Individualism or Collectivism?

Individualism or Collectivism?

By Markus Lloyd

In America, some taut individualism as a badge of honor. They use phrases like “self-made” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” These phrases and others seem to communicate that all one needs is individual effort to succeed. But, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit our country, we found out how deeply connected we were to one another. We saw how dependent we were on others in our community and worldwide to get food, gas, medicine, and toilet paper. Is this a bad thing, or is it part of being human?


When I was born, I had nothing and no frame of reference for being human. This is not to say I wasn’t human; humanity is not determined by what you do or know; instead, it is something bestowed upon us from outside humanity. So although my humanness wasn’t in question, my understanding of how to be human most definitely was.


Desmond Tutu once said, “You can’t be human all by yourself.” In effect, the only way one becomes human is through the help of other humans. In my case, my parents, extended family, friends, teachers, etc., all participated in helping me be human. One might argue that every encounter I have had in my life has taught me and continues to teach me how to be human. This idea is called Ubuntu. Ubuntu is an African proverb that essentially means, “I am because we are.” It speaks to the collectiveness of humanity. In my upbringing, I have heard several other sayings that support this. “There is no I in team,” “No man is an island.” “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” These adages or cliches were all used to remind me that I am not self-contained. Instead, I need others to succeed.


One of the most famous quotes comes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Of course, there are individuals with individual identities, individual hopes/dreams, and actions that only individuals can perform. But can these individuals exist in such a way that no one is affected by their decisions and actions? In America, the same system that allows us to practice “individualism” exists because of the efforts of multiple collective entities (Congress) whose members were chosen by the collective vote of the country? 


If all of these sayings and quotes are true, then can there be a true individualism within a fully functioning society? Perhaps, the more important question is; Is a true individualist society the kind of society in which we want to live?