Rebirth of Reason


Group Identity
by Joseph Rowlands

Collectivism describes a relationship between individuals and groups. It views individuals as merely members of a group, defined by the group, and viewed in relation to the group. A nationalist collectivist would see his nation as the defining element, and would see citizens of that nation as important only in relation to the nation. The values he recognizes are values for the nation as a whole, and not to the individuals member. The group is the focal point. The members are useful only to the extent that they are useful to the group.


Individualism sees the relationship between individuals and groups in a different way. A group is just a number of individuals interacting with one another. If a group has values, it is actually the individuals who are doing the value and the interaction is chosen because of the members share the same values. A nation is a just a bunch of individuals living near each other, have a shared need for security and freedom, and so form a group that allows widespread interaction for mutual defense.


One of the many differences between collectivism and individualism is in what they view as a group and its members. In the individualist view, a group is just individuals choosing to interact together. A better word than 'group' would be 'organization'. Not because it implies structure, but because it implies more than a mere categorization. It implies participation. And participation is the key.


When an individual joins an organization, he chooses to interact because of shared values or goals. There is a need for the organization to be voluntary, though. If it isn't, then the 'members' are not really members. They are hostages or slaves. If someone starts a gang and forces you to join at the point of a gun, you aren't really a member. You don't share the same values. You don't act on behalf of those values. You act as a victim. You do what you're told because you are coerced.


Collectivism uses a much more general meaning for the term 'group'. A communist nation would include all of the people residing there, no matter how unwilling. There is no need for consent. The group is what's important, and individuals are only seen in relation to the group. A more precise word would be 'collective'. You might have unwilling or willing participants, but the collective is only concerned with useful or not.


Since collectivism doesn't care about consent or voluntary interaction, it is also possible to view a number of people as a group/collective based on something outside of their control. Racism is a form of collectivism. A person is said to "belong" to his race, and is viewed in relationship to the race. He is judged as a member of the race collective, gaining the guilt or respect that the collective as a whole earns.


From the individualist's perspective, this makes no sense. There was no intent to join the group, and that means there is no necessary shared values. It also means that there is no necessary shared allegiance. There's no reason for a person with one color of skin to choose loyalty to another based on his color of skin. And the accomplishments of one have nothing to do with the other. In a chosen group/organization, you might make the case that accomplishments of one person are at least valued or made possible by the others in the group. But none of that has anything to do with race. A person deserves no guilt or credit for things he didn't choose. So the individualist is against racism.


There is an important case that can be confusing with respect to these two positions. What happens when a number of people who share a characteristic, like skin color, choose to form an organization based on that characteristic. What if they then take the collectivist view and treat that organization as a collective in itself?


The non-controversial example is a collective of white supremacists. They view their skin color as a defining attribute for their group identity. They uphold allegiance to their collective, and may view other white people as betrayers of their race. They claim credit for every accomplishment ever made by a white person, although they may not take the blame for every crime. Who said irrationality was consistent?


Here we have an interesting case. It's obviously a case of collectivism, as the members are treating the race as the focal point of identity and value. Achievements are discussed in terms of racial achievements. Values are discussed in terms of racial values or interests. And allegiance is made in terms of allegiance to the race. This also means that other "groups", whether they recognize themselves as groups or not, are considered in relation to this group. The white supremacists hate lots of other "groups" of people, and have various reasons for it.


So clearly this is a case of collectivism, right? But it is also a case of individualism. Each white supremacist is choosing to interact with the others to form a larger group based on the values and ideas that each share. This means that an individualist would be justified in condemning a member of the organization for being a member. That's because membership, since it is voluntary, communicates many specific facts. In this case, hatred of minorities and irrational sense of collective superiority. And if the group had more specific goals and actions, like lynching or harassing minorities, that would also be implied by membership.


So an individualist would not judge someone as good or bad based on the color of their skin. But they would judge them as voluntary members of a group that uses the color of their skin as the defining element. It's not proper to condemn someone because they have white skin. It is proper to condemn them for joining a racist, white supremacist group.


But it's not just about joining a an organization. If someone is a white supremacist, the organization they join is not viewed as the collective. For the white supremacist, the white race is the collective. By believing in an entity called "the white race", and viewing themselves as a loyal member, they have already earned the condemnation of racism. They don't need to join a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan.


So the confusion comes from the irrationality of judging someone by their skin color combined with the rationality of judging someone who judges themselves by their skin color. The skin color itself is not chosen, so has no basis for moral judgment (good or bad). But when someone views their race as their defining quality, and upholds allegiance to a race collective, then they can and should be judged.


The white supremacy is an easy example for a couple of reasons. First, it is obviously racist. Second, while the "group" is defined by skin color, most people with white skin do not consider themselves part of that group. So it clearly mixes an element of ideology and collectivism.


Consider the more confusing case of "black society" or "black Americans" or "African-Americans". It is possible to simply talk about the fact that some people have "black" skin color, but instead they are treated as members of a group or collective. Instead of claiming the achievements of members of their race, they tend to focus on the crimes perpetuated again members of their race. They have "spokesmen" for their collective. They are expected to share certain values. They are expected to vote the same way. When a black person disagrees with their politics, they are said to be betraying their race. And they are expected to have allegiance to other members. They've been asked to vote not guilty in criminal cases on the principle that too many black people are sent to jail, as just one example.


Here we have the duality described above. There is the simple categorization of skin color that should mean nothing important because it wasn't chosen. But in parallel to that is a collectivist notion of a "black race" where the group is deemed as important and the individuals are viewed in relation to the group. And we have the parallel of individuals not being able to choose their skin color, but being able to choose to take their skin color and turn it into a defining attribute that implies much more.


The confusion is more severe than the white supremacist example for a number of reasons. The white supremacists are identified clearly as a distinct ideology among some white people. The black collectivist are not called "black supremacist". They are just called black. So membership in the collective is indistinguishable from membership in the category of skin color. Black people are not distinguished from black racists. The white supremacist is distinguishable as that title clearly delineates white people from white racists.


Another reason the confusion is so severe is that it's not clear how widespread the black collectivism is. White supremacists are in the minority, and it is a view that is widely despised. If every white person was a white supremacist, the distinction would be harder to make. So percentages matter.


A different reason for the confusion is that black people do have some shared interests despite the fact that skin color wasn't chosen. Any group of people that have been singled out and victimized in the past have a special interest in making sure it doesn't happen again, or that lingering racism doesn't continue. And this special interest might encourage mutual reinforcement or protection. It might foster stronger sympathies and understanding, as well as a more basic distrust of outsiders


These are qualities normally associated with a collectivist view, but are not collectivist at all. These all make sense, at least to some extent. If you lived in a world that was racist and biased against you, you would probably err on the side of caution. But people who share your race may be exempt from this particular distrust. While this is true, it doesn't account for everything, and should not be an excuse for treating individuals as mere group members. If someone has earned your trust and allayed these other concerns, he should be treated appropriately.


The fact that some of these shared values and interests are rational and compatible with individualism makes the picture less clear. Does someone inappropriately (and irrationally) view himself as a mere member of a larger collective? Or does he view himself as an individual with a skin color that makes him susceptible to certain kinds of biases? The difference is critical.


Race collectivism does exist. I think that's clear. But how widespread is it? And how often are legitimate concerns and behaviors confused with it? The answers aren't obvious. And on top of that, how often does the legitimate stuff end up promoting the illegitimate collectivist view?


This is just another nasty side-effect of racism. By forcing people to dwell on their own skin color, it makes race collectivism easier and more attractive.

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