Where does our future lie as a people: together or apart?
16 April 2020 at 8:20 am
Rachel Clark considers the response to COVID-19 through the lens of collectivism and individualism and questions whether when this is all over we can be a more trusting nation.
I’m in the local park, running. My dog is with me, running, sniffing, and peeing. I hear a voice from halfway round the oval: “You need a bag?”. I stop running momentarily, think, and call out my response: “No thanks”. I continue running, and a couple of minutes later I’m parallel with the caller. She looks ready to speak. I continue to run; not a time to talk. As I pass her, she speaks loudly: “You want a bag?” “No thanks”, I try to smile, running on. She continues, now at a yell: “Good job you are doing the right thing then, using a dog bag for your dog”. She is now haranguing me. I continue running, affronted and confused in equal measure. Unfortunately for me this incident comes swiftly after another invasive dog-owner interrogation in the same park, only days earlier. I’m now thinking “don’t we have more important things to worry about?”
And this gets to the nub of it all. The “important things” we are all trying to manage are beyond us individually, and collectively, and I sense that because of this, both of these encounters were about exerting individual control where they could. Not in my 17 years of being on this oval have I experienced what I now think was “community policing”. And whilst not a terrible violation, it has shaken me because I sense an unravelling of the mores of our time; of trust in each other’s actions being reasonable, safe, and ultimately pro-social. What was at play here, for me, was that I was not to be trusted.
When we need to trust each other – now more than ever – this is a huge, community-sized problem.
Thinking more deeply about my response, the news over recent weeks, and how COVID-19 has been managed in other countries around the world, I am drawn to an understanding of human actions based on the socio-political constructs of collectivism and individualism. For those of us who have worked in cross-cultural spaces, such notions hold insights into why people respond the way they do: people from broadly individualistic societies – Australia, The United States, Britain, to name a few – are socialised into desiring, and find in adulthood the perception that they do have, ultimate freedom of action. We are not used to the state announcing its presence – it is a fundamental tenet that we control the state, and not it us.
We are (generally) not monitored by state agencies, and when we are, we rebel against it. Back in 2015 there was civic opposition to the government’s meta-data bill and further back, in 1986, of a proposed introduction of a national identity card – The Australia Card – which was subsequently defeated in the Senate.
Not so in societies where collectivism, in its different guises of communism, socialism, or more common today the developmental state, which guides rather than commands the forces of industry dominant party state capitalism, is the organising principle for human interaction; one where group needs are prioritised over those of individuals. This involves compromise and collective decision making at a family level, alongside technocratic and authoritarian style surveillance methods as a state response. This has been seen in action in various Asian countries through the use of mobile phones: China has an app called Health Code which collects personal health data, including user location and travel movements, whilst providing a personal colour coding from green to red to determine freedom of movement based on health status. South Korea has also been using a Singaporean developed app called TraceTogether which shares information of people’s movements with other users.
Here in Australia, we may soon adopt similar tracing and monitoring methods using our personal devices in an attempt to reduce further community spread of COVID-19, despite our historical antithesis to such measures.
And we are seeing a community shift away from a tolerance and acceptance of individual freedom of movement and action, as witnessed in a huge uptake in community complaints – or “community policing” – through calls to the Covid-19 Hotline… and maybe my recent experiences in the park.
As I muse over all of these momentous changes over such a short time, including socialist-style provisions of state support to our citizens, I do wonder how Australia’s cultural fabric will be changed as a result of these seismic societal shifts. Yes, we may have greater state intrusion into our personal lives in the name of our collective health. We may even see a radical alteration of the public-private healthcare landscape: a good thing in my book. We certainly will hold healthcare workers closer to our hearts and collective esteem. Wouldn’t it also be magnificent if after all of this ceases, we truly recognise the heart of what I believe for us as people is critical: relationships built on trust.
For we truly are better together, when we connect on a human to human level, not based on where we live or how much we earn, but the “staring into the eyes of another” type connection that recognises worth and strength and value and experience. Yes, we can do this as individuals, but I somehow feel that this misses the point. It is in a collective move towards really “seeing” each other for the gifts that we all can bring to the world regardless of economic background, ethnicity, age, gender, sexuality, health or disability, that provides us with a way forward.
Collectivist or individualist, countries worldwide fall somewhere along this continuum, with many influencing factors that means different societies operate as they do. Australia has a real chance at deciding how it wants to live, where it wants to inhabit on this continuum, in light of the COVID-19 shakeup.
Do we really want to return to multimillionaires being rewarded further whilst many citizens can barely afford to pay rent each month?
Do we really want to return to valuing greed, over human need?
What if we returned to a community view of living which sees strength in many different human skills, and recognises that we are only as strong as our weakest community members.
What if we were asked to consider our own personal needs less, and the needs of our collective communities, more?
Not only would we have flattened the curve, but also reduced the distance between those with more resources than any human ever needs, and those who have much less than any human deserves, in a fair society.
It’s an inspiring thought that may just keep us all going, as we continue to live in isolation, for the collective good.
About the author: Rachel Clark is a teacher and community development practitioner with 25 years practice experience. She teaches and mentors future community service workers, organisers and activists to make an impact in their community from a strengths-based, self-care and diversity perspective. Rachel is also the founder of Lumin Leaders (@luminleaders), an organisation which guides human-centred practitioners through educational and psychological support services. Her core values are connection, collaboration, compassion, and curiosity which she uses every-day in her human-centred practices of teaching and community building.