Individualism: the Reappearing Ideal, part 4: Objections

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” – Oscar Wilde

Let us examine some remaining objections to individualism.

“Not everyone wants to be an individual.”

It is likely that people feel that they are purely a member of their group and not an individual in our sense of the word because the person’s culture considers such sentiments virtuous.

But it sounds as though this objection is meant to give the individual a choice as to how to live. This is precisely why individualism is the answer: people’s prerogatives on their lives should be respected. What individualists object to is being forced from birth to belong and conform, taught that this is the only option and the right way for everyone to live; the inability to break one’s bonds to the collective, either in one’s own mind, the eyes of the community or the eyes of others; and to the supremacy of the group at the cost of treating the individual as a mere tool.

“Individualism weakens social ties and discourages contact among groups.”

Individualism does not weaken social links. In my experience, individualists are far more empathic than collectivists. If you do anything that harms the group, including acting differently, thinking for yourself or leaving it, you will be in trouble. Individualists, on the other hand, understand that you could be different and they accept it.

Card carrying members of groups, however, are selfish. Of course, they display selfless behaviour to other members of their group; but this apparent altruism is really a mask for selfishness. The only difference between individualist selfishness and selfishness on behalf of your group is that the concept of the self extends beyond the first person to the whole group. You are still selfish because you want more for your group to the detriment, if need be, of outsiders. This is true of politicians, who want more for their constituencies, parents and their families, trade unionists, community leaders, soldiers, and so on. Collectivists are selfish. We are all selfish.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that collectivists are more selfish. Imagine (as if it never happened) that somewhere Muslims were torturing and killing Christians and Jews (and Hindus and atheists and homosexuals and correligionists of different sects), just for being what they have always been. Collectivist Christians and Jews would speak out against the injustice in defence of their groups. (You probably know that al Qaeda in Iraq lost popularity when it targeted other Muslims for killing. Presumably, killing non Muslims would have been fine.) An individualist would speak out against the injustice of persecuting anyone for their beliefs or ways of life. For an individualist, the feeling of being human overrides our shallow tribalism.

Moreover, individualism is the best way to create links among groups. If you consider yourself a member of your ethnic group (ie. you are an ethnic collectivist), then you will only reach out to another self identified group if you think you have the permission of your group to do so. You have to wait until your leaders have contacted and made peace with outsiders before you are allowed to do the same. But if you see yourself as an individual and everyone else likewise, it doesn’t matter what your group thinks, and it doesn’t matter what group anyone else belongs to because you will evaluate those people as individuals, not as members of groups.

Both selfishness and altruism are wired into our brains from a long time ago. Evolutionary psychology has shown that, long before formal religion and nation states, humans were selfish and selfless when each made sense. As a result, people in collectivist leaning societies will do selfish things and ideology is unlikely to eliminate that.

“Individualism leads to moral breakdown and more crime.”

Now we are criminal psychologists. Places such as Britain and the United States are said to be falling apart (a dog whistle word for rising crime rates) because of individualism. But a look at statistics shows that crime and violence rates have risen in tandem with multiculturalism and ethnic grouping (and peaked more than a decade ago). When England was more individualistic, it was more peaceful. Now it is riddled with ethnic and religious groups fighting each other for a piece of the pie.

We should look harder for the roots of delinquent behaviour. Researchers suggest it has little or no relation to the society’s place on the individual-collective continuum. Instead, anti social behaviour seems to be more closely related to education and income levels. A lower class parent is more likely to rely on physical punishment to discipline aggression and defiance, which models the very behaviour it attempts to suppress. They also live stressful lives that leave them little time to spend monitoring their children’s activities and choice of friends. So, while the individual should always take responsibility for him or herself, children from poor families are far more likely to run to crime than their more wealthy contemporaries. But this has nothing to do with individualism.

“Responsibility to the community is what holds back our worst behaviour.”

This is the argument that, without loyalty to a community or nation or religion, our morals would fly out the window. We would wind up robbing stores, raping women and killing each other just for fun because we do not care what others think. Or at the very least, it would be like in the Simpsons when everyone embraced their individuality and spit off the overpass on cars passing below.

There is something of a “blank slate” argument at work here. The idea is that the community or other entity is the only shaper of our behaviour and human nature could not restrain our actions. The truth is, it can. We have a selfish side AND a selfless side; we have a side that is concerned with fun AND a side concerned with reputation; we have a side that wants to escape from the community AND a side that wants to be a part of it. Our brain is nothing if not complex. We do not simply lose all allegiance to other people when we decide that we do not owe them anything unconditionally. We do not attack people because we think of ourselves as an end and not a means. But communitarian ideas like duty and honour could lead us to attack other groups.

Our worst behaviour comes not when we act alone but when we have the backing of the community. It is only the legitimacy we get from our group’s agreement and cooperation that can make us think we are right to go to war. Individualist violence kills a few; collectivist violence can destroy everything.

