Communities banish persons from their midst upon different grounds. Heretics were excommunicated or burned, and criminals are jailed or put to death. But there are cases where persons were persecuted merely because they had different beliefs. How do we know the difference between righteous persons and the workers of iniquity?
Individualism holds that everyone is responsible for himself or herself, that we all have to “go it alone.” Perhaps we have we taken individualism too far. It seems that all too often individualism appears indistinguishable from mere selfishness.
It has been said that the pursuit of self-interest is the driving force of economic activity. It is said that society requires individuals who are able to think for themselves. But the pursuit of self-interest, if not restrained, may turn into conflict. At what point does radical self-centredness begin to destroy communities, whether it be the states or families?
At the family level, self-centredness results in high rates of divorce and the abandonment and neglect of children. At the community level, self-centredness reinforces indifference to the fate of others. People say, “I am not my brother’s keeper. Others say, “I got to look out for number one.”
Many of the ties that keep present-day groups together are weak: they break easily. An example is the tie of marriage. It does not appear to be very firm. Does freedom mean freedom from commitments? Or does living well require making and keeping commitments?
An illustration of the use of the language in the human subjects may be seen in the expression bonding. Instead of saying that people are forming a friendship, the psychologist will say that people are “bonding.” The use of this expression betrays a materialistic perception of relationships. It reduces friendship to a “glue.”
This process appears in many areas. The products we buy fall apart, knowledge is becoming fragmented, states break up, the family is under pressure, even persons are falling apart.
Is friendship possible in a society where individualism is rampant? In a society characterized by individualism, each person is expected to assert his or her self-interest, to pursue his or her private interests. Everyone is in a state of competition with everyone else. Is real friendship possible in this kind of environment?
In a highly individualistic nation socializing for the sake of friendship rather than for economic advancement is a risk not many are willing to take. People are wary of becoming too friendly out of concern that their ‘friends’ might become enemies. We speak guardedly in order to protect ourselves from making potentially damaging revelations about ourselves to our ‘friends.’ We communicate as if anything we say could be used against us in a court of law. Debates tend to take place within a narrow and safe range of topics.
Civilization, among other things, is the ability to coexist with others peacefully. Harmony between persons, communities and states is an important important mark of civilization. Harmony requires polite manners because it is manners that restrain us when we feel aggressive. In a well-organized community, there are means to resolve conflicts peacefully.
Progress presumably culminates in the replacement of communities by a world community, the global village. In other words, social evolution is bringing people together. In certain ways it perhaps does. But in another sense, globalization also brings strangers together, while placing greater distance between members of local communities.