Posted by: terrapraeta | December 29, 2009


Neon lights, Nobel Prize
When a mirror speaks, the reflection lies
You won’t have to follow me
Only you can set me free

I sell the things you need to be
I’m the smiling face of your T.V. ohh…
I’m the Cult of Personality
I exploit you; still you love me
I tell you one and one makes three ohh…
I’m the Cult of Personality
Like Joseph Stalin and Gandhi ohh…
I’m the Cult of Personality
the Cult of Personality
the Cult of Personality

Living Colour, Cult of Personality

Dave posted an article over the weekend inspired by an email from a friend on Second Life. She writes of the “cult of individualism” in western culture and how that factor is either overlooked, or held up as a benchmark in the efforts to build community. And that individualism stands directly in the way of community building.

As I commented on first reading her email, I think she was about 98% correct. There were a few things she said that raised a flag for me, and interestingly – or inevitably – these were the same bits that Dave quoted at the end of his article, looking for comments from readers. He writes:

I’d be interested in your thoughts on Nelda’s comment that, in order to be effective, at least initially, “the self must be subsumed to the group” — that model communities must be zealous and single-minded in their pursuit of shared objectives and intentions and that until then “individual expression or interpretation must not be tolerated”. It is true, I think, that indigenous cultures and truly effective communities tend to be of one mind, and fanatic about their values, principles and beliefs. Yet Chris Corrigan, who has worked closely with many aboriginal communities, stresses “passion bounded by [individual] responsibility“, that while the collective must listen carefully and respectfully to all the ideas expressed by community members, ultimately the decision on what to do (or not do) is left to the absolute discretion of the individual.

So let me break this down.

When I first read “the self must be subsumed to the group” I saw this as a total denial of individual identity. And I had a very strong negative reaction. (Nelda repeatedly claims that this negative reaction is the proof of her statements.) I decided to look up subsume and figure out precisely what that statement did, in fact, imply. What I found was: “include, embody, embrace, comprise” etc. All of those words, I would stand by 100%. Yes, the individual must become a part of the community, such that supporting the community is a selfish act. The needs, goals, interests of the community as a whole must be ones primary priority. However, I don’t know if this is what she meant to say, of if she percieved the word subsume the same way I initially did. Looking further, the word I perceived would be sublimate: “make pure, draw something out.” I would love to hear her thoughts on this.

A community must be zealous and single minded in pursuit of their goals. Yes. But this, in and of itself, says nothing at all of the individuals that comprise the community. Strong, independant, thoughtful people can come together in zealous single minded pursuit of shared goals. But when she goes so far as to say “individual expression or interpretation must not be tolerated” I think she is missing the boat. Individual opinion must not be allowed to prevent the community from achieving it’s shared goals, nor to impede progress, nor to antagonize the group as a whole (or individually). But this is not the same as eschewing all individual personality, opinion or choice.

I have been giving a lot of thought to the technical structure of intentional communities lately, and I have come to the conclusion that Formal Consensus, while I understand the intent, is probably a very poor way to try and manage a group of people. First because it is formal. Real people don’t interact this way so it is a structure forced upon people (however much those people choose to accept it). Second because consensus is almost impossible to reach amongst a group of people. This leads to endless time spent trying to weedle, convince, cajole or worse.

So how else would we co-ordinate the efforts of a group? Going back to the beginning, I think of primary concern is that the shared goals of the group are honestly shared goals. That, in and of itself, will help to achieve a single mind mentality. At least where those shared goals are concerned. Second, as in traditional groups, a majority or a spokesman of some sort may determine the direction the group takes – yet when that choice is made, no individual can be compelled to act upon it. If someone is consistently in opposition to the group, then obviously there is fundamental problem – that somehow, somewhere the groups goals do not, in fact, coincide with that particular individuals goals and so a separation must eventually occur.

What we do not need, however, and I think this is the point that Nelda missed, is anything resembling groupthink. Groupthink is so prevalent in civilization that we overlook this as much as we overlook the cult of individualism. And honestly, I think that is because we would not have either one without the other. Individualism is reactionary to groupthink. It is an effort to set ourselves a part from everyone else because we feel like if we do not we will simply cease to exist. And – I think this is important – it is in this individualism that we access our creativity, it is how we access that part of ourselves that can imagine possibilities, create alternatives, and ultimately, create real relationships. And these are all things that we need in great quantity if we are to move forward into a new kind of world.

One last point, I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but at the end of her email, Nelda implies that these ideals we need to achieve, this community, this single minded zealotry needs to be universally applicable. That we need to subsume ourselves into a single world wide consciousness. This is pure crap – if it was what she meant. Dunbar has shown how absurd this is and will always be. Whatever else we are, we are still animals with certain structural limitations. So yes, we need zealous, focused communities dedicated to creating a different world… but we need 10,000 ways not one way. And then it will not matter if some of those ways fail – in fact, we can expect that to be the case. Those that work will flourish, those that do not work will evolve or die. As it should be.