“It is not collectivism that is bad: certain groups are bad.”

This is the Balkan argument. Our group is virtuous, brave, just, and whatever other compliment one can use to stroke oneself; their group is foul and irrational and fanatical and lying and cheating and… well, I’m sure I can think of more. This thinking lays the foundation for racism. I hate to inform you, people who believe in bad groups, but YOUR group is bad too. No group is above reproach, not for its history, its present state or its potential for evil. And no group has got it all right, whatever its leaders have told you.

As the people most likely to think this way are the ones least likely to know the people they are talking about, the cure for this thinking is living among other groups of people. You will see that groups are not evil but misguided, and their members do not conform to all your stereotypes and might be very well intentioned.

Are some groups worse than others? What would a typical nationalist consider their group better than others for? I am proud that we have such a glorious history. Shouldn’t we be questioning all our history books? It is better because it is so beautiful. I have never been to a country that was not beautiful. Our culture is more virtuous than others’. Nonsense. All cultures naturally justify themselves. If you spend long enough anywhere you will know how to see things from the points of view of members of the group, and you realise how everything makes sense.

“Collectivism is human nature.”

The idea that, just because something is natural, it is necessarily better is wrong. Likewise, we seem to have the idea that what is right is what is natural. Some psychologists have suggested that rape is human nature as well. Should we take it up as a sport?

Besides, I am not convinced that collectivism in its modern form is natural. As I said earlier, it is quite possible that at a level of a hundred and fifty or fewer people, collectivism is the norm. Altruism toward others in our ethnic group probably evolved to help replicate shared genes. There is much evidence for this claim: to look at history, we see endless examples on all levels of dividing ourselves into in groups and out groups, with sympathy towards one’s own side and ruthlessness towards the enemy. But what is natural about affiliation with correligionists, fellow nationals and so on, whom we will never meet? If we are not genetically related, or so distantly so as to be effectively unrelated, what demands our loyalty?

Humans brains afford countless possibilities. We have instincts of tribalism and violence and evil, and we have instincts of giving, caring, sharing, reason and sympathy. Saying that collectivism is human nature means relinquishing our other, equally real, equally natural capabilities to counteract that side of our nature. If you are doing everything you think your nature tells you, you are giving up part of your brain. To evaluate the sides of your nature and choose wisely is freedom.

“What if there is a war?”

War is collective fighting collective. If both societies are individualist, they will not indiscriminately kill people just because they wear the blue hats instead of the red ones, like collectivists do. If one is individualist and the other is collectivist, it will clearly be the latter attacking the former, and it will be an interesting war. If the society is anarchist, as an individualist society could be, there would be no point in attacking it. You may consider Practical Anarchy by Stefan Molyneux for a better argument than I can make myself as to why this is the case.

But if the individualist society somehow conceded to a war, I do not see how it would be difficult to get people together to fight. Conscription would still be wrong, because conscription is forcing people into slavery in favour of the collective. But you would still have people who see it in their self interest to band together to fight. The most ideologically individualist countries beat the ideological collectivists in the Second World War and the Cold War. When bombs started falling, or were simply seen to be ready to fall, people did not need to think of their country and their society: they thought of their selves, their families, their friends and their freedoms. That was enough.

Though war would not happen if societies were individualist, it would not be too difficult to organise individualists to defend what they believe in.

“What about other collective problems?”

Individualism does not mean that everyone has to do different things. Individuals are better positioned to see the effects of their actions on others, because being treated as an individual leads you to treat others the same. There is nothing stopping people from grouping under a banner of common interest to stop collective problems, such as climate change. In fact, the individualist cultures are where this happens the most. Count the number of non governmental organisations in North America and Europe and contrast them with the numbers in the Middle East, East Asia, Russia, and so on. Of course, some people will not care about such problems and will not work to solve them. My argument is, if working through their consciences to educate and coax them does not work, we should not force them to do anything.

“We need something to believe in that is greater than us.”

I agree, and that is why so many people have dedicated themselves to improving humanity. Unfortunately, many people do not think as far as humanity and only want to further the narrow interests of their tribe and its gods. Doing whatever your government expects of you most likely does not help humankind. Doing things you decide on your own to help your community and your world help you. But we should not feel pressured into service just because we belong. When we are looking for something bigger than ourselves, think much bigger.

I do not know whether to reproach or pity those who consider themselves too weak to make the leap to individualism. Being part of an apparently monolithic group, the feeling of belonging, is sometimes like a warm fire in a big house when it is snowing outside. But the snow is invigorating. It helps you see the world outside your comfortable home clearly. The final post in this series is about how to become an individual.

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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.

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Individualism: the Reappearing Ideal, part 2: The hollowness of “identity”

“Identity is the theft of the self.” – Estee Martin

How do we define ourselves?

