- Issue July 4th, 2018
Communitarism for Dummies
By Maya Mutesi
Communitarianism refers to a theoretical perspective that seeks to lessen the focus on individual rights and increase the focus on communal responsibilities. It is based on three principles: any claim of truth should be validated through co-operative inquiry; communities which represent citizens should validate common values and lastly all citizens should have equal access and participation to this structure of society.
Since the beginning of time, man has relied on companionship. Hence families which form communities that in turn make up societies. And so forth.
The world is as we think it is. Human beings assign meaning to things. Consequently the relationship between the individual and their community varies from culture to culture.
In collectivist cultures, as found in the majority of African and Eastern countries, community is crucial. An individual’s primary obligation is to their community, whereas Western countries tend to be individualistic.
“The measure of a society’s achievement and greatness is the measure of the value it places on its citizens. Similarly, what this shows is that communal achievement is only possible in an environment where the human person is treated with honor and nobility.” - Agulanna, Christopher. 2010 Community and human well-being in an African culture.
In Rwanda, it is natural for the oldest in the family to spend more than half of their income on their siblings, even parents if necessary. Everyone contributes to society. Like a big puzzle, every individual is an indispensable piece needed to complete the picture.
In India two generations of families will live in the same house or compound in order to save money and ensure a very family-oriented upbringing for the children. The shared concept here, is one of helping each other; the strong help the weak.
In many African cultures ancestors play a central role in the community’s conscious. This was articulated perfectly by Christopher Agulanna, a professor from the University of Ibadan:
“the being of the community is larger than, and prior to, that of any of its individual members since the being of the community as a whole is identical with the being of the total personality of the ancestors”
Disagreement with elders and entitlement to a personal view of things are frowned upon, however strong or valid they may be. It is deemed selfish for you to do something other than contribute to the society. It is also a sign of disrespect. Eventually, this instills a sense of responsibility and commitment to the community rather than to yourself. This can create a lot of pressure, making individuals feel like they cannot invest in things they truly enjoy or excel at. Take as an example the common case of students taking programs in university because their parents asked them to.
Collectivist countries can still maintain individuality. As the Akan proverb goes: “A clan is like a cluster of trees which, when seen from afar, appear huddled together, but which would seem to stand individually when closely approached.” We all strive to participate actively in the community but not in the same ways.
Hinduism, the oldest and most widely practiced religion in India, is well integrated in the national culture. Hindus believe in reincarnation—the state of one’s current life is informed by how they led their past life—and so try to improve their present lives in order to secure happier rebirths. The ultimate goal in Hinduism is transcending the process of the cycle of rebirths itself, an act known as moksa or liberation. The methods used to reach this liberation are collectively called yoga, meaning to join.
Hinduism lacks a standard definition and does not oppose one single way of reaching liberation (a good life). This lifestyle offers a myriad of doctrines in health care, religious morality, ethics and death, all of which are specific to one’s vocation, age, gender, teleological disposition and Cosmo-temporal placement. While such a lifestyle might appear individualistic—each person tries to find their way to liberation—a strong solidarity develops between seekers.
There is a popular saying that goes: “The nail which sticks out will get hammered”. This proverb is used to encourage conformity and collectivist behavior just like African cultures. In Japan, a well-mannered individual strives to fit in and refrains from calling attention to oneself. Many individuals who feel great shame from a particular event, choices or action consider the best way to redeem themselves to be through suicide. This ritual is known as Seppuku (belly cutting).
Another habit I found curious is the fact that falling asleep at work is a sign of diligence; as it is a sign of hard work. This emphasizes how one’s life is valued by the productivity and contribution one offers to their society.
Personally, I find communal living to be fulfilling. It has made me want to strive for better not only for myself but also for my family and community.
In individualistic cultures as opposed to collectivist, people live in communities all the while isolating themselves and being self-reliant. Community has been narrowed down to the public spaces they share, such as the train, restaurants, public bathrooms and group activities.
Regardless of culture or creed, community lies at the heart of what makes individuals who they are. If we are to become better individuals, we must actively work to create better communities. The relationship between the individual and the community is symbiotic. The task at hand is to nurture that symbiosis.