    This is directed at those who admire and criticize Ayn Rand’s beliefs about people who stand on their own feet. Most who criticize Rand say she promoted selfishness, thereby greed, which is self-centered and anti-individual creativity, therefore, anti-Rand. Rand admired the creative individual, such as James Jerome Hill, on whom she was reputed to have based her character Dabney Taggart in Atlas Shrugged. If we look at Howard Roark’s summation to the jury, from Fountainhead, we do not see a self-centered individual destroying his work. Were he greedy, he would have simply accepted his payment. We see a self-interested, other- and outer-centered individual in love with his own dreams and creations, as one would love a spouse, child or family and refuse to allow them to be assaulted. Though love for anything spiritual may be missing, a great idea or vision also measures up to that which is spiritual, and that view is not inconsistent with Christianity.

  2. “Groupthink is so prevalent in civilization that we overlook this as much as we overlook the cult of individualism. And honestly, I think that is because we would not have either one without the other. Individualism is reactionary to groupthink. It is an effort to set ourselves a part from everyone else because we feel like if we do not we will simply cease to exist.”

    Hooray, well put.

    I actually don’t think of it as a cult (can’t quite see the justification for that metaphor)- I think of it just as widespread narcissism, and as Stephanie Dowrick outlines so well in ‘Intimacy and Solitude’, narcissism is a problem of *not enough* sense of self, rather than too much.

    Thanks for digging into the word “subsume” for us. I’m going to go and ponder “zealous” for a while now (trying to get the Simon Zealotes dance number from Jesus Christ Superstar out of my head!)


  3. Clay: I’m not really sure at all what the point of your comment was, in context with this discussion….

    John: Thanks! 🙂

    The “cult” terminology, for me, refers to more of a “subculture” than a real cult. Or, looked at another way… like the “cult of personality” in our musical selection of the day 😉 Let me know where your pondering leads re: “zealous”


  4. My wife and I talk about the issue of group decision making quite a bit as part of our imagining a tribal way to live. And while I think you’re right about formal consensus I think the big problem is that requirement to beat every last holdout down until they give in and agree with the group. On the other hand 50% + 1 democracy doesn’t seem like a good idea either.

    I think that the Primary Goal of the group when making a decision must be to “Maintain the Group”. Everything else has to be held secondary to that. If a decision is good for all of the individuals but it causes the group to break apart then the group cannot make that decision.

    This is one of the reasons that I think groups that survive will all be based around families (my wife disagrees). I think that the family bond will help the group to hold together through disagreement and other distress. At the very least the group will need to replace family as the cultural center (and that does sound cult-like).


  5. Hey Jim —

    You nailed it exactly… beating down the hold out… and no, I wouldn’t want 50% +1 to hold sway, either. I’m thinking of an organic middleground… no “fixed number” but rather seeking a “sense” that the group as a whole is on the same page, even if the exact details are a little muddy, even if there are one or two that don’t quite see it the same way… make any sense? Something that will need to be worked out carefully in any given group, but without incessant meetings and conversation that feels like going in circles and wasting everyone’s time and energy….

    I may be with your wife on the families thing. I mean… sure there will be some family associations… and within a few generations we’ll certainly be looking at strong extended family ties… but at the start, I think it will be pretty limited. In my own case, I hope my son will be with me in time… but his father won’t, nor will my siblings or parents. Unless something unprecedented changes.


  6. > no “fixed number” but rather seeking
    > a “sense” that the group as a whole is
    > on the same page, even if the exact
    > details are a little muddy, even if there
    > are one or two that don’t quite see it the
    > same way… make any sense?

    Exactly. And beyond this the group will need to recognize that not all decisions are group decisions and try to stay out of those. (e.g. a dispute between two members of the group is between those two members until they ask for help or it begins to really stress the group as a whole)

    My point about families isn’t that most of them would be able to work it out, it is just that there is a base level of commitment to family that is higher than the base level of commitment to friends. This implies to me that non-family based groups will be more likely to fall apart. Certainly some of this is cultural (if we don’t take care of our families we’re “bad” people, but if we don’t take (as good) care of our friends maybe we can’t).


  7. Hey —

    I know where you’re coming from… but I am also suspicious that that assumption in our culture is another example of the civ doublespeak I keep spotting.

    I mean… yes, my family is “always there for me” — but not. (And compared to many people I know I have a better family relationship). Yes, they will help me out if they can, there will always be a place for me to go if I need it…. but my family has never supported ME, they have supported the person they want to believe I am. Whereas my close friends would not be my close friends if they did not accept and appreciate who I actually am.

    And then, on a cultural level… the worst damage, degradation, violence usually occurs within the family. (Or the proto-family… ie DV between unmarried, childless couples) So what does that say?


  8. > my family has never supported ME,
    > they have supported the person they
    > want to believe I am.

    I think that people always respond to their own idea of the other person. Which is to say that how a person acts toward me says more about em and es perception of me than it says about me. The problem that you see in families is that the perceptions rarely seem to catch up to the reality. Friends, on the other hand, tend to have only met you after your “self” was more stable, and they have less invested in your success (as they define success).

    Re: violence “So what does that say?”
    I think it is the dark side of my hypothesis. Only those who are tied to you can do that kind of harm because if it was anyone ELSE you would leave or call the cops. It is harder to do that with family. The fact that rejecting the family feels viscerally like a betrayal is why I think that family based groups have a better probability of surviving. However it also puts the group at risk from a single, domineering person.


  9. Hey —

    Yep and yep. Good points 😉


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