We are not milkshakes. To make a milkshake, you put in a few ingredients and come out with a drink that is the same almost everywhere you drink it. A human has far more ingredients. The ingredients of our personalities are our unique genetic makeup, our cultures, our choices and our unique experiences. And yet, when asked to talk about our identities, we reduce them to a few basic ingredients.

Identity is almost always framed as collective identity, as if we were not individuals except in as far as our group identities allow us. You are not your nation, your culture, your religion or your hockey team. You are not a milkshake that is the same as all the others you have tried. And neither is anyone else. But instead of acknowledging those things that make us different, we want to be the same. We want to belong to groups that we see as the same as us. We even chip away the rough edges of our personalities to belong to these groups. Sure, I have a nagging feeling that others in my group are all wrong, but I am not going to speak out. I am going to conform, to move to where it is safe, where everyone thinks the same. This post will argue that, not only should you relieve yourself of your collective identity, but also that it is making our world worse for everyone.

Club membership and collective pride

Nations should be like clubs. You should be allowed to join and leave at will, pay your dues—just enough to cover the club’s administration costs—and hey, if you feel loyal, do your duty. Clubs are something that we take up freely and feel are some part of our identity but usually not all of it. Instead of imposing their obligations on you, you can choose whether to accept them. You might belong to the working class club, the golf club, the fat, middle aged men club, the street hockey club, the World of Warcraft club, the math teacher club, Club Mexico, Club Guadalajara and Club Canada. That is an individualist’s portfolio of affiliations.

Instead, nations are more like cults. You join without knowing what you are joining. You are pressured to stay for the rest of your life. You pay large dues. Your duty is at the whim of slick talking leaders who take your dues and give back to you the pride of belonging to an exclusive group. Obligations are imposed on you. You believe you are in the right group, because you are told the whole time you are there why it is the right one. Conformity is thrust upon us as a virtue.

When I lived in China, I found that people were expected to do and think the same way. After the earthquake in Sichuan in 2008, classrooms full of children were donating their parents money to the cause. (Why the children had to donate instead of the parents’ donating is a face creating exercise.) Some of the children were quite poor, with parents who were struggling to make ends meet. They were expected to give just as much money as everyone else. But how is that fair? If there was any real sense of community, as of course the donaters were claiming as their reason for giving, they would give to the poor child they knew instead of (or as much as) the ones they did not. But in a collectivist society, giving is an act of obedience, something done not for the sake of giving but to conform and save face.

If you ask proud collectivists what they are proud of, they will often cite the wonderful contributions that group has made to the world. Of course, collective action is how we create wonderful things. But as any anthropologist can tell you, inventions are very much a product of conditions. (See, in particular, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.) There are few things that make one society, race, culture or civilisation better than any other, although there are many such groups that are better at imposing their beliefs on others—the majority groups in any country with minorities, for instance.

Moreover, proud people tend to miss all the things their group did not create (ie. everything created by another group) and all the bad things they did. We Chinese invented the sailing ship (but not the plane, the car or the train). Russian culture produced such masters as Dostoevsky and Pushkin (and Stalin). Italy gave life to Michelangelo and da Vinci (and mafia crime families). We British ruled the world (through cunning and cruelty). And since every group has something good and something bad, does it still make sense to be proud?

Besides, your country was created for a purpose long since served and forgotten. Are you proud of your border, too?

Collectivist economics

Shortsighted populism led to tariffs and other trade barriers that perpetuated the Great Depression and look set to do the same now. Tariff barriers in the 1930s were erected by self interested minorities like trade unions but tolerated because of collectivist arguments about employment among our people being more important than efficiency. Efficiency could not only have limited the pain of the Great Depression, it might have averted a war. Trading nations with open economies would have helped foster cooperation, making it more costly to go to war.

Individualism is compatible with teams and alliances. Teams and alliances are people with similar interests working together to achieve their goals. And why not? Collaboration is one of humanity’s greatest skills. Capitalism makes room for both the competitive and cooperative sides of our nature. Collectivism demands loyalty to the group, which may not be in your best interest. It disallows you from working with anyone who is an enemy of your group, thus limiting your ability to collaborate.

Look at what collectivism in economic policy is leading to today. The officials of the US and China, possibly the only two countries that can save the world economy, are sniping at each other over small things like currencies. Immigrants to Spain, Ireland, the United States, the United Kingdom, South Africa and the Persian Gulf are being kicked out of the dirty jobs they were originally brought in for (or at least protested against) because native workers want them. Our car companies need saving, so we will bail them out at the expense of foreign companies. What is next? Steep tariffs to protect our steel industry, import quotas on clothing, bigger subsidies to farms big and small and goodness knows what geopolitical maneuvering to support domestic oil and gas corporations. No one seems to understand the havoc these policies will wreak on almost everyone. Again, a small minority threatens to reverse all the progress of the past half century, and will probably succeed, by appealing to collectivism. The benefits of specialisation, competition and openness fly away through the fast closing window of opportunity. As the Economist puts it, “when nationalism is on the march, commercial logic gets trampled underfoot.”

