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The Current Culture War: Collectivism vs Individualism

If you've been following my blog, you know I am an avid Science Fiction fan. As I watch current global events and continue to ponder the absolute power of culture, lately I have been thinking more and more about a quote from The Wrath of Khan. As we watch the demise of one of our favorite characters in Commander Spock, the writers offer us a singular observation laden with cultural assumptions;

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1982

In the 1990s I taught history, much of which is sadly characterized by war across the centuries. This long and horrific journey was driven by competition for resources early on and later by concepts of nationalism. As I led students in our collective attempt to learn from the past, we inevitably peeled back the many layers of politics in war until we reached the ideological layer. These never-ending strings of human tragedy have at their core the power of assumptions across competing cultures. Beneath the many flags and banners of nations are those core assumptions about human organization and existence that drive their ideology. At one time or another, each of us has taken courses in history. These experiences are carefully curated by the nations in which we live and their cultural assumptions. You can for the most part group these assumptions into two distinct types; collectivism and individualism.

Most of us recognize that "collectivism" refers to what Spock in Star Trek would call, "...the needs of the many." Societies grounded in this assumption exist across a range of commitment to their collective members as a whole. Rather than debate the degrees of this intensity from Socialism and Communism (and beyond), we can acknowledge that Eastern ideologies and Western ideologies differ with regard to the importance of individualism. So, sparing you from lectures surrounding the nuances of this continuum, many agree that this fundamental assumption drives culture on a massive scale. I deeply enjoy watching international series on Netflix as you can see countless examples of these differences in India's Bollywood, Nigeria's Nollywood, as well as Russian, Japanese, Korean, Iranian, Brazilian, and numerous international productions. Watch carefully and you will see anecdotes, scenes, characters, and entire series rife with examples that differ from US and Western European assumptions.

As I write this blog entry, Russia and China have set up a method to convert wire currency from Russian rubles to Chinese yuan, potentially circumventing international sanctions related to the war in Ukraine. China and Russia represent differing and yet similar ideologies across the collectivism to individualism continuum. Yet, war and politics often make strange partners. We live on a planet populated by over 7 billion individuals. War and conflict have been part of that existence from the day we first started organizing ourselves into groups. Time and time again, the needs of the many come into conflict with the needs of the few, or the needs of the one.

On April 26th in the year 1336, the Italian poet Petrarch ascended Mt. Ventoux, where inspired by the great landscape before him, he wrote a lengthy letter highlighting the value of internal and individual experiences. While this seems an obvious observation today, it represented a significant departure from the collective mindset that dominated Europe across the Middle Ages. Petrarch's moment on that mountain is thought by many scholars to be the pivotal transition from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance, leading to the Modern Age and the Enlightenment. Individualism can trace its origins far earlier, even among Eastern philosophers. Confucius was by no means a proponent of individualism. Still, he acknowledged fundamental human rights and values. What we today know as his "Golden Rule," preceding and aligning with Judeo-Christian tradition,

"What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”

- The Analects, Book XV, Wei Ling Kung, Chapt XXIII

As we look at history and current events in history unfolding, we see this continuum across collectivism and individualism again and again. Where we draw that line drives law and order, politics, and the resources of entire nations. It represents our assumptions, values, and celebrations as Dr. Edward Schein constantly reminds us. Your organization is no different. Your policies and the direction of your resources represent your ideology across the needs of the many and the needs of the few or individual. This is the absolute power of culture. This is the conflict, the war, and the battle of ideologies across human history. As you dig deeper into and our Organizational Culture Harmonics System, you will see a unique tool to quantify your position across culture, down to each individual in your organization. The great lesson of history exists across the assumptions of collectivism and individualism and how we can use modern technology and information in the context of culture. It exists in how we can drive that culture and adapt as conditions change. It exist across the entire continuum of collectivism and individualism. Knowing your culture, those assumptions, and how to influence it is the next step in our collective journey across human history.

Dr. Stephen W. Dunnnivant

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