TRANSCRIPT: Finding self in a broken culture of community

Every being and everything that exists, or that which doesn’t exist, plays an essential role in the functioning of our world and beyond, from an ecological, relational, and/or spiritual standpoint. That which has purpose must have connection, therefore, one can argue that every entity in our Universe is connected, spiritually or as part of a system. 

If all entities are connected, they must all be interdependent, to certain extents. Planet Earth reflects its interdependence through the interconnectedness of species in our complex ecosystems, connected Earth processes within ecosystems and processes, connecting ecosystems, as well as the living and non-living worlds.  

Human interdependence is symbolic of the extent to which species are dependent upon connection to other species and entities for survival. Despite emphasis on human independence and freedom from reliance on others, perpetuated within Western cultures and ideologies, humans are extremely dependent on social interactions, particularly with other humans, relationships, with space and Nature, and experiences. 

It’s this innate dependence on our surroundings and relationships that connects us to Earth and builds, or should build, a culture of community and responsibility to manage the health of our land and people, as stewards of the planet. However, we are increasingly seeing a disconnection between humanity and the culture of community, which has been exacerbated by the human-Nature dualism adopted by Western and urban spaces. But this issue runs deeper into the flawed social perception of humanity and the state of being by the dominant culture. As human domination began to spread across societies, the urge for independence from the web of interdependence we had preserved as early humans not only broke our connection to Nature, but so did it damage our ability to uphold the values of compassion, trust, altruism, custodianship and love, which were gifted to us by our pre-colonial cultures of community. The values which define humanity. 

The humanity we currently experience is one that has been defined by colonial, capitalist, imperialist, self-centered systems and mindsets, which have not only ripped us apart from the world, but also from ourselves. As we begin to understand the necessity of connections and the sense of relationality, we are rushing to rebuild bridges between ourselves and the outer world, but through unsustainable means which are instead weakening the foundations of these very bridges. Our self-centered capitalist systems have compelled us to forget the feeling of substance in deep connections. The nourishment of compassion in relationships and the strength of trust and faith in community, resulting many of us to invest into relationships based off transaction, competition, materialism and dishonesty. 

When we attempt to relearn without the efforts of unlearning, we attain a result more detrimental than the knowledge and norms we are trying to outgrow from. So many of us wish to build wholesome relationships but feel outward pressure when expressing this need, a growing sense of intense fear of social alienation if we reject colonial and modern ideologies whilst living under these very systems. 

Luckily for us, realisation of theories such as post-colonialism and postmodernism have already begun the work of departing from radical individualism. But individualising this departure can seem extremely daunting, leaving us to question where do I stand in this limbo of collectivism and individualism? 

Growing up as a first generation child, I managed to stay well connected to my Indian roots as I navigated the foreign grounds of the UK, building upon the English I learned back in India as a 5 year old whilst also discovering aspects of my culture and Hinduism everyday and falling deeply in love with my homeland. But as the years passed, the realisation that I didn’t fit well into the Western world, so fixated upon self, and I no longer could fit back into the society that I knew as home where community and tradition were so also valued, deepened. To overcome the multiple bicultural crises I was experiencing over the years, I adopted radical collectivism to drive myself away from the Western culture, which I felt so alien to, in order to become closer to my Indian culture and heritage. 

But the shift only lead to damaged mental health and self esteem, on top of the traumas I’d experience as a child. I felt alone when battling the internalised war of guilt from trying to put myself and my mental well being before others, or not doing enough to support those closest to me. Being the elder daughter and also the only daughter whose childhood nostalgia consisted of many memories spent in India, I felt a need to connect to the collectivistic culture of back home to represent my family’s values and morals and relive a part of me that was lost through immigration and settling into a foreign place. 

It took many years of active healing work to understand my toxic thought patterns were not just limited to me, but were part of a cycle of unhealed generational traumas that I too became a part of. 

Trauma is mostly experienced by empathic women in my family who had been conditioned to sacrifice self for the benefits of family and community. This led me to question how we could ever practice true self love without being reprimanded for being “selfish” and “inconsiderate to others”, and whether community does matter more than the individual

I felt broken by the unhealthy way in which I was replicating collectivism preserved in Indian culture within my personal life because I was mimicking a broken system of community within my own country. The same system of community values and practices grounded in self-sacrifice that women and empaths in my family had adopted and carried forward, but also the same system which limits collectivism to immediate family in contemporary India. 

For some time, I felt relieved that had been granted the opportunity to detach myself from that culture through immigration, but in the process of unlearning and decolonising mind, body, and spirit, I felt drawn closer and closer to my homeland with the hope that I would rediscover pre-colonial collectivism within India and in it the ancient practice the preserving self in community that has gradually been forgotten in a land which preached of unity, harmony and oneness. 

But first, it’s important to define what self means in relation to ourselves and the wider community. Harry Triandis claims that the self is an active agent which promotes differential sampling, processing and evaluation of information from the environment and leads to behavioural differences in society. Therefore, the self can be independent of groups, self can be culture specific, self can be shared by people living in the same time period, living in the same environments, speaking the same language and or sharing familial bonds such as teknonymy. Or self can be universal, not context specific. 

