TL;DR: In this article I provide simple examples of collectivist and individualist thinking to provide clarification on the previous article in this series. A collectivist viewpoint often overlooks important aspects of what is going on in a given situation. With this said, collectivist generalization can be very useful by greatly simplifying the situations that we are analyzing. We should always be aware of how our ideas are simplified and be ready to utilize a more accurate individualist understanding when necessary.
Last time we covered the basics of collectivism and individualism in the senses that I use them. In this article I will further explain these concepts and provide different examples of types of individualism and collectivism.
To return to one of the most useful examples that I proposed last time, let us take “a country”, such as the United States, and think about the role of the United States in terms of foreign affairs. Consider the claim that “The United States wanted to invade Iraq”. What does this phrase mean? For collectivists, this represents a “black box”. The most enthusiastic collectivist would interpret this in a similar way as one might interpret the statement “The dog wanted to bite the man”, where the acting agent was entirely, or almost entirely, united in its desire.
To try and make sense of this on a national scale, it would have to mean that nearly all individuals wanted to invade Iraq. In reality, of course, there were a large number of people who opposed the war from day one. This fact is what helped to end the occupation as quickly as it ended, and caused the United States Military to behave in the way as it did. This fact is important. If the nation was really full of hawks, then the occupation of Iraq may well have been more intense and probably longer lasting. Within groups, the divergence of opinions and power have an important role in how events occur.
This does not mean, of course, that the statement “the United States wanted to Invade Iraq” is without use, so long as it is properly understood. For what it means when reasonably interpreted is simply “the prevailing consensus among high ranking officials within the United States Federal Government, with enough support by relevant sections of the public, wanted to launch a military invasion of Iraq”. This in turn could be further broken down into distinctions of which parts of the public supported the war and who in the Federal Government supported the war. This would be messy, difficult to articulate, and extremely time consuming. Simply saying that “America wanted to invade Iraq”, communicates much of the above information in an articulate and concise manner, so long as one interprets it correctly.
As another example of how collectivist concepts can hide important realities, let us consider the statement “the decline in the cost of food will be good for America”. What does this mean? Once again, from a collectivist standpoint it would appear to mean that Americans unequivocally benefit from the fall in food prices. The statement wipes away the different conditions and experiences of individual participants, leaving only the conditions of “America”. Yet a further examination shows that this is obviously false.
Take farmers, for instance. The decrease in the price of food may well harm them, since now the crops that they sell are not worth as much as they once were. This decreases their incomes and quality of living. On the other hand, however, for many American families are indeed better off, for the cost of a large portion of what they spend money on has now decreased. This is just one clear example of how collectivist thinking obscures reality.
Generalization, or the act of making many individual cases a collective unit, is incredibly important. As I will outline elsewhere, it is the very essence of what allows our language to work. But when we overgeneralize and fail to understand the meaning of our generalizations, then we are bound to make serious errors. Sometimes, when dealing with something like intricate discussions of international politics or the economy, it is far, far, simpler to perform a relatively collectivist analysis where nations appear as singular pieces on a chessboard. This is because what is lost in accuracy is made up in simplicity and ease of discussion. But even this will oftentimes yield errors if we take our collective abstractions too seriously.