Last month, Don Lemon spoke with Dr. William Schaffner, Professor of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University. When asked why he thought while others countries are trending down in COVID-19 cases, we are doing the opposite and trending up, Dr. Schaffner made a very interesting cultural point, that I’m not sure I ever expected an American to admit to, especially a white American. Dr. Schaffner feels our individualistic culture plays a factor in why we can’t seem to contain the virus. He makes an interesting point, especially when you think about all the people arguing that wearing a mask goes against their individual freedom. We aren't the only country with "anti-maskers," but we appear to be the only country with a lack of leadership that has lead to turning a global pandemic into a partisan issue, and it has raised some questions about the importance we place on individualism. And is individualism really a factor in our failing fight against COVID-19?
My ears immediately perked up when Dr. Schaffner made this statement, because I had already been putting together a blog on individualism vs. collectivism. As I’ve navigated and tried to work through some of the clashes I run up against in my marriage, my therapist helped me realize that many of the differences between my husband and I go back to these particular cultural differences. My husband is completely individualistic; whereas, I was raised in a collectivist home and individualistic society. So, I live in both worlds, and value both.
But let’s back track a second, in case any of you are wondering what I’m talking about. What is individualism and what is collectivism? According to Oxford Languages, individualism is “a social theory favoring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control.” Collectivism is “the practice or principle of giving a group priority over each individual in it.”
In my family, it’s never just about you, it’s about the whole family. For example, I wrote in a blog a few months ago what it was like moving in with my parents at 30, married, and with baby on the way. People kept telling me that I needed to set boundaries, and even gave me suggestions based on either their experience, or the experience of others they knew. It made sense to me, and I kept telling myself that they were right. Boundaries are important in any relationship. But how do I set boundaries with my family? I had no idea where to begin. Eventually, I realized Asian families don't have boundaries. That's why that felt so foreign and uncomfortable to me. I wasn't going to start labeling all my food in the refrigerator and say hands off. Nope, that doesn't happen in our family. And eventually, I realized I much prefer my family the way it is, boundary-less.
My husband, on the other hand, comes from the country where the term "individualism" was first coined--France. Individualism is the result of Enlightenment liberal values, and commonly thought of as a Western creation. Although it originally had negative connotations, those were soon stripped away as the idea spread. So, not only is my husband from the OG individualistic culture, he is also an only child who has only ever had to think for himself. Sometimes, our approaches to the same goal are different. Our differences come down to what I have oft described as all of us, no matter where we come from, being more similar than different, and often sharing the same values, but just different means of achieving and living those values.
Prior to my therapist mentioning this specific cultural difference, I had never thought about it this way. I usually just think of our differences as being French and Chinese-American. I'm not sure I had ever even heard the term collectivist. I think she even referred to it as me coming from an ancient culture. To be clear, this was not an insult. Chinese culture is an ancient culture as are other Asian cultures. Middle Eastern cultures are also ancient cultures. Many African cultures are still "ancient" cultures. I think many Hispanic cultures are also rooted in ancient cultures, even though they became part of the New World. They're at least very family-centric like the other cultures I mentioned. What is meant by ancient cultures, is those cultures that are still heavily rooted in ancient cultural practices, or in other words, traditional cultures. These ancient cultures continue to be held together by relationships with family, community, and even nature. That being said, that doesn't mean that individuals completely lose their individuality in these collectivist cultures, and it doesn't mean that individual identity is unimportant. It just means that the bigger picture is always about the group. How do you fit into the picture, how do you contribute to the betterment of the bigger picture. It's not every individual out for him/her/themselves. Additionally, individualism is clearly on the rise in our world across cultures, even in collectivist cultures, and both can be present in a single society.
I'm not here to say either collectivism or individualism is better than the other. I think we need both in our lives and certain situations call for us to lean more in one direction over the other. If what Dr. Schaffner says is true, then this pandemic has shown us that individualism can rear its ugly, selfish head in the worst of times. Although, I have to wonder--is claiming individual rights as a reason to not wear a mask and practice social distancing really a legitimate claim or is it just selfish stupidity? If authorities are telling us that wearing a mask, which at the most is a minor inconvenience, and temporarily stay home as much as possible is going to help stop the spread of a deadly virus, protect each other, and especially the most vulnerable in our society, then how can we be so selfish by ignoring these instructions? The fact that government leaders were telling the elderly to sacrifice themselves to save the economy is deplorable. Our leaders are supposed to take care of us, and do what's best for the people (I know we can debate about "supposed to" vs. reality).
What some people are mistaking for individual rights and "freedom," is really just a lack of compassion and humanity--a selfish lack of compassion and humanity. It seems the KKK has no problems wearing full hooded masks, so I don't see how a small surgical or even cotton mask can be such a bother or restriction of freedom. So, I don't thinks an issue of individualism. The problem we see is people misusing and misunderstanding a word, a concept, a right, and state of being. It's another example of extremism--like when people use religion as a cover up for their political agendas.
This started as a look into individualism and collectivism, but it's clear that in regards to the pandemic, the United States' problems in not being able to contain the virus, is among other things, a result of not of individualism but what people mistakenly think of as their individual rights. So, I don't think Dr. Schaffner is wrong--I just think people are misunderstanding their individual rights and freedom. Asking people to wear masks isn't about restricting personal freedom, it's about asking people to do their part in helping to stop spread the virus. It's asking people to be considerate, to think about those more vulnerable in our community.
The United States was once known as the most compassionate country, and now we have become the most selfish. But Americans aren't selfish. We're just letting stupidity lead us, divide us, and misinform us.