We often differentiate itself into 3 categories: public, private and collective self. The private self is composed of cognitions involving traits and behaviours of a person. The public self is composed of cognitions involving others views of self, and the collective self is the cognitions concerning a view of self that is found in some sort of collective such as family and tribes. All three forms are constructed by an assessment of self, so self is a product of either individual or group opinions and standpoints. Based on this theory, Triandis suggests the possible effect of culture on the number of cognitions within the private and collective self, where the private self is emphasised more within individualistic cultures and the collective self is emphasised more in collectivistic cultures. Similarly, people from individualistic cultural backgrounds would be more likely to retrieve more private self cognitions and fewer collective self cognitions than those from collectivistic cultures. 

It’s not surprising to find that collectivism is more openly adopted in non-Western regions than Western nations, where Indigenous values and practices of community are still integral parts of non-Western social cultures. The social norm of making non-intimate acquaintances and being more self-reliant within individualistic cultures is not found in close knit, interdependent, non-Western and Indigenous communities. This shows our flawed understanding of the construct of collectivism, which is generally perceived as “having many connections” instead of having meaningful connections and meaningful relationships. 

There have been multiple studies which represent their social divide between the West and non-Western nations. For instance, Singh et al. 1962 surveyed differences and similarities in the personalities of Indian and Chinese International University students compared to American students at the Ohio State University, from a range of fields such as natural sciences and arts, and for different religious, spiritual and atheist beliefs. Students were given questionnaires to complete on values, lifestyle, and personal preferences in their own time and to be submitted anonymously. The study was able to find a striking contrast between the self-centered approach shown by American students compared to the strong emphasis given to social life and disapproval of self-centeredness by Chinese students. Indian students, on the other hand, were more in the middle, being highly sympathetic to others due to upbringing, but also maintaining their individuality. Both Chinese and Indian students scored higher for the authoritarian personality compared to American students due to social hierarchies present within Asian families, where age is a strong determinant of power, wisdom and respect. Therefore, peaceful coexistence within this hierarchy through submission was shown to be favoured by Indian and Chinese students. On the other hand, American students scored high for autonomy and preferred more social privacy. Indian and Chinese students gave more emphasis on sympathy, affection, familial bonds, and self-sacrifice, reflecting the early rearing of socially-oriented children in these cultures. 

Whilst neo-individualistic cultures, characterised by individual independence from an emotional detachment in groups, have been associated to higher levels of GNP, economic development and improved governance, radical individualism has also been linked to multiple forms of social pathology, such as high crime rate, divorce rates, cases of child abuse and rates of mental and physical illness. This is most likely due to the lack of adequate social support, which makes a person more vulnerable to such pathology. 

In comparison, the relationship of individuals to the ing-roup tends to be more stable in collectivistic cultures, even if the in-group makes costly demands, completely opposite to the social norm of dropping in-groups that cause inconvenient demands within individualistic cultures. So collectivism emphasizes upon collective coping, harmony and collaboration, which can result in reduced stress for individuals coping with the effects of unpleasant life experiences and reduce insecurity and stress associated to competition, therefore, promoting more stability in self-in-group relationships, but also improving mental and physical health related to stressful environments, permitting the negative effects of collectivism such as political corruption and low levels of economic development. 

Previous ecological and individual level studies in suicidology have shown positive associations between adoption of individualistic values by societies and individuals, as well as increased rates of completed suicide and suicidal behaviour. Multiple studies with student participants have shown this positive association, for example, a paper by Eskin (2013) found that suicide ideations and attempts within Turkish adolescents and young adults tended to be more common for idiocentric participants, so those having individualistic-oriented values, than for allocentric participants, those having collectivistic-oriented values, and that idiocentric participants were also less accepting of a suicidal close friend than allocentrics in the study. Similar results were also seen in a study by Du et al. (2014), looking at hopelessness on substance use for idiocentric and allocentric young rural to urban migrants in China, with results showing that individualism predicted increased hopelessness and more substance usage, whereas the opposite trend was seen for collectivistic-oriented migrants. Therefore, collectivism acted as a protective factor for substance use in the study and individualism was a risk factor. However, the study pointed out that while collectivism ensured of more emotional support by family and society, this result is most likely reflective of Chinese collectivistic sociocultural; collectivism may not act as the protective factor to the same extent within individualistic cultures like the USA and the UK e.g. immigrants moving from a collectivistic society to a more individualistic one may demonstrate complex relationships between cultural orientation and risky behaviours. 

It is understandable to predict the detrimental effects of neo-individualism on individual and collective health, particularly because we have all originally come from collectivistic Indigenous cultures. Indigenous collectivism has been the social norm for millennia across the globe until communities were fragmented with the strengthening of social hierarchies, centralised socio-economic and political structures and westernisation of nations. Therefore, decolonising ourselves, our spaces and social structures is really essential in helping us reconnect to the Indigenous collectivism which previously aided us and is currently aiding Indigenous communities in better managing community and planetary health. 