Then, governments bait each other to be more protectionist, the global economy slips a little further into depression, incomes fall, trade barriers become viewed as necessary, and people start getting angry at elected officials. Politicians and businesspeople band together to create external enemies to appeal to nationalism, deflecting the people’s anger and risking war. It has happened before. The only way to exit this downward spiral is by setting aside the apparent immediate interest of one’s group and working with outsiders as equals.

Outsiders are not the problem. I expect most of those reading this blog consider themselves unbiased toward race, religion and the other old bases for discrimination. But losing those biases is easy nowadays. We have more difficult questions for ourselves. What are your biases toward nationality? Despite being perhaps the best possible way to alleviate global poverty at a net benefit to almost everyone, immigration is unpopular in rich countries. In Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and Sweden, for instance, about 70% of people favour reduced immigration to their respective countries. And yet, in the same places, 80% or more believe in increased foreign aid. Most of these people want to help others. Why are there so many who oppose perhaps the best way to end poverty, low skilled labour migration? If you are a citizen of my country, you deserve protection from poverty, crime and discrimination; if you were born outside the border, too bad. If you truly do not discriminate against nationality, you should favour open borders to immigration. (It is possible to have moral arguments for closing the border and not be against immigrants. If you are still convinced there is a moral case for closing borders, I suggest Lant Pritchett’s Let Their People Come.) If we are planning to rid the world of dangerous prejudices, we should start with ourselves.

Get your own heroes

The power hungry will do anything they can to legitimise their actions, and the collective will do anything to legitimise its collectivism. In part, they turn to heroification. Heroification means turning someone into a hero, not because of any heroic deeds but because the people need someone better than them to believe in the greatness of the group. Woodrow Wilson is a good example of this. One of the most popular American presidents was not only one of the most racist but an imperialist that, according to N. Gordon Levin, set the tone for the Red Scare and the repeated military interventions of the Cold War. But few high school American history books say anything about that. They say we should revere him, so we do.

However, since some people are smart enough to realise that the elites are only human, the elites have a tool to stir up collective pride: hero worship. Heroes can be anyone who is a good role model—your parents, teachers, even friends can be your heroes. But they are also created by elites to instill pride in the group (particularly the nation). Heroes used to be primarily soldiers and others who did exactly what the state wanted them to do. But nowadays, anyone can be a hero. Sometimes, even unexceptional people are called heroes because there is a perceived lack of them. You may have noticed the following people you have been told to admire:

Soldiers, police, firefighters, athletes, astronauts, volunteers, survivors of tragedies, victims of tragedies, past politicians (though rarely current ones), and in wartime, just about anyone.

We are told to feel proud because these people represent us, they complete us, they are us. Making someone feel proud of something is a great way to get them to do and be what you want.

Collective pride, to me, is incomprehensible. Why would you be proud of something that you did not do yourself? How could you be proud of something that is an accident of birth? Are you proud to be 175cm tall? Are you proud to have a predisposition to colon cancer? So why are you proud to be Canadian, American, Irish, Chinese, Indian or Chinese-Indian?

Similarly, we take pride in the achievements of our country at the Olympics and the World Cup. I can understand wanting your team to win, as most people like competition for the fun of competition. But what are YOU proud of? Aside from cheering yourself hoarse, you probably did nothing to help your team win. Try not to take it too personally when your team loses, either: it’s not your fault.

When we pick sides, we necessarily acquire rivals. Rivals can, of course, be nothing more than the spur that drives our competitive nature, pushing us to do greater and greater things. But sometimes we are competitive in areas outside of art and business. Rivals often become enemies.

The word “enemy” connotes the evil one, the one raring to commit unspeakable acts of violence on us. Enemies are not usually of our conscious decision: they come with the side we choose. If you support football team A, team B is your enemy. You may be called upon to fight some of them later. If there is no obvious reason why we should hate someone else (ie. if we do not know what team he supports), our enemies are surreptitiously imposed on us by government, media and other leaders. We are told who are our enemies ( “we hate”), our friends or allies (“we like”). Enemies are those the elites tell us to dislike, and friends are the ones who agree with us. I will expatiate on the effects of enemies in the next post in this series.

The good news is that, even though collectivism is still strong, the single collective identity is quickly being eroded by multiple identities. In our lifetimes, we have witnessed the rise of online social networks, such as Facebook, Ning, and Google and Yahoo groups. I call this the Identity Revolution. Gone are the days of simple labels. I am whatever group I belong to (and I can belong to dozens of groups), plus everything I disagree with them about, too.

