In the behavioral sciences it has been said that Western or Modern culture values the individual over the group, whereas Eastern and less industrialized cultures value the group over the individual. It is presented in a way that treats these two approaches as equivalent. Ostensibly people are merely focusing in one direction vs another. I find this definition to be a false equivalence that is intended to prop up Western values to make them appear rational and serviceable.
Focusing on individualism is selfish. It’s self-centered, it’s self-focused, you can call it whatever you want, but at the end of the day it’s quite clearly caring for self above and before others. Which inherently is caring less about others than one’s self. It’s a lack of respect for the people around them in a profound way. Individualists tend to extend their own viewpoint to others, framing everything from their own perspective and expect others to see things as they do – thus assuming that they are right and that everyone agrees with their values. Group-oriented people by nature are better at seeing things from another’s perspective, giving them a better chance of building compassion and respect for others.
Whether it’s inappropriate behavior or discourtesy from the individualist, people who focus on the group know better. Those who focus on the group are being responsible and mature by sharing this world with others in a way that honors our mutually shared existence. None of us lives alone, and cultures that focus on the individual would be fine to do so if the individual was fully self sufficient. Many indicators point to the exact opposite, and that people reared in a group-oriented society are more self sufficient, more productive, and more contributory than individualists.
The dichotomy of individualism and groupism is a sign of the ambivalent relationship humanity has with competition. Individualists value competition, and by extension, winning victories over others. Group-oriented people value collaboration and cooperation, and would rather overcome challenges together. Individualists fiercely defend the concept of competition as the means to prosperity, they equate prosperity with success, and success is equated with happiness by their standards – thus they see prosperity as happiness.
The World Happiness Report is based on several indicators, but some of those are distinctly Western values. A country’s GDP or a an individual’s freedom to make life choices are valued higher by Westerners than some other groups, and using those as factors in measuring happiness reinforces bias toward individualism when other cultural groups may not consider those to be significant factors in their own happiness.
Western values associate individualism with freedom, but those can be mutually exclusive. Focusing on the group is a sign of mutual respect and moral/ethical adherence to respecting that which is greater than ourselves; it does not preclude or prevent freedom of choice. Considering the needs, wants and circumstances of others is honorable and should be seen as exercising superior social/life skills. Denigrating caring for the group is an indication of participation in oppressive social ranking that pits individuals against each other while degrading their confidence and self-esteem. It also disregards the difference between people focusing on the group experience and people being controlled by those who hold power.
To the individualist’s eye, focus on the group is seen as a negative thing. A large part of the negativity associated with group orientation is the correlation between it and conrolling power groups. The assumption is that no one would focus on the group unless they were coerced, since (again) the individual has such a difficult time broadening their perspective rather than just extending their worldview to others. It doesn’t occur to the average individualist that power groups have simply been able to infiltrate group-oriented societies, which should be obvious as power groups are universal in human existence. Those in group-minded societies are no more corrupt than individualists are, and my feelings tell me that if anything, it’s the contrary.
Individualists have been subject to propaganda that reinforces their world views, just as those who are group-minded. Because they are individualistic, they somehow assume that means they have more freedom or control, which is a false assumption at best. What’s even more unrealistic is their complete lack of personal responsibility accompanying all that freedom and independence. For some reason, the individualist believes they should be allowed to act with complete autonomy of free will – yet they don’t seem nearly as concerned with the consequences of those actions.
More importantly, the individualistic idea that happiness or even “success” should be the goal of each human and humanity as a whole is flawed at best. The WHR is used by organizations to pressure governing bodies to focus on happiness as the goal of their governance and the measure of its success. This is a deeply damaging goal, not just in considering the inconsistent and fickle nature of happiness itself, but in the broader sense of dismissing priorities that do supersede personal satisfaction.
The individual focusing on their own happiness, or on the happiness of the group is reasonable. However, a governing body needs to focus on the totality of its capabilities to affect change for holistic benefit; that which is best for all rather than some. Leadership needs to be focusing on the impact its populace has not just to mitigate damage but to be able to drive change to provide lasting benefits to future generations.
If humanity wants to claim that continuation of the species is paramount, and that we want to give our offspring the best chances of success, we’re going to need to work on our individual roles that come together to make the whole of society work, so we can each support this goal. Although group orientation focuses on the group as a whole, the group is still comprised of individuals coming together to support common goals. Constantly competing to succeed detracts from humanity’s ultimate goals and makes false promises that some of us could escape suffering, while diminishing our collective capacity for good – it wastes valuable resources.
In some ways, a group-oriented mind set is still an individualistic mindset, but it’s one that focuses on the responsibility that each of us has in handling our decisions and actions in a way that recognizes that none of us is the only individual in this universe trying to survive.