One example is the ensemble leadership theory, defined by Rosile et al. (2018) paper as a collectivistic, dynamic and decentred alternative to traditional leadership emerging from contemporary Indigenous scholarship. Ensemble leadership views leadership as a collective phenomenon, which privileges the collective rather than individual and rejects the traditional leader-follower dualism. Leadership from this indigenous standpoint is not viewed as static but rather momentarily co-created by interacting parties, therefore taking a decentralised approach to leadership through non-linear networks such as heterarchies, which promotes greater egalitarianism. The non-linearity of ensemble leadership is present throughout Indigenous ontologies, epistemologies, and pedagogies. The ancient knowledge system of storytelling represents this; dynamic and cyclical in nature, Indigenous stories don’t have a beginning-middle-end structure, Eurowestern stories do. And this undefined and flexible structure can be seen within social structures such as ensemble leadership. 

As a result, Indigenous psychology is now emerging as a new decolonised power structure for world economies and politics through various Indigenous movements. Non-Western psychologists argue that theory and practice in mainstream psychology contains Western ethnocentric bias and to avoid academic colonialist practices, translation to non-Western countries must be made with modifications for local cultures

We can see the benefits of community and harmonious living, yet the question I asked at the start still partially remains unanswered. Where do I stand in community, and does communities still mean more than the individual? 

But I think this question is a product of not cultural practices and norms, but rather the restricted understanding of complexity of human nature exemplified by the individualism-collectivism dichotomy. 

Maxim Voronov and Jefferson Singer challenge the individualism-collectivism dualism by arguing that such dichotomies erase the nuances of social entities and instead reinforce cultural stereotypes rather than represent cultures and all societies, or even worse, it leads to the good and bad comparisons, as demonstrated by the studies I’ve mentioned. Just because members of collectivistic cultures act collectivistically, doesn’t mean that they like to do that or feel it necessary to always be acting that way. It could just mean that they are following the social norm, and the same goes for members of individualistic cultures. There are so many cross national differences between individualism and collectivism within subcultures and individuals. Therefore, this reductionist approach to studying culture religions undermines diversity, dynamism and complexity of human behaviour and societies. For instance, people from collectivistic cultures have also shown to have little regard for people not belonging to their in-group. Putting the needs of those from your community before others is a common phenomenon. 

The possible negative effects of this classification was also emphasised in a paper published by Darwish and Heber (2003), which tested differences in measurements of social orientations between German and Egyptian university students and suggested solutions for these differences. The study also found that German students, both male and female, expressed significantly more individualistic tendencies than Egyptian students and Egyptian students score significantly higher on collectivism than German students. The study suggested potential benefits of fostering the categorisation and personalisation processes within intercultural education in an individualistic environment where promotion of differentiation and personalisation of individuals within the collectivistic group may promote mutual understanding of cultural diversity within individualistic in-groups. Darvish and Heber hoped that this may help idiocentric Western students no longer perceive the out-group as a homogeneous group categorised by stereotypes, but rather comprised of individuals with personal and unique traits and attitudes to foster a “we are all the same” mindset. But since this is an individualistic approach, it may in turn make students with a collectivistic orientation feel even more alienated as they are no longer viewed part of the collective. 

It’s clear from these results that we need to reframe the approach of individualism and collectivism for cross cultural studies to one which fosters social complexity. Voronov and Singer suggest exploring dichotomies such as cooperativeness vs competitiveness, and social constructs such as trust, will retrieve more useful results in cross-national and cross-cultural research because these concepts are related to specific behavioural patterns which can be measured

The dominant culture has for too long emphasised on distinction, separatism, and defined boundaries. So, why don’t we overcome these differences by focusing on how we relate to one another instead of how we don’t relate? How similar we are instead of how different we are? How complex we are instead of how we can be grouped into categories with boundaries?

What if we were to erase these borders, break down the walls of difference and bridge the gaps in our knowledge of what it means to be a relational being?

I felt broken by my experiences of community because I soon realised our collectivistic behaviours within Western and multicultural environments, even within India were mostly all superficial, and that if people showed any regard to me was only because I was part of their in-group. That care was not translated to out-groups, and had I been part of these outgroups, I too would be disregarded. 

As an empath and a radically related being, these social norms strongly went against my morals of equal support and care for all for both ingroups and outgroups, and this left me feeling alone in my unwavering morality. Now, in the process of decolonisation, I realise that community is not a homogeneous entity but rather a complex network of relationships built on the foundations of trust, relatedness and compassion. 

Community is not just limited to who shares the same language as you, who shares the same ethnicity as you, who shares the same ancestry as you. Community extends well beyond the physical and tangible and dives into the abstract and spiritual. That community which does not see labels but instead sees values in all states of being. The community I was experiencing was a distorted contemporary form of community which many are experiencing, one which rejects uniqueness and the state of being one with yourself, even if these communities may appear to be celebrating individuality and self-love. 

Communities don’t make the individual. Individuals make communities. It’s this Indigenous worldview which allows individual standpoints, mentalities, and sense of relatedness to retain stability and complexity within community, but also re-establish a culture of understanding and respect for every other being, and every other community.