If you think the people you look up to were chosen for you by others, that they were foisted upon you by your history books or the popular media, read more deeply into them. Until then, consider the life changing—and life destroying—effects collective identity could have on you.

Individualism: the Reappearing Ideal, part 1: The amazing power of the history book

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.” – James Joyce

Your memory is too good for your own good

From the 15th century until the 20th, European powers directed some of their resources to conquering the world beyond Europe. The economic and political consequences of colonialism are still being debated, but one thing remains clear: people remember and they are still angry. I can understand certain cases where colonialism has led to poverty that continues to this day—ask, for instance, native Americans, decimated by the original illegal immigrants. But in the cases of Africa and Asia, people still feel anger and pain at something that happened to their great grandparents. How can you “remember” something that ended before you were born?

You cannot. What you can do is read history books. Contrary to popular wisdom, history is not written only by the winners. It is written by everyone, and there are no winners because history is not over yet. Government appointed historians write government approved textbooks to show the most nationalist perspective a child will believe. History teachers then get to say, “you see, this is why we are a poor country today,” simplifying history and taking all blame away from the government; or, “this is why we are the best country in the world”, whitewashing the country’s past crimes. When we do not learn real history, when we do not understand cause and consequence, when we heroify people who did bad things as well as good, we learn whatever the elites want us to.

Historian Parker T. Moon in his Imperialism and World Politics makes the following point about language.

Language often obscures truth. More than is ordinarily realized, our eyes are blinded to the facts of international relations by tricks of the tongue. When one uses the simple monosyllable “France” one thinks of France as a unit, an entity. When to avoid awkward repetition we use a personal pronoun in referring to a country–when for example we say “France sent her troops to conquer Tunis“–we impute not only unity but personality to the country. The very words conceal the facts and make international relations a glamorous drama in which personalized nations are the actors, and all too easily we forget the flesh-and-blood men and women who are the true actors. How different it would be if we had no such word as “France,” and had to say instead–thirty-eight million men, women and children of very diversified interests and beliefs, inhabiting 218,000 square miles of territory! Then we should more accurately describe the Tunis expedition in some such way as this: “A few of these thirty-eight million persons sent thirty thousand others to conquer Tunis.” This way of putting the fact immediately suggests a question, or rather a series of questions. Who are the “few”? Why did they send the thirty thousand to Tunis? And why did these obey? (http://www.cato.org/pubs/policy_report/cpr-18n5-1.html)

Such simple language has us thinking in generalisations and anthropomorphising countries and cultures. Simple language leads to simple thinking that determines the course of history.

In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy met with Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika. The purpose of the visit was to improve political and economic ties. Upon arriving, however, Bouteflika informed Sarkozy that, before there was to be any deal, Sarkozy must apologise for the crimes France committed in its occupation of Algeria. There is no doubt that the killing of many people throughout this period, and the refusal to give people independence are serious crimes against humanity. But what did Sarkozy have to do with them? What did today’s French people have to do with them? Are today’s Algerians the ones who were killed in 1945? Some living Algerians remember seeing killings, or lost loved ones. But is it not better to let them forget about the pain than to bring it back to the surface? How can someone who had nothing to do with a killing, on behalf of a group that was not present, apologise to a group that was either also not present or would probably just rather forget about it? Perhaps as a white man, I could never understand.

The origins of collectivism

But what we learn in our history books stays with us. While collectivism at the band or tribal level—150 people or fewer—is a logical invention of circumstance, it is harder to see where collective identities of millions could come from.

Historian and professor James Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong”, debunks the myths about how the Americas were discovered, conquered and founded. He contrasts American high school history books and what almost all his students believed was true with what is much more likely the case, as good historians do. He gives one reason (among several) for the Europeans’ conquest of the Americas that is little acknowledged: the nation state. “[I]t’s more powerful than the airplane, it’s more pervasive than the telephone, it’s more dangerous than the atomic bomb; and in fact, the atomic bomb could never have been built without the nation state… once your neighbour gets a nation state, you’d better get one really quick, otherwise you’re going to get killed.” The existence of one nation state necessitates the creation of others, and that is how we came upon these countries. The nation state is the most dangerous manifestation of collectivism. Its creation has nothing to do with race or culture, and everything to do with power. How could such big groups feel kinship? The answer lies with the elites.

Many elites (the ones I refer to in this series) are concerned solely with attaining and maintaining power. And long ago, when states were being formed, the elites knew they would need the support of the people they ruled. They knew about loyalty within families, so they gave them vague ideas of kinship—this is your family, your shared ancestry—that would apply to everyone incorporated into the state over time. They told the people, this is your land, and if anyone tries to take any of it away, the security of your family is in danger. You must be willing to sacrifice yourself for the greater good. Thus, loyalty to the land became the first way to control people.

