2013-02-24

The Individual, Part III

Previous installments of my series on individuality can be found here and here.

Part Three, Some Specific Conflicts Between Individualism And Collectivism
Previously, I discussed the idea that collectivism is closely tied to our sense of morality, while individualism is closely tied to our sense of existence. In that sense, human beings are both collectivist, social animals and individualist, existentialist ones.

Next, I spent some time elaborating on the value of individualism in that it provides our lives with a deep sense of meaning and fulfillment. The social/individual duality of human nature means that our more collectivist pursuits satisfy important needs we have, but that the same is true for our individualist pursuits. The reason I felt the need to spend time establishing that fact is that, in this day and age, individuality is a less-emphasized aspect of human nature.

It may be that the absence of individualism in society has been filled with an over-emphasis on collectivism - and there are those who make that case. But it may also be that the absence of individuality in society has not been filled by anything at all. Perhaps it is just a gap. Whichever the case, this series on individuality is my attempt to provide some balance, to remind my readers of the value of individualist existentialism, and to perhaps win over some to "the cause." But please bear in mind that "the cause" is not so much about individualism ahead of collectivism as it is about individualism in balance with collectivism.

The truth is, there are plenty of times in life when we feel a very real conflict between our social/collective obligations and our personal/individual ones. Today, I'd like to discuss those conflicts.

Most often, this conflict is explored from the standpoint of an implied preference toward collectivism. The child who complains that someone else is playing with his toys is admonished for being selfish and encouraged to share. The employee who objects to the way business is being handled is reprimanded for "not being a team player." The Uncle Scrooge is criticized for letting his ambition get in the way of his personal relationships. We are all very familiar with these situations. They are a part of our culture, which means that they are part-and-parcel to our social nature. Obviously, we would expect this to be the case - these situations reflect a preference for collectivism over individualism.

Less familiar to us are tales and descriptions of "the other side" of these same stories, the individualistic side.

The child who will not share is, after all, a child. If we accept the premise that children are not born with a perfect understanding of themselves, and with a need to self-actualize and get along with others, then we must not conclude that the child is simply being wicked and greedy. The truth is, the child is not yet mature enough to understand our concepts of private property and social inclusion. It takes experience and parental guidance for that child to understand that his toy still belongs to him, even when he shares it with others. It is incumbent upon us to teach our children that sharing is a kind gesture offered to others that helps others understand that we value their friendship, and to set a precedent for further cooperation between us in the future. Therefore, we should think about the child's potential confusion before we chastise him for "failing" to share. Private property and cooperation are concepts that many adults do not understand; a child's confusion should be understood and forgiven. When we correct such behavior, we should do so with that confusion in mind.

Many books could be - and have been - written on the topic of office politics. I certainly claim no expertise on that subject, although I can claim some experience. Perhaps, in days gone by, the workplace was an easier environment to navigate because both roles and job descriptions were much better-defined. In a factory or on a construction site, for example, work is often divided according to specific tasks: the inspector inspects, the drywall hanger hangs drywall, the framer frames, the foreman oversees, the estimator estimates, and so on. Each employee knows his or her specific task to complete, and knows precisely to whom he or she can escalate difficulties. There is not a lot of room for complex office politics in more "traditional" forms of employment precisely because responsibilities and obligations are all very well-established.

We can contrast this sort of organization to a modern, service-industry organization, such as a consulting firm. A consulting firm contains a team of people who all share a roughly homogeneous skill set. To the extent that each consultant performs a different task, this determination is made by the project manager, whose own skills are roughly the same as those of his or her team members. Each individual team member, given sufficient time (and authority), would be able to perform all of a project's associated tasks himself or herself. The reason a project is performed by a team instead of an individual is not due to any individual's shortcomings, but rather due to the fact that it is more efficient for tasks to be divided up and worked on simultaneously. And yet, there is an extensive organizational hierarchy in any consulting firm: the employees exist on a totem pole with "junior analysts" at the bottom, performing "grunt work," while "consultants" or "senior consultants" perform mid-level tasks; most of the organization and planning is performed by "principle consultants" or "project managers." This all seems fine enough in theory, but in practice, when do we know we are performing "grunt work," versus "mid-level" tasks? When do we know we have sufficient "experience" to act as a "senior consultant" versus a simple "consultant?" To a great extent, these determinations are arbitrary. Someone does, in fact, determine what is what, but that determination is made according to that person's own ideas, and only justified after the fact. The employees in this latter kind of organizational structure are, therefore, confused about who has authority over them, who has the responsibility of training them and assigning work to them, who is their direct point of escalation when things go wrong, and when they can even say that they have finished the job that has been asked of them.

