the minds of the criminally insane) if not for the othering of the enemy.

Psychologists have continually shown how, under the right conditions, those of admirable morals can turn evil. Under the supervision of an authority figure, or under the right “othering” of the other, normal people will turn “evil”. The Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment are the best known examples. And wartime is no exception. The accepted idea that most soldiers do not fire their guns during a battle is highly dubious. (Pinker, 321) We all run the risk of falling into the trap of shooting first to avoid being shot. Even though I do not want to kill you, I might do so to avoid your shooting me. And we realise that there is safety in numbers, so if we have the chance, we will retreat into our group. But as collectivist thinkers,

there is also danger in numbers, because neighbors may fear they are becoming outnumbered and form alliances in their turn to contain the growing menace. Since one man’s containment is another man’s encirclement, this can send the spiral of danger upward. Human sociality is the original “entangling alliance,” in which two parties with no prior animus can find themselves at war when the ally of one attacks the ally of the other. It is the reason I discuss homicide and war in a single chapter. In a species whose members form bonds of loyalty, the first can easily turn into the second.” (Pinker, 322-3)

The wars that spurred the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s are excellent examples of these acts at work. The state was crumbling, both as a source of security and a source of identity.

The answer, I think, is to open people’s minds to new ideas. One thing I love about the new media like Facebook is the way people’s “identities”, in the traditional sense of loyalty to country and religion, are diluted. People are joining different groups and having new conversations and loyalties are divided among more and more groups. They are beginning to realise that they belong to other groups than their countries and so on, and that they have things in common with people their parents may have hated.

Education should lead to critical thinking so that we can question the lies in the history books we read. We should learn more languages and cultures so we can learn from a young age to communicate with people who think differently. We should be instilled with a feeling of curiosity about the world, and a love for the whole world that goes beyond just a love for our parochial groups. And we should treat ourselves and each other as individuals, not as members of homogeneous groups.

In the US, people still mourn the Sept 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. If your relative was killed, I understand and I sympathise. If not, why would we care? What do those people have to do with us? Nothing. They just inhabit a country that we, coincidentally, share. Those who called themselves the enemies of the United States were glad they had hurt the country. They did not hurt the country: they killed 3000 innocent people. You cannot hurt a country because a country is not alive or feeling. A country or nation is just an idea.

Likewise, during the Sichuan earthquake, everyone in China was broken up about the deaths of tens of thousands of people they had no real connection to: people they had never and would never meet, people with whom they only thing they had in common was the label “Chinese”. While Chinese people were congratulating themselves for their handling of the Sichuan earthquake (which, if the state controlled press is to be believed, was admirable), there was a cyclone in Myanmar, right next door to Sichuan, that killed roughly the same number of people. Did Chinese people send money and sympathy and aid workers and celebrities for the people? No. Nothing.

Expanding the circle

Peter Singer describes our moral sense as an expanding circle. He says that, from initially caring only about our family or tribe, we have come, over time, to think of ourselves as members of a larger family, be that a nation or what have you. We choose—in fact, go out of our way—to sympathise with people inside our circle, and treat those outside our circle as worthless. Life is precious inside the circle; outside, it is cheap.

Collectivism limits us to our circle. It traps us inside the circle chosen for us. This kind of selfish regard for one’s own side reduces our ability to understand and care about others. The same thinking prevents us from understanding those outside our circle and leads us away from interest in them. We do not try to learn from others because we assume there is nothing we can learn. We do not care about them because they are less important than we are. My group has problems that should come before theirs.

What I suggest is to expand one’s own circle to include everyone in the world. Questions should not be, how does this action or policy affect my group, but how does it affect everyone? If it is good for everyone, it is a good policy. (Incidentally, Peter Singer has extended his circle to animals and is a major animal rights activist.)

The problem of moderates

Most of the educated people I have met would say “I agree that extreme collectivism causes problems, but so does individualism. The best mix is somewhere in the middle. I am loyal to my country, my religion, my clubs, and I retain some individualist tendencies as well.” I would like to take apart this straw man by showing its logical and moral flaws.

