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New Worlds: The Individual vs. the Collective

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There are certain parts of culture baked in so deeply that we may not realize they’re a part of our worldbuilding, because we don’t even realize they’re part of our world.

One of the places I see this most clearly is when it comes to the idea of individualism. By this I don’t mean the shallow sense of being quirky and unique, the sort of person who always wears unusual clothing or behaves in eccentric ways; I mean the ideology that promotes the self above all, in contrast with philosophies that emphasize the importance of the community and collective interests.

Because I’ve lived my entire life in a country that enshrines individualism possibly higher than any society in history has ever done, it’s easy for me to sing the praises of that ideology. Honesty! Self-reliance! Meritocracy! We hear its triumphant song whenever a woman refuses to “stay in her place” (below the less qualified men around her), whenever a queer person stops living a lie of heterosexuality or cisgender identity, whenever an abused person leaves their abuser despite the protests of their community. When each person has full freedom to live up to their potential, great things can result.

But.

There’s another side to the story, isn’t there? It’s the side where people insist that mask mandates are an unacceptable infringement of their individual liberty, because their personal freedom to court a lethal disease is more important than helping to protect their neighbors during a pandemic. Where anyone who can’t hack it on their own gets left behind, because charity encourages and rewards weakness, and nevermind the structural inequalities dragging part of the population down. Where “I’m just speaking my mind” is offered up as justification for all manner of verbal cruelty.

The other side of the spectrum has its own equivalents, of course. Collectivism and communalism are great when they operate as a safety net, making sure nobody’s abandoned on the side of the road as the rest of society marches on. When they offer a sense of belonging, the assurance that it’s not up to you to find all the answers on your own. We’re social creatures, not solitary predators — no matter what fantasies the more rabid preppers like to indulge in. We need a community to survive.

Again, though: but. Collectivism also tells us, the tall weed gets cut down. The price of having a place in the world is that you’re supposed to stay in it. If you don’t fit, then it’s your responsibility to cram yourself in somehow, even if that means cutting bits of yourself off in the process. Better that than to burden everybody else with your demands for special treatment. Cultural norms and social pressure have all too often been used to privilege one subset of the population at the expense of another, passing that imbalance off as “the greater good.”

Neither approach is purely right, of course. Both individualism and collectivism can be done well, and they can be done badly. But the reason I bring it up here is that I suspect many writers rarely put much thought at all into this topic — and don’t realize just how profoundly it shapes their stories.

Anglophone fiction is soaked in the ideology of individualism, because that is the ideology that dominates the modern West in general, the English-speaking part of it in particular, and the American part of it above all. How many times have you read a novel, watched a TV show or film, or played a game where the plot hinges on the actions of a single protagonist, or at most a small group of special heroes? How often is the protagonist an iconoclast, refusing to accept their allotted place in life? How often have you heard characters exhorted to follow their dreams, and how often have those people found happy endings by rebelling against the restrictions society wants to place on them? The fact that their actions might bring unhappiness to their families, bosses, and other community members is merely an obstacle for them to overcome on their way to the triumphant finale. It’s so normalized, I suspect many people think that’s just what a story should look like.

Not all fiction is like this, of course, even in the English language. Tao Wong’s Thousand Li series, which explores the Chinese “cultivation fantasy” genre (where mystical martial artists grow their power in a bid to become immortal), pays attention to this continuum: by dint of leaving their families behind to pursue individual immortality, the characters are already breaking from the communal norm of mundane society. But within their sects, there is still pressure to defer to elders . . . and is there equal pressure on the elders to do right by those below them? In the fifth novel, Wong comments directly on this tension, when the protagonist’s master goes out of his way to help his student at a moment of great need:

Yet because they [unlike blood bonds] were chosen, so many relations between teacher and student, between those who trained, were strained, weak. All too often, the loyalty, the obligation only flowed one way. From student to teacher, where obligation transcended any weighting and grew, ever onward. All too often, what was given in return were but simple lessons — if that much — and chains of piety. […] To find a true family, individuals who would honor the unspoken demands of a proper teacher and student relationship, was rare.

What makes sense for a fictional culture is going to depend heavily on what that culture looks like. If you’re drawing from a particular real-world inspiration, paying attention to this aspect will help keep your characters from feeling like modern Americans in fancy dress. (But don’t go too far: emphasizing communal interests too heavily, especially when writing something that clearly draws on Asian models, very rapidly turns into fetishization.) If your setting is more broadly invented, what makes sense with the society in question? A rural community with deep roots and not a lot of opportunity or exchange with the outside world is not the place for a bunch of rabid individualists, and even a character destined to leave for greater things might well feel some qualms about losing the close-knit fabric of their family and neighbors. Meanwhile, an industrialized society with a very heterogenous population — like the modern U.S. — is going to have a harder time bonding into such a fabric, because what do we have in common besides mere spatial proximity?

Even when it makes worldbuilding sense to lean more into the communal side of things, though, that’s easier said than done, because your readers may find it dissatisfying. How often do we see our stories’ central characters step back from the pursuit of their own interests — and see that presented as a good resolution to a conflict? More often, I suspect, when those stories are written by people outside the central current of individualistic society; this is one of the reasons we benefit from a more diverse range of storytellers. But even then, it’s tempting to have one’s cake and eat it to, as in the film Crazy Rich Asians, where the heroine gets exactly what she wants by first giving it up. Individual desires are surrendered for the sake of others, while those who benefit most from the so-called “greater good” relax their own grip to make someone else happy.

