Some remarks on individualism and collectivism

BBC - Thought for the Day, 29 November 2005
Should the aid workers [recently kidnapped] still have been in Iraq? I was struck yesterday by the different perspective of those commenting on the kidnapping. The spokesman for Care International, another aid agency, was quite clear. For him, the answer was "No". His priority in a dangerous environment was the safety of his staff. Canon Andrew White, much involved in the Iraqi conflict, was reported as taking the same line; indeed, he'd warned the group a year ago that if they didn't leave they risked being kidnapped.

So were the group irresponsible in staying, and by so doing, putting their own life at risk? A local bishop, Bishop Riah, Bishop of Jerusalem, took a very different line. He was glad that they'd stayed, because their presence demonstrated that the Christian community is not merely a part of an occupying force. Their presence demonstrated that they were on the side of the Iraqi people. Their's could be a reconciling presence articulating the voice of the voiceless.

"Yes, but is it worth the possible sacrifice?" the bishop was asked. "Definitely," was his answer. "Reconciling partners may always risk their lives, but that is the right thing to do in a worthy cause."

The Rt Rev. Tom Butler takes his thought for the day in the direction of 'martyrdom' and consequences thereof. But there is more to be learned from Bishop Riah's position. It shows a certain view of life and the role of an individual's life in the overall scheme of things. This idea runs counter the currently prevalent version of enlightenment called 'secular humanism' which, strangely enough, is shared (at least in the 'culture of life' rhetoric) by the religious right. This maintains that the individual's life, ambitions, potential is of paramount concern and the needs of society at large (or other suprapersonal groupings) need to be subjugated to it.

This is present in many of the narratives of our time (such as the 'love conquers all' or 'rags to riches' schemas). However, there are also many narratives that try to grapple with the dilemma. Some do it through the prism of personal responsibility (Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a great example of that) others through describing alien cultures (one particular episode of Star Trek comes to mind). The two possible interpretations of Anna Karenina might exemplify this as well (thanks to Jamie Potter for reminding me): 1. impersonal and callous societal rules hounded her to suicide 2. her betrayal of the values of the society gave her no other option but to commit suicide.

It is interesting how all explanations of suicide bomber motivations in the Western press stem from the individual (angry mothers or sisters, enemployed men, mentally unstable individuals) whereas historically, such 'sacrifices' were considered simply a role an individual is required to play as part of the whole (I'm reminded of the Oceanic small-island nations whose members would set out to sea in times of food shortages to die - described by Jared Diamond in Colapse). Presumably, the Arab press might give a different slant (but I have no evidence of that). But we can only read such a perspective as a 'glorification of violence' (so presumably much of the westernized Arab press will do the same) and never even consider the 'glorification of doing one's duty' (or what is perceived as one's duty).

If this sounds like cultural relativism, it is probably because it is cultural relativism. But not in the naive sense (that Jerry Fodor hates more than people in motor boats). Hopefully, I'll get a chance to delve into the subject later.