A Collectivist's Guide To Individuality

I spend a lot of time on this blog writing about the importance and benefits of Individuality. As I've written before, it's true that human beings are social animals that like to associate in groups, but we also possess an existential need for self-actualization. That is, we all possess both a group impulse and an individual impulse.

It's tempting to think that these forces are somehow at odds, but they're not. If you're the kind of person for whom the group is extremely important, I'm writing today's post for you. I'd like to show you how small changes in how we look at groups can improve both the success of the in-group and the existential individuality inside of you.

The most important thing in art is The Frame. For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively-- because, without this humble appliance, you can't know where The Art stops and The Real World begins. You have to put a 'box' around it because otherwise, what is that shit on the wall?
-- Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa Book

Maybe Frank knew it when he wrote that, or maybe he didn't, but he was expressing the philosophical concept of difference. In order to say anything about X, I have to know first and foremost that X is something meaningfully different than Y.

There is infinite variation among individuals within any group. How can it be that so many people who are so different belong to the same group? Clearly the most important aspect of any group is where you draw the boundary line between your group and everyone else. This could be an imaginary line, drawn on a map. Or, it could be something more tangible, like religious affiliation or language. It could be something entirely transient and artificial, like the intramural sports team you're on, or it could be something permanent and irreversible, like the color of your skin.

In any case, on the one side of the boundary lies everyone who doesn't belong, who you have decided to see as "different," and on the other side lies a mass of infinite individual variation that we happily ignore for the sake of having a sense of "belonging."

It's almost paradoxical: Once you belong to a group, you're free to be as colorfully individualistic as you wish to be, so long as you adhere to the confines of the boundary line that has been drawn. But if you're outside that same boundary, it doesn't matter how similar you are to the group that lies inside it. Subject to the one defining feature of the group, you're an outsider, and thus "different," even if you're actually the same.

So I might be nothing like the other white Utahns with whom I grew up - and indeed, I am not - but I belong to their in-group because of the accident of geography. Meanwhile, I might have everything in common with someone who grew up in, say, Bangladesh, but will have to overcome a series of ingrained group biases within her in order to demonstrate that we ought really belong to the same group.

Whether we're talking about immigration, racism, corporate sponsorship, nationality, or anything else - whenever anyone moves from an old group to a new group, it's not that person's individual character traits that change, but rather the application of the boundary line.

This simple truth is enormously important. What it means is that anyone can be brought into the fold at any time - or cast into the outer darkness - at any time whatsoever. All it requires is that you draw the boundary in a different place. Is this easier said than done? Not at all - it is both easily said and easily done.

Here's a great example: Say you live in New York City. You could draw a boundary at the edge of the New York metropolitan area, as many do, and include only "New Yorkers" among those with whom you identify. Or, you could include even those quaint upstate New Yorkers in your group affiliation. Or you could include anyone in Connecticut, and Boston, etc., and call yourself a New Englander. Or you could call yourself an American, and include everyone across the country, and even in Hawaii, and Alaska, and Guam. Or you could just keep expanding your circle to include the entire human race. It's really up to you.

You might argue that the lines that define New York City or the United States are important demarcations of culture; and you might even be right. But what's critical is that you have chosen the culture to which you belong, out of a great many that potentially apply.

Would it be erroneous to say that a person feels more "culturally American" than "culturally New Yorker?" Would a person who said so be wrong? No, of course not. At any possible moment, we can migrate from in-group to in-group intellectually by simply choosing to self-identify with one group rather than another.

Nor does this mean that the group affiliation itself is meaningless. You might feel a great attachment to your culture, and you would be right to feel that way. My point isn't that group affiliation is bad or meaningless, but simply that it is a choice you make. You choose to draw your own boundary lines, and you do so for your own benefit.

But if your choice of in-group is made for your own benefit, it can come at a cost. In many cases it costs us nothing, but costs someone else a great deal. Excluding other people from your own national identity, for example, can result in great poverty and suffering for some of those you choose to exclude. Excluding other people from your own racial identity fans the flames of racism, the results of which have been tragic throughout human history. And there are many other, more minor costs such as social anxiety, social isolation, peer pressure, and so on.

Most of these costs are unequivocally bad. That is, unless you are a vindictive person, you don't actually want to make people suffer at the hands of your in-group. You don't want to foist anxiety or isolation on someone, at least not knowingly. You don't want to be a racist jerk. You don't want someone to starve on a boat.

What you really want is what's best for your in-group.

In light of what I've written above, the solution seems obvious: All we need to do is have some flexibility in where we draw the boundaries of our in-groups. Why exclude people needlessly, especially when there is no clear benefit to you or your in-group? The larger you draw your circle, the less you have to worry about how to punish people who don't fit inside of it.

To be sure, we still need some boundaries: Crime, for example, is an important boundary to set for any in-group. If you violate the group's laws and become a criminal, you ought to be punished as an outsider. Hence, we send murderers and thieves to jail and force them to "pay their debt to society" before they can join up with us again.

But if a person is a lot like you, except for an innocuous or entirely victimless criterion (skin color, religious affiliation, hobby, place of birth, etc.), then what do we hope to gain from excluding them from the group? No one gains from that.

So, why not choose otherwise?