Forget magic. Some days, it feels like that’s the real fantasy.

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9 thoughts on “New Worlds: The Individual vs. the Collective”

  1. Great post! The tension between structure and self is, as you know, one of the core things anthropologists try to get at (including those of us who are archaeologists), and it is one of the hardest things, which makes it among the most interesting. To what extent, in any time, and any place, does a person have the right to choose their actions? And to those of us in hyper-individualistic societies, we are pre-programmed to think that “freedom to choose” looks like choosing things that are against the grain. We tend to not see it as individual action if a person chooses to do the mainstream (and I would think from a writing perspective, would be likely to think that such a character was not a good protagonist, and probably was not very interesting). I have been recently reading a book series, though, set in Medieval Russia, that does a brilliant job of showing the pain caused by an individual who is unable to follow her society’s structure. Pain to her, to her family, to the society broadly, because she and her family legitimately love one another and want the best for each other, and in a world where everyone lives close to death at all times, being different means you are likely to be the first to die, but at the same time, the protagonist is absolutely not able to cut off the pieces of herself that do not fit. And the author (who is American), explores this tension very well. Frequently, as you noted above, our success narratives do not cover that darker side of the rugged individual…there is often discussion of the cost of NOT being “yourself” but not discussion of the cost of being different.

    1. Yes, there’s costs both ways — but a lot of our fiction either ignores the consequences of being different and bucking societal trends, or reduces them to cartoonish stereotypes that are easily overcome. It’s much rarer to see a story that really explores the pain and/or risk involved.

  2. Jennifer Stevenson

    Our society is obsessed with individualism. We prize the individual and his singularity above all things in our stories (gender choice deliberate), and in real society we punish them pretty severely. If as storytellers we fail to award space to the characters to be different, as with little Oblio, the boy born without a point, then our audience gets angry. This is their fantasy: that difference is good, is okay, is acceptable. It’s our job to defend and justify Oblio.
    We’re differently tolerant of difference in real life. In this, our society is no different from any other.
    Yet we can’t really write any other kind of approach to individualism.
    I’m reminded of the boring sameness I found in Soviet science fiction, back when I first started reading it in the 60s and 70s. Always with the rebellion against authoritarianism! Yawn!
    For anyone who comes from a society that more calmly accepts the subsuming of the individual into community, our relentless rebellion against what we cannot represent as other than stifling community must also be boring, an obsession, get over it, yeeks, guys.

  3. For many readers of a certain age, perhaps the first time we ran up against the expectations of our cultural grain in storytelling of the individual was with James Clavell’s Shogun. Like John Blackthorne, I hit walls of non-comprehension frequently in the choices made by Lady Toda Mariko, such as her submission to her husband’s abuse (though Clavell manages to provide him with a sympathetic hearing as well), her belief in her honor consisting of her family’s honor — despite Blackthorne’s own sense of honor, that of the Portuguese hildagos — which differentiates them, as it does that of the Jesuits from the lower class European sailors who swill when they can, and will wallow in their own filth — such deep sense of honor inextricably that of the family. The culmination of honor for the individual is to kill oneself for one’s family.

    Of course, in the end it is an Individual who is the true plot puller, who is playing the longest game of all, who is the True Power — and it isn’t that of a European, but Toranaga, who becomes Shogun, the power of the emperor, the lord for whom Mariko gives her life, as she is honor bound to do, who plays the European so well he doesn’t even know at the conclusion he’s actually imprisoned for life in Japan.

    So many cultural expectations that for those of us in the US stood on their heads. This novel, for better or worse as a novel presenting another culture to the US, really did that for so many of us, which, for this reader at least, provided continuing reading pleasure and engagement.

    1. I started reading that book in high school, when I first became interested in Japan, but I never finished it. Part of me wonders what I would think of it now, after twenty-plus years of learning more about that country, its history, and its culture . . .

  4. Your essay sparked some interesting chords in my mind. Back in the mid 1990s, my first books were released. Now I’m rereading them to prepare to re-release them here on BVC next year. I don’t really remember writing a lot of the prose.

    What strikes me is that I had set up a magic system where one source of magic can only be used by one person and is limited to their own strength and knowledge. The other source can be used communally and the power is increased exponentially. Solo magicians become competative and self involved. Individualists, doing what they want, when they want, and spit on anyone getting in their way. Communal magicans work together for the good of all.

    Remove the communal magic source and the entire society begins to break down. Every person for themselves.

    Didn’t know I was being prophetic about local politics, representing the increasing gap between two parties, two philosophies. Have you noticed traffic lately? People who spend too much on their powerful gas guzzling vehicles believe they bought the road to go with it. They drive at any speed they like, spanning two lanes, and woe be it to anyone who tries to pass them?

  5. In the Symposium, Plato has a character casually mention that male homosexuals must be forced by law to marry and begot children.

  6. The interesting aspect is not so much whether the social imperative is toward “individualism” or “collectivism,” but what is done by society to those who don’t conform to those expectations. Some of this form of Othering is apparent in routine bigotry; much is more subtle but equally damaging. And it’s especially interesting when crossing backward from institutions adopting the opposite imperative of the underlying society: Consider a highly individualistic society from which an “unconventional hero” fighter joins a lockstep, highly conformist military, and refuses to conform, or conversely a rigidly conformist society from which a pillar-of-the-community member joins a mental health/social work system and refuses to engage with the individualized treatment and circumstances of the patients before them. In both instances, there will be both direct “workplace” and spillover “off-duty” consequences for everyone.

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