The first problem I have with this argument is the widespread logical fallacy that moderation is always correct and extremes, by extension, are incorrect. Let me put it this way. “I think that rape is mostly bad, but I would not want to eliminate rape. The best mix is somewhere in the middle.” The “moderates” on the subject of rape may find themselves in the minority. I do not consider collectivist-legitimised violence any more moral than rape.

Second, individualism causes problems? Such as? This is an assumption of anyone who considers themselves collectivists: I think my way is right, so other ways must be wrong. I will address objections to individualism in the next post in this series.

Third, the real problem with moderate collectivists is that their existence legitimises the extremists. In a war, for instance, extreme collectivists are the ones pushing for escalation, while the individualists call for peace. The moderates might say they are generally against war, but this one is good for my country, or it is in the name of my god, so it is a good war. They might say, well, I don’t really like war, but if my country is in a war I want it to win. They may tolerate extremism in their peers instead of speaking out against it, possibly because their principles are less clear on the subject.

Moderate Sri Lankan Tamils, for instance, will almost all say they support the goals of the Tigers of Tamil Eelam, but on the moral questions about their methods, their praise is reserved. Because they feel an ethnic bond with the Tigers, they will not condemn outright the suicide bombings [what else have they done? Military campaign, kidnapping?] and targeting of civilian Sri Lankans. Moreover, without the blindness brought on by “my group, right or wrong”, they would be able to see that the Tigers are largely responsible for the repression and violence wrought on Eelam by the Sinhalese controlled state to other Tamils. If there were no moderates, the extremists would be aberrants, criminals, outcasts and psychopaths.

There are certain things that simply would not happen if not for collectivism.

-War. There would be no tribal goals worth killing and dying for.

-Genocide. No one would ever want to wipe out an ethnic group.

-Terrorism. You would not kill members of a group in order to influence the group as a whole. Suicide bombing and kamikaze killing would be unlikely as well, as killing oneself is not highly prized by critically thinking individualists.

-Racism. We are individual humans, not members of races, and we deserve evaluating as such. Individualists realise this.

-Religious persecution. No one would try to make you think the way they do, because everyone would be entitled and expected to think differently. The same goes for Khmer Rouge style social experiments.

-Feuds over history. Serbs and Croats would not quote numbers of how many of their people were killed by the fascist other side in World War Two. Armenians would cease to be angry about the Armenian genocide, since it happened 90 years ago, and Turks would no longer try to deny it out of obligation of being Turkish.

-Calls for sacrifice. This is not to say that there will be no sacrifice—far from it. We will still give to charity because we feel empathy and act accordingly. We will still give to friends, family and people in need. We will not, however give only to those in our groups but to anyone who needs it. We will not be cajoled or forced to sacrifice in the name of some purpose higher than ourselves. If you think there should be more sacrifice, feel free to lead the way.

-Suppression of freedom of expression. No more book burning, no more book banning, no more bounties on the heads of people who write fictional tales about religions.

-Female genital mutilation. As I said, I am a cultural relativist, and as such do not blame those who commit this act for what they do. All cultures evolve and if cultures were individuals they would all have guilty consciences. Nonetheless, anyone observing from the outside (the World Health Organisation, for instance) can see that female genital mutilation is, on the whole, dangerous for anyone who undergoes it. The reason it would not happen in an individualist society is that you would be given the choice. There would be no pressure to submit to a coming of age ritual that is performed largely because it always has been performed. Traditions would be kept if they make sense on a rational individual level and discarded if individuals dissented. (link to traditions post)

And if you disagree, find me someone who has committed any of the above who was an individualist and I will stand corrected.

Before ending this post, please remember that there is a difference between an individualist who commits crimes and committing crimes in the name of individualism. Individuals have been murdered by people who were (or who thought they were) protecting their rights as individuals; the number of those killed, repressed or discriminated against in the name of a group is too large to print.

Pinker, Steven: the Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature.

Posted in Philosophy. Tags: , , . 1 Comment »

One Response to “Individualism: the Reappearing Ideal, part 3: Collectivism causes war”

  1. The implications of human nature for conflict analysis and resolution « The Menso Guide to War, Conflict and World Issues Says:

    [...] is nationality. Zealots engage in holy wars because followers of their gods are threatened. See this post for more on collectivism and [...]


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