All that is to say, in the more traditional, old-fashioned workplaces, someone who complained too loudly or disagreed with the work plan probably was indeed being a bump-on-a-log in most cases, because work was well-defined and the hierarchy well-established. Today's workplaces are entirely different. Authority is often claimed, rather than earned. The team's decisions are often a rather fuzzy consensus, as opposed to being a foreman's work schedule. A junior employee may never gain a promotion simply due to the fact that he or she never moves to claim authority. Others may act to claim it, but somehow rub the rest of the team the wrong way. All such conflicts create "office politics." It is not exactly clear that someone with strong and divergent opinions really lacks for team spirit. The next time you encounter these conflicts in your own office, you may want to take a step back and consider whether the problem really is an absence of teamwork, or whether the odd-one-out does indeed have a point.

The most abstract of the three conflicts I have mentioned so far is the one involving an individual's own, private ambitions, and the way these ambitions affect that person's relationships with other people. If that person's ambitions are professional, then everything I have just described about office politics also applies. Still, the conflicts associated with personal ambition must be disambiguated from office politics.

A person's circumstances play an important role in how their lives unfold. Two people may behave almost identically in two highly comparable situations, and that behavior may affect success for one person and failure for the other. It should come as no surprise, then, that many people become envious of people close to them when they observe similar behavior resulting in good success for their friends, but not for themselves.

It is only natural. It's our sense of justice at work. Justice means that good things come to good people who do good things, while bad things come to bad people who do bad things. When the cake of life is distributed unequally, it tastes bitter.

To unravel this conflict, we need to remember the duality between our collectivist nature and our individualist nature. Where there is moral conflict, there is existential hope. Where there is existential conflict, there is moral hope.

Knowing that a good friend or colleague has succeeded reflects well on us. Our sense of empathy and our respect for our friendship inspires us to feel happy for the successes enjoyed by others. Where we would be inclined to feel an existential disappointment with the failure of our own good deeds to result in personal success, our moral and social sentiments - our collectivist nature - suffices to soothe us. We may also keep in mind that friends in higher places confer social benefits to us ourselves. On the other side of things, the person who enjoys some success must keep in mind the many other, similar people around them who engaged in near-identical behavior, but whose circumstances did not provide the unique opportunities that lead to success. This is a fancy way of saying that "success is when hard work meets good luck." But keeping this in mind will prevent us from believing that it was solely our own genius that produced our success, and therefore prevent us from believing incorrectly that we are morally superior (remember: collectively, socially) than those around us.

Thus we see that an existential issue is resolved by keeping some moral/collectivist perspective.

On the other hand, the conflict can cut the other way. Personal success can mean that the group reacts harshly and resentfully against an individual. Even worse, a group can conspire against a potentially successful individual, preventing him or her from achieving any measure of success at all. This, in contrast to what I said above, is a moral conflict that can only be resolved existentially. Individually,  a person must decide whether his or her relationship with the group at large confers as many benefits for him or her as it does for the group. Unfortunately, in cases when the group is excessively invasive on a person's individuality, an individual's existential needs must outweigh the value of group membership. The individual must sever ties with a bad group and search for a healthier one. That individual must continue to hold a high sense of self-esteem and put his or her ambitions ahead of cloying clutches of a group that can only be described as negative.

Naturally, wherever there are mentally healthy individuals engaged in healthy social interaction, all of the above conflicts will exist in harmony and balance, and we will be able to easily navigate through all situations without hurting each other.