The elites made the masses think they had special powers. They invented heaven and then said that heaven sent the emperor and his friends to protect them. They wrote books said to be written by god to prove heaven’s existence. You must do what we say to please heaven, and you must please heaven or you will not be able to enter. We must not let anyone end our dynasty or we will be letting heaven down. With our religion, we have higher civilisation than those barbarians. The elites had added a second layer of collective identity: religion.

Religion being the self appointed decision maker for all matters right and moral, and people liking to be told they are right, those who followed the religion that they grew up with were told their whole lives they had chosen the right path. That left many possibilities open for creation of evil doers. They come from a different place, which means they are a threat to our place. They worship a different god, or worship him in a different way. They do things differently, so you should be suspicious; or alternately, we should conquer them to teach them how great our ways are. Do not worry: we, the state, are here to protect you. By monopolising the means of violence, not only had the state protected itself against insurrection; it also became what you had to depend on to survive. This helplessness turns into a kind of Stockholm Syndrome: the people being held for ransom are the ones who end up admiring and loving their “protectors”.

In case this was not enough, the elites portrayed themselves as the protectors of all that was good in the world. We stand for justice; they stand for cruelty. We stand for freedom and sometimes we need to take yours away to protect it for everyone. We will give you prosperity if you pay our salaries. The enemy is portrayed as a thief, a rapist, a killer of children and a destroyer of all that is good in the world. The heroes (that’s us), on the other hand, are the shining white knights that the evil ones fear, ready to rescue women and children from the clutches of the enemy’s long bony fingers. Dehumanisation of the enemy made it all the easier to kill for the collective. We uphold peace and are willing to send as many of you to die as necessary.

Because the elites were essentially giving the people what they wanted anyway: the feeling of belonging, the protection of a group, pride, pursuit of the greater good, belief in one’s own cause, and a way to direct their violent impulses, the spread of collectivism soon no longer needed to be top down. The people would teach each other to be nationalists and so on; they would create their own statues and paintings and enlist for war of their own accord. And they would write history books to teach their children to be good collectivists.

As collectivism perpetuates itself, it becomes a commodity. Many of the most popular Chinese movies and television programmes show Japanese soldiers tormenting innocent Chinese people. Chinese people get a little of their collective hatred from each episode, they hate the Japanese a little more and resolving issues between the two countries gets a little harder. Most Americans believe the purpose of US foreign policy is selfless and generous and highly beneficial to the rest of the world. So Americans are exposed to movies and television with American heroes waving American flags, fighting American enemies for US foreign policy buzzwords like democracy. Everyone gets a little prouder of their country’s good deeds, they put less scrutiny on their government’s foreign adventurism, the truth slips further away and then everyone gets surprised when angry arabs kill 3000 Americans one morning in September.

Self serving elites are nothing if not resourceful; and they had new ideas to justify loyalty to the collective. They got creative with purposes and gave them stirring names like promised land, manifest destiny, king and country, bushido, jihad. These clever inventions have led countless millions to kill countless more, all the while serving the purposes of the powerful. The elites also knew that a win for their side was a way to prove to simple minded people that they were god’s people, and at the same time helping them to satisfy an inner bloodlust. Why do we have collectivism? Because individualists make lousy soldiers.

Individualism: the Reappearing Ideal: Introduction

We all seek meaning in our lives. For some, meaning is simple; for others, we feel a need to prove ourselves. Most of us find meaning in our own achievements. We feel proud when we overcome adversity and act bravely in the face of challenges. Others, however, have meaning forced on them from outside. They accept what they are told are virtues because people around them think the same; and meaning, to such people, comes from the pursuit of other people’s virtues.

Individuals who come to their own conclusions understand that opinions must come from facts, not from fiction. Their identities are based on personal beliefs about what is right and wrong, not on where they were born, what language they speak, what religion they were born into, and so on. They refuse the offer of what Stefan Molyneux calls “the straitjacket of false meaning” because they know it is not where the truth lies, only where soft feelings of belonging are offered. Those who flee the straitjacket are individualists. Those who seek it are collectivists.

Before going any further, let us define the two key terms of this six part series, Individualism: the Reappearing Ideal. Individualism means that the individual is an end unto itself. The individual occupies the highest moral ground. The individual is inviolable, meaning that his or her rights always trump the interests of the group. The individual is not obliged to pay any loyalty or duty to any group he or she belongs to but may pay it willingly. Collectivism, by contrast, means that the group is the end, and the individual is merely the means by which to further the interests of the group. The group could be a nation, a civilisation, a race, a sex, the followers of a religion or an ideology, a club or other any other organisation. To a collectivist, the group’s rights trump the individual’s; and pursuit of the group’s interests is the highest of callings.

