The Individual versus the Community

Okay…now that I brought up the issue of dichotomies, here’s one that I’ve been personally conflicted about. Maybe it’s because there’s this underlying perspective that fiction and non-fiction are generally at odds. Fiction is the “opiate of the masses” and non-fiction is “the truth.”

When it comes to resisting propaganda, it is often suggested that the power really is in the people. It’s the work of the public that can promote media reform and a change in political standards. This is a really hopeful notion, one that I believe, for the most part, to be true.

But there is a certain association that goes with the word “activist.” It is the revolutionary, the person who devotes their life to a cause. It is the person functioning on behalf of the community.

I think this term scares a lot of people away. I remember an activist friend of mine once saying that it’s as if people who are trying to promote change have to work exponentially harder to make up for everyone who doesn’t. I think that to a large extent this is absolutely true. Change isn’t an unlikely goal–it only requires that everyone work a little harder.

But then it comes down to the individual functioning for the community. And this in itself isn’t fulfilling enough. For me, I can’t imagine not devoting time to these issues. It’s an important part of being human to have empathy for others, to look out for each other, to speak up for those who have been denied a voice. But then there’s the side that needs something more. To focus on the personal. To be an artist.

It can be different things to different people. To be successful. To be a good parent. Everyone has their own way of defining themselves.

I think it comes down to the fact that those in the spotlight–whether it be activists, scholars, journalists, politicians–are held to entirely different standards than everyone else. That’s why their personal lives are so pettily scrutinized. Anyone who carries their cause on their sleeve is bound to be criticized.

I think it’s the issue of balance that is so difficult. It’s essential for people to see these perspectives as one and the same–as essential components of being human. They might address different aspects of the human condition, but both are equally necessary.

Joseph Campbell once said that communities should be designed for the benefit of the individual rather than the individual for the benefit of the community. But I think a recognition of this balance is necessary before this goal can be achieved.

1 Comment

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One response to “The Individual versus the Community

  1. James

    Thanks for this food for thought. I often see the issue of activism from the perspective of “public goods.” Public goods are often under-provided because the awards are reaped by all and so the individual often lacks an incentive to contribute — why clean up the park if others aren’t going to pitch in? I agree that activism can only work if the individual gets real fulfillment out of it and they should not burn themselves out or get frustrated if no one else wants to contribute. It has to be its own reward. I think mainstream media and the culture industry do not help, because they marginalize politics. Networks and studio films avoid controversy and sanitize politics, therefore pushing the status quo. I think of the last Oscars where the makers of “The Cove” tried to flash a sign about dolphins — and were censored. So activism is not necessarily “cool” — especially for young people — because there are few reference points in popular culture. But fortunately there are exceptions (Michael Moore, Erin Brockovic, etc.) and freethinkers.

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