The individualist versus collectivist debate is not just an abstract, philosophical one. It is at the core of our legal system, education, culture and the cause of all the world’s most complicated conflicts. Many would tempted to avoid intellectualising on the subject by a la carte reasoning: there are some things I am individualist about and some things I am collectivist about. And yet, when forced to make a choice, most people show their true colours. That choice, as I will show in this series, means life or death, civilisation or chaos, good or evil.

If individualism vs. collectivism makes you think of the divisions between communism and capitalism, you are correct, at least to a point. It would be wrong to say that communism was purely collectivist, nor is capitalism in practice purely individualist. Indeed, some of capitalist countries’ biggest problems stem from problems of collectivism, which we will come to later. But in general, the assumptions are correct. Communist society was planned to consider its members as nothing more than contributers to the aims of the government. The members of the government were the power elites, but even they were replaceable. No one had any rights. Capitalist societies, on the other hand, were not planned, and could go on existing indefinitely because of their greatest strength: each person was an end to him or herself.

The message I bring is one of freedom. It is understandable that many are uncomfortable losing their chains, as freedom can be scary. Where is the security of the old master? At least he ensured I was not killed. He gave me a place to direct my loyalty. Now my identity is at risk of theft, invasion, death. This series will argue that, not only is your identity worth losing, but you grow stronger when you become a true individual.

Individualism is not something that people from all cultures will rush to embrace. It is not something that goes down easily, as it sounds like selfishness, greed, indifference to the problems of others. The myth states that collectivist cultures are more sympathetic to the people as a whole than individualist ones. But to be sensitive to the problems that an individual can have, one must understand the individual. Collectivist cultures, except for very small groups such as bands, tribes and chiefdoms, actually have trouble understanding difference, because they believe that they are monolithic. Your group is not one big unit of people with small, insignificant differences, as you might believe. It is a group of differently skilled, differently creative and different thinking people who could reach amazing potential if they were given their freedom.

Unfortunately, there are many in the world that want to belong. They are driven not by a desire to make themselves better but a desire to do what others tell them to do. These people are the employees, the churchgoers, the soldiers, those who unquestioningly follow traditions and charismatic leaders. They are humanity’s sheep. And some places are full of them.

Because of the danger of being a sheep, this series does not simply attack the most dangerous collective feelings of nationalism, racism and cults. It attempts to bring down all sources of collective identity, including diehard sports team fans, deeply bonded fraternal organisations, loyalty to a political party, town pride, and so on. All feelings of collectivism lead to the abdication of the person in favour of the advancement of the group.

But the problem lies not with an individual’s paradoxical choice to give up his or her individuality. It lies in the fact that collectivism forces itself on others. It is an idea that everyone under its influence is forced to adopt. If one is born in Greece to a Greek Orthodox family, there is little chance of being shown all the nationalities and religions before being told that you are Greek Orthodox and accepting it for life. One is not offered membership but force fed it from birth. One must abide by the collective’s laws, even ones whose purpose we have forgotten, such as that state that pigs cannot be eaten on Wednesdays while praying to the golden man statue that must always be facing north because he protected us during the viking invasion. In this way, collectivist loyalties are a kind of hereditary chain gang: people are born in chains, they labour for the chain gang their whole lives, and attempts to break free could mean death.

An individualist culture, however, is one where people evaluate things based on how they will affect the people that undertake them, not the group. The individualist argument seems selfish because it becomes a fair question to ask, why should I give something up for the group? Why should my son go to war when you do not have to go? If I am poor, why should I donate to the food bank just because everyone else I know is? If I can think for myself, why should I do what everyone else is doing? Perhaps there is a better way.

The good news is that individualist identities are very slowly reappearing. Transnational business, global media, internationalism, anti nationalism, free thinking and the internet are all forces bringing the dangers of collectivism down, one new individualist at a time. This series delights in this trend and advocates the tearing down of all feelings of collectivism to make individualism the norm. It will do so by showing where collectivism comes from and its consequences, while showing why one should and how one can become an individual.

Why globalisation has not ended conflict

When the Iron Curtain collapsed across Europe and the flags of peace, freedom and democracy were waved, many people around the world thought these changes would be permanent. We were told that this was to be a new era of capitalism and prosperity, democracy and freedom, brotherhood and equality, peace and happiness. This was the end of history.

Except that it wasn’t. Certain things flourished. Capitalism will come to anywhere the elites can profit from it, and it will usually trickle down when the masses demand it to. Democracy and freedom were won in the early post Cold War years but both appear to be slipping away again. And peace, far from springing up from the ground, may be even further away than ever.

Globalisation, which helped topple communism and spread wealth to the post communist world, was supposed to have eliminated conflict by making us all interconnected. Trade has spread and deepened everywhere, creating middle classes that governments need to answer to. Countries would sacrifice wealth if they went to war, because it is now far more profitable to trade with each other than build empires. But we do still have war, don’t we? Why is that?

Globalisation has increased the costs of violent conflict but not removed the causes. The causes have always been multiple but now there are too many to count. And the biggest causes of conflict are more prominent today than ever. One is upheaval: big changes. Every person and every culture reacts differently to big changes; and change is fast and furious nowadays. Globalisation charges ahead, and brings with it climate change, inequality of wealth, the spread of ideas, migration and terrorism. And of course, each of these big changes begets more unexpected, unsolicited and, to many, unwanted change. Anything can happen after changes like this, including war.

A second cause of conflict that has increased is racism. Whether we realise it or not, we are still learning that we are different and better than each other. We learn ethnocentrism, intolerance and racism in school, in mass media, from politicians, from parents and from each other. We live in a world that still prizes loyalty to the collective: protect the group at any human cost. These problems still existed during the Cold War, but they were less complicated than they are today. Now, we are searching for meaning outside the left right divide and many do not know where to turn. They turn to their immediate groups. They find that their groups are superior. But again, things are more complicated: there are more groups and loyalties and each is fighting with every other one.

During the Cold War, there were three sides—side A (capitalist), side B (communist) and side abstaining (non aligned). Now, diplomacy is so difficult because sides are so mixed. In the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, for instance, according to the Economist, “The peacemakers barely know where to start. The old divisions, not just between Israelis and Arabs but also between rival Palestinian factions and their bickering foreign backers, have got deeper. Political rows are already muddling the urgent task of getting aid to Gaza, let alone efforts to secure the fragile ceasefire, rebuild the territory and forge a broader Arab-Israeli peace.” Everyone is arguing with everyone else.

And yet, globalisation has calmed one form of violence. Most war nowadays is civil war, or intrastate conflict. Before and perhaps during the Cold War, it was between countries, or interstate. Globalisation has made liberal democracy the norm in half the world, and though one can argue no end how liberal and democratic these places are, the major benefit has been a reduction in interstate violence. The question is, what will it take to eliminate war?

War, unfortunately, seems to go deep into our nature and satisfy a certain lust for blood. As much as we hate to admit it, many or most or all humans have a propensity for violence (to inflict or watch it), competition (which of course means winning any contest one can win at), a culture that prompts and rewards violence, distraction from more complicated issues, punishment, revenge and cruelty. My guess is that violence among humans will never end, not while we are the humans we recognise today. But war is one kind of violence. What will it take to eliminate war?

For my answer to that question, I will take you into the roots of discrimination, war and the search for meaning in a series of posts by examining the most important philosophical debate in history: individualism versus collectivism.

Don’t write Barack off just yet

We are so fickle. Just two months ago, and for a year leading up to then, everyone was filled with passion about a man named Barack Obama. Now, all kinds of people that thought he was great have already given him up for lost. Homosexuals feel sold out because Rick Warren, classic homophobic preacher, was chosen to give his inaugural. Hippie peaceniks (“doves”, some call themselves) were done wrong because an experienced Republican was appointed Secretary of Defence. And he has not even fixed the economy yet! Let me tell you something about those people.

Those people were going on faith. Faith is dangerous, my friends, a dangerous cocktail of chemicals that makes you lose your mind. Faith is the abdication of reason by deliberately believing in the unbelievable. We had only the vaguest idea of what Barack would be like as president. How could we? From a good campaign? From being senator? How could you know what kind of CEO I would be for Google? From having been president of AIESEC Victoria? But 1.7 trillion people around the world rallied round him nonetheless. They had expectations of him that were so high one would think he was the new messiah. The new messiah had come to solve all the world’s problems.

This was to be an era of change, as if one man could change everything. An era of peace, as if one man, all powerful and popular, could convince all the world’s nutcases to get down from their missles. A new era of prosperity, because the biggest economic crisis in decades would evaporate as soon as the new president took office. Discrimination, inequality, environmental degradation: all were to be things of the past thanks to our man, Barack. Of COURSE he was not going to fix these things in two months. What were these people thinking?

So now you are disappointed? Serves you right. The same people who predict the second coming of Christ and then frown when he fails to materialise may take heart that they are not the only ones whose hopes were a little high. Now you feel betrayed? You betrayed yourself when you forgot that Barack is just a man. A man, no matter how gifted, cannot solve all of our problems. In fact, many gifted people are the ones who have caused some of them.

How is government supposed to fix a world messed up by government? If Barack does not fix all the problems we have thrust upon him, perhaps more people will come to realise that government is the problem and not the solution. I wonder if ten people chosen off the street at random could be as good a cabinet as a group of old, white men and the occasional woman for show. But that is another discussion.

Those who did not jump on the barackwagon should not be feeling smug either. The fact is, Barack simply has not had time to get anything done yet. It is still too early to judge him. I say, give him four more years, and we will put it to a vote. Is that fair?